The Taste, Channel 4's new primetime cook-off, sees Nigella join the search for a culinary star weeks after bruising court case
"Canapes for breakfast, don't ask!" tweeted Nigella Lawson on Tuesday morning, posting to her half-million followers a photograph of smoked salmon and dill nibbles, artfully tumbled into an appetising heap.
Unconventional, perhaps, but whatever gets you through the day. Lawson has been licking her wounds since the dramatic acquittal, not yet three weeks ago, of her former assistants on charges of fraud, in a bruising case in which the sorry entrails of her failed marriage to Charles Saatchi were picked apart in court, then spattered across newspapers around the world. If she wants blinis for breakfast, who are we to argue?
By "licking her wounds", however, we don't mean in the manner of mere domestic mortals, who might be tempted to have a quiet Christmas with the family and take stock of the damage to one's professional reputation of admitting to occasionally using cocaine and marijuana. On 2 January the cook was back in the news with a live TV interview on ABC's Good Morning America, the opening salvo in a bi-continental publicity assault to promote her new television show.
The Taste has been billed by Lawson's management team as a return to "what she normally does – food". Any additional audience generated by the screaming global headlines of recent weeks will just have to be borne bravely by its US and British broadcasters.
Tuesday night was Britain's first chance to glimpse the show, at a pleasingly primetime 9pm on Channel 4. The programme, a competitive cook-off with obvious ambitions to ape Masterchef, is in fact a direct culinary transliteration of The Voice, the BBC's Saturday night X-factor-alike and itself an import.
Where the singing contest requires musicians to perform to four judges whose backs are turned, the Taste sees judges Lawson, "maverick food writer" Anthony Bourdain and "revolutionary French chef Ludo Lefebvre" adjudicate between 25 contestants purely on the strength of a single spoonful of food. The judges then compete among themselves to entice the chefs they like to be mentored by them in later episodes.
"I love food, make me happy," cooed Lawson to the competitors. They tried. "My life is in this spoon," said Kelly from Bristol, hinting at an exotic West Country existence by serving up caramelised tea-soaked duck breast, sprouts, pickled cherries and chocolate shavings. Nigella, indeed, was happy. "Get your apron, adorn yourself with it and I'll see you in the kitchen."
For 18-year-old Dale, however, there were tears when his braised pig cheek in something jammy failed to impress. "I'm sorry I have to go over there," said Lawson, leaving her seat to rub the sobbing boy's back a little awkwardly. Bourdain, whose memoir Kitchen Confidential chronicled the lively masochism of the restaurant industry, was having none of it. "Toughen the fuck up. Get your shit together. It's worse in the kitchen. We're nice."
They were, mostly. Lawson makes a perfectly palatable judge – warm and sweet to the contestants, with just a tang of competitiveness when required. There is not a single mention, in a programme completed well before the court case, of the cook's domestic woes.
The problem with The Taste is its format. Twenty-five contestants is a lot to get through in 52 minutes; we don't see them cook and many, glimpsed only in snatches, are not even named. The judges taste their spoons (who wants to eat herb-crusted rack of lamb from a spoon?) with their backs turned on the contestants, but there are no flashing lights, no screaming audience, no swivelling. The blind auditions, in The Voice, were the good bit, with ratings collapsing catastrophically once the programme reverted to a more conventional head-to-head contest.
More problematical, however, is that if you reduce a cookery contest to taste alone, only those who actually sample the entries can have any opinion. Watching the Taste is like sitting at a restaurant table as your friends sample every dish on the menu in turn (all sensible cutlery having first been removed), while you contemplate an empty plate.
Will it rehabilitate Nigella in the wake of her courtroom roasting? By no coincidence whatsoever, her former PAs Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo gave their first TV interview on Tuesday, during which they were asked a version of the same question. "Maybe we won the court case," said Francesca, "but definitely she had the most support from the public. She is well-loved and will always be well-loved."
Warm and homely, in other words, if a little spicier than before. Quite how palatable Lawson's latest recipe will prove remains to be seen.
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image: © Channel 4