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ABC’s new cooking show The Taste — a conceptual hybrid of Top Chef and The Voice — is anchored by some formidable talent behind the judges’ table. Since viewers cannot, regrettably (or in some cases, thankfully) taste the food, the engaging nature of the judges and their overall likability means a lot. While some names certainly are familiar (including the most popular judge Anthony Bourdain, as well as British food writer and TV personality Nigella Lawson), not everyone might be as familiar with French chef Ludo Lefebvre, who the show introduces as having trained at “the West Point of French cuisine,” or the happy-go-lucky successful chef and restaurateur Brian Malarkey. But overall, it’s a good mix.
Competitors of all ages, races and personalities have one hour to prepare a signature dish that will be arranged onto four spoons for a blind taste test. The competitor then stands behind a wall while the judges hem and haw over their presentation, not knowing who prepared it or, often, what it’s composed of. Ultimately, the judges lock in a vote, and when the competitor is revealed, so are the judges’ responses. No positive votes obviously results in elimination, and if only one judge says “join my kitchen!” then the competitor is stuck with them. If more than one judge likes their offering, then the competitor gets to choose whose team they wish to be on. Each judge will end up with four cooks to mentor, who will be competing over eight episodes for the ultimate prize of $100,000 and a Toyota Prius.
Got it straight? In the premiere, which covers all of the initial auditions, home cooks are mixed in with professionals, and the judges make a point to say many times that professionals have no edge because of the blind taste. In the end, there does seem to be a healthy mix of both on all of the teams. Lawson certainly is the champion of home cooks, but each judge has his or her own preferences regarding style and background (Lefebvre tries to snatch the French-leaning chefs, while Malarkey favors boldness; Bourdain usually stands alone in his picks, for better or worse).
For most of the initial two hours, the judges are particularly picky (though ultimately polite and encouraging), saying “no” over and over and over again. It drags, particularly after there’s been time and emotion invested in getting the backstories of contestants who quickly get cut. At first each contestant is lingered over, then suddenly a number of professionals are sped through quickly. Some cooks are paired together in the editing, and some stand alone for reasons that aren’t particularly clear. It can be confusing, but mostly it just feels as tedious. Things pick up more in the second hour, where people with a lot of talent and drive (and often some meaningful backstories) are given the opportunity to advance.
The concept of The Taste plays off of some very popular reality television concepts and has set up some interesting narratives to come once the teams are formed. As the judges, with their very different styles, begin blindly competing against each other, their regrets over cooks they missed out on completely, or lost to other judges, will be interesting to see unfold. The other twist is, of course, that they could end up voting off members of their own mentored team.
If you have the patience to get through the auditions, then sticking around for the real competition seems worthwhile, where so far no chef or cook — each with a potpourri of talents — seems to be an outright front-runner. Just like the frustration of not being able to consume the dishes themselves (it’s a good idea to eat before or during the show), the series itself mostly leaves you hungry for more.
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