Throughout September, the third season of The Taste filmed in an airplane hangar in Mar Vista. The elaborate set was dwarfed by the enormity of the building, but even so, the cheers of the audience rang through the cavernous space intermittently.
The show, hosted by Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre and Marcus Samuelsson, has enjoyed enough success to bring it three seasons, as well as a UK version. Season 3 will begin airing on ABC this winter, but I was able to visit the set on the final day of filming, a day of high drama: the finale.
Each of the stars' trailers is fronted by a set of its own — that star's fantasy eatery. So Lefebvre, the L.A. chef behind Trois Mec and now Petit Trois, has an area decorated to look like a Parisian bistro. Lawson's is like an upscale oyster bar, while Bourdain's trailer is made up to look like the streets of Vietnam. The only seating is cinderblocks and colorful metal stools. So when we sat down to talk about the show, about the strange world of food television, and about his thoughts on the L.A. dining scene, Bourdain opted to sit instead in front of Samuelsson's trailer, which was decked out with comfy leather couches.
Squid Ink: As a viewer of food TV, I feel like these shows all start out really exciting and then they become quite formulaic. I hear that you guys have introduced some things this season that are different. I just wonder how you, as a producer, think about that, about keeping things exciting for viewers.
Anthony Bourdain: It’s hard to say because I’m living inside it. I’m not looking at it from the outside. I can tell you for sure that this additional challenge we’ve added has made it a lot more exciting. To live through, for sure.
When Ludo and Marcus go against each other it’s really dramatic, and I mean for-real dramatic. We arrive as presumed television professionals and very quickly become very involved with how the contestants are doing. Not just our own teams: everybody.
We know very little about them. We’re judging them blind. But when we find out who cooked what we start to care about them. And this taste-off thing is really intense. You can hear them going at it from here. [We are on the other side of the airplane hangar from the main stage.] You can hear Ludo screaming. And one of the things that’s particularly exciting about Ludo, and a great strength of his is, he yells and he becomes extremely dramatic, but he also — and I’m not overstating this — I’ve seen him take people who can’t cook and turn them into good cooks. I mean he’s a really great teacher. And you can see him teach people things that you would think are unteachable. And certainly unteachable on television in the amount of time we have together. It’s really extraordinary.
When he has a group of people, he will leave his most talented cook alone and spend all his time on what is probably a hopeless case, or what good sense would tell you is a hopeless case. He becomes incredibly invested in them. He tears up — he’s such a sweetie! For a guy who yells, is old school French and came up in that abusive system, he really cares about these people. That kind of attitude creates and atmosphere here that’s really involving. I don’t know if it’s Stockholm syndrome or what.
You know, us judges, we’ll go out, and even in our off hours we’re talking about our teams. And it is weird, unlike some of the other competitions, it’s worth mentioning that in the first two seasons the non-professionals won: A private cook and a food stylist. Because we’ve created this weird playing field, we’ve created a kind of meritocracy system where you’re just judged by taste and we’re ignorant of back-story and presentation and technique, there does seem to be some sort of metaphysical ability to put flavors together. And to see that happen is really interesting, and to see where professionals fall down sometimes is interesting as well.
SI: It is interesting. I think there’s probably not a chef left in America who could have been on Top Chef, and would want to be on Top Chef, and is actually left to be on Top Chef. So allowing non-chefs on this show — it creates a new pool of talent.
AB: It’s interesting in finding cooks. Finding people to cook with even on my other show, there’s this entire class of people who cook almost entirely on TV. Either as contestants or judges or guest judges. There is this whole class of people who just cook in this weird twilight of television.
Up next, what Roy Choi has taught Anthony Bourdain about Los Angeles...
SI: I’m not sure it’s good for them. I think in some cases it ruins them as actual cooks.
AB: I think guys who’ve been around who have put in their time who have achieved something … Marcus and Ludo, they don’t have anything to worry about. You do see … we haven’t seen it on this show yet, but you do see people who just want to be on TV. And they’d just as soon be on a cooking show as any other type of reality show. If you wanted them to be on Jersey Shore and yank someone’s hair extensions out they’d be happy to do that. And then also you see people who go on Top Chef and just can’t get off the Top Chef teat. They’re still doing the cruises 11 years later.
