Nigella makes dramatic and tasty return to the spotlight
The title sequence of The Taste includes a logo spelt out in lines of powder: at least it's not white
NIGELLA is back. Having freed herself from the looped news clip in which she strode endlessly into court, she has donned an electric-blue dress and taken up the reins of Channel 4’s new culinary talent show.
In fact, the series was recorded long before the trial of her former assistants became a battle for Nigella’s reputation, which adds an unexpected poignancy to proceedings. We watch, knowing that she will soon be dragged into court to confess that she has used both cocaine and cannabis – but deny her ex-husband’s claim that she was under their influence, day in, day out, for a decade.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the title sequence of The Taste includes a logo spelt out in lines of powder. At least it’s not white, but a dark turmeric gold.
The format of the show is lifted directly from The Voice, an expensive flop for the BBC in which judges sat with their backs turned to wannabe singers and span round in their chairs if they liked what they heard.
In the gastronomic version, the judges taste the food and cast their votes before they have seen who made it. It’s all about the taste, as the portentous narration reminds us time and time again.
Except that it’s not. It’s really all about the drama. On television, an entertaining but unjust contest trumps one that’s dull but fair, as The Voice discovered to its cost.
The Taste has an advantage over its predecessor: high-level kitchens are inherently more dramatic, and more visually interesting, than a voice coach’s studio. But it has a disadvantage too. When competitors sing, we can come to our own opinion; when they cook, we must rely on the judges.
Much therefore depends on what we think of them, and whether we want to trust their judgment.
As in every reality show, each member of the panel has a part to play. Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre, whom Nigella describes as “very, very French”, is cartoonishly brash and dismissive. Food writer Anthony Bourdain is a bold and businesslike American, big-hearted towards the candidates he admires and blunt towards those he does not.
Nigella herself plays a variety of parts. She is the ringmaster, prompting and mocking the other judges, but she is also a judge herself – and inevitably her role is a maternal one. She clutches one young chef in a consolatory embrace that must surely have erased all thoughts of his culinary disappointment.
But though she’s warmer than Bourdain and Lefebvre, she’s no less competitive. Flying the flag for the home cook, she says that, unlike professional chefs, enthusiastic amateurs “don’t get distracted by trying to be clever”.
In the first episode, each judge picked four candidates from a pool of 25 hopefuls - although Ludo, at the halfway point, looked set to end up empty-handed, such was his contempt for everything set before him.
Now the judges will act as mentors, guiding their chosen candidates through a series of elimination trials - and competing against one another to be champion coach. From the glint in Nigella’s eye, one senses that the home cooks under her supervision had better hope they justify her faith in them, maternal instinct or not.
In the context in which this series is airing, one judge has more at stake than a phoney TV contest. But whoever wins the show, the audience will know who to root for. Chalk it up as a victory for Team Nigella.
The Taste, Channel 4, Tuesdays at 9pm.