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Is There a Place for Vegan Cooks on The Taste?

The Taste judges

Disney ABC TV Group via flickrThe Taste judges

We're guessing there won't be many vegan dishes featured on ABC's new show, The Taste. On last week's episode, three vegan cooks got a smackdown when the judging panel sampled the non-meat offerings.

"I suspect vegetarianism," intoned Anthony Bourdain, as if someone had just served him a dirty sock; "Oh uh oh" uttered Ludo Lefebvre (at least that's what we think he said); "I need meat cooked on my team," said Brian Malarkey (Really? For every course of every meal? Malarkey!) and from Nigella Lawson: "I'm confused."

We're confused too -- especially that a dish from much-admired Santa Barbara vegan chef Dayna Mcleod got such a negative reaction. She made a Brazilian black bean cake with mango salsa, on top of red coconut rice, which sure looked delicious on high-def TV.

For a show called The Taste, it was odd that there was so little discussion of how Mcleod's food actually, well, tasted. Instead, the judges all appeared to be offended by the very idea of her vegan creation.

"There's no animal protein in this dish?" Bourdain asked Mcleod, before zinging her with this morsel: "It could have greatly benefited from the addition of one of Brazil's many pork products."

Bourdain may be famously anti-vegan, but that's no excuse for a comment that came across as rude. When the other three judges also gave Mcleod the brush-off, our cynical selves couldn't help wondering if she was doomed before ever setting foot in the show's kitchen. Is it possible that one of the sponsors, Best Foods, somehow played a role in the judges' attitude, since vegans cannot eat egg-based mayonnaise?

Our conspiracy theory is half-baked, according to executive producer Chris Coelen, who told Squid Ink via email: "The whole point of the show is that the judges don't know what ingredients are in the dishes when they taste them. The entire concept of the show means that it would be impossible for any link to exist between the judges' opinions or the editorial point of view of the show and any sponsor message."

And Coelen continued that we shouldn't assume there won't be more vegan food prepared on The Taste : "Neither the producers nor the mentors have any control over what the contestants prepare -- it's up to them. And certainly all four judges are not dismissive of either vegan or vegetarian cooking."

As for the impression we got last week, Coelen described the panel as "very passionate and speaks their mind about what they like. They aren't politically correct. Neither do they collectively share any particular bias, except toward food that tastes good."

As in other reality TV shows, sponsors and products do play a role on The Taste. For example, contestants fly on Southwest Airlines and shop at Whole Foods Market. And the winner is going to drive off with a new Ford hybrid.

In a recent Hollywood Reporter story Coelen talked about being thrilled to have the support of "such a distinctive group of advertising partners."

He added: "We believe our new series is a terrific platform for each of these brands to reach their marketing objectives with seamless integrations that will be experienced by our very passionate viewers who love all things food."

For its part, Best Foods (called Hellmann's east of the Rocky Mountains) is sponsoring a competition, in which five grand prize winners will get to appear on a sponsored segment, which is separate from The Taste's competition. (This "Blue Ribbon Challenge" requires entrants to use the company's mayonnaise as an ingredient.)

Not that anyone has asked our opinion, but we think if the show comes back next season, it would be more interesting if there were an additional judge representing a less meaty point of view. How great would it be to see Bourdain sparring with, say, vegan chefs Tal Ronnen or Kathy Freston?

That missing ingredient could give The Taste some zest.

The Taste airs Tuesdays on ABC at 8/7c.

See also:

A Recap of The Taste: We Took a Bite. Did You?

Anthony Bourdain Is Not Selling Out, Even if The Taste Is a Little Cheesy


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