Some of them have been smart about it. Spike in some ways, Spike Meldelsohn is one of these guys — and I mean this in a flattering way, I like the guy — who is a perfect TV animal. I think he went in with a goal in mind, didn’t take himself too seriously as a chef, saw it as a business and has spun that very very well. Half in and half out of television, but his business is a growing and ongoing concern. I think Ilan Hall, who seemed to encapsulate the worst of the genre, not only ended up with some pretty great restaurants but also a really good show. I think Knife Fight is really good. It’s fun.
SI: I agree.
AB: He’s really good on it. Is he a better chef or is he really good on TV? I think he’s really good on TV, so who cares?
It’s the guys I think who want it, but who would have really been good chefs, who are afraid to not be on TV and keep popping up on these ever-lesser shows that I’m worried about.
But why do we hold chefs to this artistic standard we don’t hold other people to? Do we really want these people to die on their feet at age 50 at the fry station? But it is weird. And if you’re on Top Chef at age 22, you’re probably not then going to go stage anonymously in Europe.
And a lot of people are rolling out of culinary school and thinking “where’s my TV show?” But I think the business has always — always, long before television — pushed out the pretenders pretty quickly. You know, you’re either in it, you love it, you’re a lifer, you’re the sort of person who takes to that particular body of water, or you’re not. You can hardly fault people who’s true calling was television. If they found that, that’s sort of cool.
I think the worry is that we are in fact losing generations who might otherwise be developing skills.
SI: Well I know it’s very hard, for instance, for Ludo to find line cooks. And him of all people in this town — he has what I think is the best restaurant in town.
AB: I think so too.
SI: And he’s famous. He should have people who want to be mentored by him. And he can’t find line cooks, or he has a very hard time finding them.
AB: The question there is: Is that a function of television or is that a function of the changing nature of the business? The disappearance of fine dining. [David] Chang talks a lot about how we may want to eat in a Momofuku Saam situation more and more. But because of that model, the appetite for the sit-down four-hour multi-course Continental thing has become smaller and smaller. And as he points out, those old-school places, formal fine dining, those were the academies that produced the people who would open places and work in places like Momofuku. Now, it's harder. The European system is shrinking, as well as the classical system here. I don’t know that we can blame TV.
SI: No, I don’t think that we can blame TV one hundred percent. I think there’s that, there’s the pop-up culture here in L.A., there are a lot of guys who will spend six months in Ludo’s kitchen or at Animal and then are like, “Now I’m a chef.”
AB: Right, like, “Where’s my TV deal goddammit?”
SI: So, I have to ask you about Roy Choi. I wonder how much he has changed your perception of Los Angeles?
AB: A lot.
SI: I know you came to L.A. with a lot of misgivings, originally.
AB: You know, someone asked me the other day, “What advice to you have for Roy?” And Roy actually teaches me a lot.
There’s something very restless and troubled … there’s something always eating Roy. He’s a deep thinker. He is not a guy who is content with the way things are, ever. He’s a guy who — this is very rare for chefs — who thinks not just about who’s eating, but who’s not eating, and who’s welcome to eat. That’s very very unusual. He’s asking a lot of questions that are very uncomfortable for a lot of chefs.
But he pretty much is single-handedly responsible for alerting me to the basic difference between dining in L.A. and elsewhere in the country. The “spine,” as he calls it, was never European. That never took hold here. And why should we expect it to? I always understood that wasn’t L.A.’s strength, but I always saw that as a deficiency. When in fact, it’s something uniquely wonderful about L.A.: its Asian and Latino spine. So incredible.
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SI: It’s certainly making eating here more interesting, especially now. I think ten years ago you still had to be an explorer, but now it’s begun to touch everything.
AB: The Korean, Asian, Latino food was always exciting. Maybe better than anywhere else in the country. No doubt about it. But I think that mid-to-upper range now is getting really interesting with Son of a Gun, Picca. I think Mozza is the best of Mario Batali’s restaurants. I think it’s the all-around best dining experience. Everything on that menu is great. Not, like, most things. Everything.
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And I agree with you, I think Trois Mec is the best restaurant in L.A. And I think Petit Trois is absolute genius. I’m utterly thrilled by it. We all hate the phrase “game-changing,” but those are two game-changing business models. For L.A. in particular. I mean, Petit Trois is based on an obscure French model. And a very difficult one to work in. I mean Ludo deliberately created a very difficult work environment. For a very casual, enjoyable eating environment. So much fun, I just ate there for the first time last night. It’s so, so smart. The scope of its ambition is so important.