Here it is at last: Nigella Lawson’s new reality show. She doesn’t present it alone. Beside her are two fellow judge-mentors, Anthony Bourdain, the bad-boy author of Kitchen Confidential, and Ludo Lefebvre, an extremely Frr-rrr-ench chef who runs an acclaimed restaurant in LA (no freedom fries on his menu). But let’s be honest. It’s Nigella who’s the big draw, especially since all that happened shortly before Christmas, though the series was filmed in October, several weeks before her dramatic monochrome sweep into Isleworth Crown Court.
The gimmick here is that the contestants must present their dishes in the form of just one spoonful: picture the porcelain number with which, long ago, you used to scoff sweetcorn soup at restaurants called Canton Garden or Bamboo Orchard, only minus the dragons and the sweetcorn (an ingredient even less fashionable, these days, than sun-dried tomatoes and kiwi fruit). My hunch, though, is that most of those who tuned in won’t have given a fig (glazed and served with duck breast and cavolo nero) for the challenge of such extreme portion control. They’ll have been more interested in Lawson and her lovely, unreadable face.
For these viewers, The Taste might be just about endurable. She is on-screen a lot and does more talking than the men. One has the impression that the producers regard her as carefully aged fillet and the blokes as a couple of decent burgers. For those of us who have always found her difficult to watch, the series is sheer hell. I can’t remember the last time I was presented with a format so phoney, so derivative. It has no charm, no drama and a soundtrack so bullyingly melodramatic you expect Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless to appear at any moment to smoke a salmon with a ray gun or something. Even the set is awful. With its artfully arranged “rustic” crates, it aspires to be a touch Martha Stewart. In the end, it’s as if the long-running and somewhat wobbly Yorkshire TV show Farmhouse Kitchen had been exhumed – though Dorothy Sleightholme, that programme’s redoubtable long-time presenter, would have had no truck whatsoever with Ludo and his tendency to shout “Putain!” at every boiling pan.
The Taste is a bit like The Voice (the judges don’t see the cooks until they’ve eaten their food); a bit like The X Factor (each judge selects a team of cooks to mentor through the series, thus they compete against each other); and a lot like MasterChef (they’re after “gutsy” sauces, the “heat” of chilli, a “balance of textures”). The competitors are a mixture of home cooks and professionals. So far, the home cooks are doing better than the pros because they don’t overthink dishes the way chefs do – by which I mean they’re less likely to show off. How Channel 4 found them is a mystery to me. By now, you’d have thought that every half-decent cook in the land had already entered a television cookery competition. The only four people left in Britain not to have done so are me, the editor of this column, Julie Burchill and William Hague.
The Taste originated in the United States and it shows. If the judges had been made to marinate in Coca-Cola for a week, it couldn’t be more sickly. Ludo is the petulant one, the stage baddie. His “evil” chuckle is straight out of Theatre of Blood. Tony is the cool one, who drinks beer on-set and tells a sobbing 18-year-old that he needs to “toughen the f*** up”. Nigella is the kind one and, sometimes, the disappointed one. When confronted with the kind of cook who buys ready-made sponge fingers, she is prone to look let down.
What to say about this? All I can tell you is that I hate the way her performance (and a performance is all it is) obscures her intelligence, her wit, her particular kind of diffidence. Oh, she’s willing to play the game. Talking to the camera, she sounds as if the judging process were the most fascinating experience of her life. But you sense that she is not at ease, that this is an effort of will rather than a (somewhat weird) vocation. It’s for this reason that I doubt the show will be a hit. Clever women make bad fools and reality shows need a measure of authenticity to fly.