Reality Bites: The Taste

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There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

Few things add class to your reality competition like celebrity judges. In the past, those selected to judge singing shows were likely to be more recognizable to the layman than those on cooking programs, but the recent rise of the Food Network and shows like Top Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, and Chopped have created a growing number of "celebrity chefs," easily identified by even the most casual TV watcher.

Anthony Bourdain is near the top of that list. No Reservations debuted in 2005 (along with shows from Rachael Ray, Gordon Ramsay, and Emeril Lagasse), and while he's done stints on Top Chef and the like, ABC's new prime time cooking competition show The Taste is his first major network judging gig. Joining him are French chef Ludo Lefebvre (of Lavo fame), English author and TV host Nigella Lawson, and Brian Malarkey, who ... finished 4th in season 3 of Top Chef. Seems fair.

What's the premise, you ask? Do you watch The Voice? Same thing, only instead of songs in the judges' ear holes, competitors will provide food for their mouth holes. They have to convince at least one judge, with a single spoonful of their recipe, to draft them for their kitchen (each judge gets four chefs) and move on the competition portion of the program.

[I was confused at the beginning as to whether the competitors could hear the judges talking. Turns out they can, and I look forward to the season 1 DVD release showing several contestants bursting into tears after Bourdain compares them unfavorably to Sandra Lee.]

Given the tendency of other cooking contest shows to drag out the proceedings, the haste in which contestants are dispensed with here is quite refreshing. Then again, it makes it really hard to get a grasp on who, if anyone, we should be paying attention to. ABC also throws us some curves by giving extended looks at some who don't make it. For example, I enjoyed the back story on T.J. the wastewater treatment operator enough to hope he'd make it to the next round, because that arc would have an almost poetic ... oh, never mind, he's out. Back to the offal tanks with you, my man.

Meanwhile Jennifer describes herself as "the Lebron James of cooking, and, "the Michael Phelps of cooking," not realizing she's described a union that would result in the ugliest athlete who ever lived. I recognize the words "salmon," "haricot vert," and "gastrique" in her presentation, but not in the order used. Whatever, the end results are too sweet for everyone, though she's told to "keep trying." I'm sure we'll see her back, assuming ABC doesn't pull a 666 Park Avenue and dump the show.

The number of people who've quit their jobs for this is staggering. For example, Micah quit his design director gig to be here, and Malarkey takes him. Micah's flop sweating while in the weeds is likely to work against him, however.

Why is Malarkey the only judge with his last name up there? As you can see from the header image, It's "Ludo," "Nigella," "Malarkey," and "Anthony." People are going to think that's his first name. The whole thing reeks of, what's the word, balderdash? Poppycock? Flimflam? Something like that.

Somebody must have told Bourdain to be on his best behavior, because I don't think I've ever see him this genial. We're so used to him talking shit on No Reservations and his acerbic turns on Top Chef it makes you wonder what ABC has on him. Compromising photos with Paula Deen, no doubt.

If you've caught Lefebvre on other shows, you'll know he's a pretty affable fellow. For a Frechman. He gets in a few zingers about English food at Lawson's expense, but is otherwise engaging.

And then there's Nigella Lawson. Oh, Nigella. I have loved you from afar ever since I was unemployed and watched Nigella Feasts marathons with a bag of Cheetos and a 12-pack of Keystone. She mentions a few times how she likes "big flavor." Yes, I like big flavor too. Big, plunging neckline flavor.

Throughout the first two episodes, it was nigh impossible to keep track of the losers -- except for "Sieger," a loudmouth sous chef from Chicago ("SIEGER IS GERMAN FOR CONQUEROR"). In that respect, the early eps were a lot more reminiscent of AI than The Voice. I assume there was some sort of vetting process to keep wiseasses like myself from sneaking in and presenting their patented peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich recipe.

Don't laugh, it's awesome.

Speaking of mayonnaise, Malarkey continues to boost his cred by hosting the "sponsored by Hellman's" segment showing how some contestants made their dishes. Seriously, how did this Peter MacNicol from Ghostbusters 2-looking motherfucker get on here?

Back to the contestants, where "failure is not an option" is uttered a lot. Diane from Astoria, for example, is a terrible pain in the ass, which means of course shes in. She'll be set against Lauren, sure to be a crowd favorite from Mississippi. It's a bit on the nose; Diane wants Bourdain and gets him, Lauren wants Lawson, and gets her.

Huda is a professional chef who ... I'm sorry, I can't. Her name's Huda and she's practically spilling out of her blue top. Sorry, I was supposed to pay attention to her story about growing up in a single family home. My bad. She ends up with Lawson. That's going to be one top heavy kitchen.

But let's not forget the outsiders, like Robert the New York investment banker. His seafood sausage seems to be a hit, but nobody picks him (maybe Bourdain was too busy maintaining his punk cred by snickering at his suspenders). Brian is a "recording artist" from San Fran who makes lasagna and eggplant parmigiana, which seems excessive. The judges agree.

One of the more entertaining elements of part 2 was the Parade of Vegetarian Casualties, in which three separate contestants try to sneak non-animal product dishes by the judges. They fail miserably, of course, and are subjected to predictable snark. That said, Bourdain's endlessly repeated rants on the subject are getting old (OH DO YOU LIKE PORK PRODUCTS?).

And I thought it would be funny if Tutu Vegan Lady made it.

I'm not sure I understand why Nigella get to stay up there and judge after she's already got her team (not that I'm complaining). Wouldn't it be more amusing to have the contestants come out to a dwindling number of possibilities? The teams do finally flesh out at the end. And not to pile on, but Malarkey never wins when going head to head with one of the other judges for a contestant (especially Lefebvre). But before I can pat myself on the back for such insight, Bourdain makes the same observation.

In the end, Bourdain finally gets his woman: Uno from Dallas ("like the card game," she doesn't actually say). And that's that. In the coming weeks, the kitchens compete with each other, with attendant shit talking, and will eliminate contestants in blind taste tests which could result in them accidentally voting off their own chefs. I'm sure part of the appeal going forward will be the interplay between the judges, less so the inevitable and exaggerated "personality conflicts" among the contestants. But that's "reality" TV for you.

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