In all honesty, The Taste was always going to struggle to make much of an impression in the wake of recent events. Oh, not the whole ‘Higella’ scandal - no-one really cares if she caramelises her crème brûlée with a crack pipe. In fact, Channel 4’s challenge now, is to build any kind of excitement after the spectacular depths plumbed by the previous night’s Secret of the Living Dolls. January’s trump card has already been played, so no amount of close-ups on Nigella’s eyes rolling in ecstasy, or Bourdain’s Adam’s apple bouncing playfully, could match the sight of a man looking for his ‘femskin’ like he’d just misplaced his car keys.
But here we are, in an overdesigned studio kitchen set, as Nigella, Bourdain, and Ludo Lefebvre launch their own culinary competition. They’re keen to stress how different this is from the other cooking show that shall not be named, but it’s only really different in that way that The Voice is different to The X Factor. And we all know how well that worked out.
Speaking of The Voice; they’ve even nabbed that show’s blind audition format, as well as its decision to fast forward through the preliminary trials. That means all 25 contestants cooking for our terrible trio, have already passed a standard of basic competency – there’ll be no embarrassing comedy entrants. Rather than acknowledging the show’s derivative roots, our mouthy mentors claim that this is the “high stakes cooking competition where flavour is the only thing the matters,” as if the BBC was planning to introduce a swimsuit round to Masterchef.
The Taste also comes with a suitably overegged voiceover, torturing metaphors like Jack Bauer with a length of rubber hose. When he’s not offering up gems like “tensions run high in a pressure cooker atmosphere,” he’s announcing tautologously that “Only one can be the ultimate winner.” He might as well have told us that the winner will be the winningest winner. There’s also a big fuss made about the fact that over half the contestants have no professional experience, which will come into play for the final showdown between two hopefuls vying for a place in Nigella’s kitchen.
The set-up is fairly simple: our junta of judges sit with their backs to the kitchen, as the hopefuls prepare three dollops of their signature dish. The judges then indicate their verdict using a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ card slipped inside a leatherette bill wallet. With 25 contestants to get through, many of them get decidedly short shrift – their entire contribution amounting to little more than a close-up on a spoon the size of a Manolo Blahnik.
On top of all that, we’re expected to familiarise ourselves with Nigella and her cooking cohorts. Bourdain is billed as the maverick, which means he does the most swearing, whereas Ludo spends the whole time wondering why no-one’s ever heard of him. And although we can always see our wannabe chefs toiling in the background, it’s clear that the Nigella’s Spanx are the ones working overtime. No wonder she always sounds so out of breath – she’s practically bisected.
As the judges bicker and banter, the contestants become an afterthought, trying desperately to get noticed as the camera zooms in for yet another close-up of Nigella’s quivering décolletage as she purrs “I only want a mouthful from each of them.” And when the dialogue isn’t pure smut, it’s loaded with overblown self-importance: “You lost me at the puree” growls Bourdain disdainfully, like he’s serving divorce papers in a tempura batter.
Occasionally, one of the contestants is interesting enough to warrant thirty seconds of coverage. Dale from Glasgow, for instance, looks like a wooden spoon and has practiced his “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life” spiel as if he’s appearing on the Xtra Factor. Unfortunately, his dish looks more like a Bushtucker Trial, and he bursts into tears when all three judges pass on his pig’s cheek in chutney. As a consolation, he gets a hug from Nigella, and a “toughen the fuck up” from Bourdain.
Occasionally, one of the hopefuls manages to win over more than one judge. Dixie is a professional chef, and her pan-fried lamb has Ludo oui-ouing all over the place. Anthony is equally impressed, despite its “textural problems.” As Dixie deliberates, she must be wishing that Jessie J was here to showboat and manipulate the decision-making process. Bourdain goes in for the kill, telling her “I’d love to have you in my kitchen and I think I could help you go all the way.” To the fridge? Ludo loses out, and resorts to doodling his name inside his notebook instead.
Elsewhere, we get teasing glimpses of chalky risottos, cumin-heavy scallops and confusing oysters – we just never actually see anybody cooking anything. For all we know, there could be an army of runners peeling the film lids off a pile of M&S meal deals.
James is a children’s nurse who wows all three judges with a chestnut and crab ravioli, despite that fact that it looked as if he’d served up a human eyelid. We’re also told that Nigella has “an iron fist beneath that velvet glove.” *Googles ‘posh wank’*
Ludo seems surprised that Britain has so many good cooks, which infuriates Nigella; prompting her to do an extended impression of him that sounds like she should be chasing Rene Artois around the bar. Ludo also complains about “frou frou” which sounds much less critical when actually said by a Frenchman, and we learn that Anthony is “a big, nasty slut for caviar.”
In the final segment of the show, mackerel gets a standing ovation, Nigella moans that she wanted “something extra in the creamy sauce to add flavour,” and Bourdain boasts that “crushing Ludo’s hopes and dreams gives me a frisson of pleasure.” Bully for him – it’s more than I’ve taken away from the last hour.
Finally, there’s one spot left in Nigella’s kitchen, and two would-be contestants vying for it. In one corner, is a lovely Indian lady who just cooks at home for her family. In the other, an over-confident chef who works at a ‘top London hotel.’ And if you can’t figure out which one of them lands the place in next week’s show, you really haven’t been paying attention.