Anthony Bourdain describes himself as an "enthusiast," though strangely, as we watch him globetrot across our televisions eating some of the world's most exotic and delicious foods, living a life many would trade their first born for, his demeanor is rarely all that enthusiastic. Known well for his ascerbic nature, "this doesn't suck" is one of his most commonly doled out compliments. Yet surprisingly, at a press luncheon held at the massive Disney compound in Burbank last Friday for ABC's The Taste, he seemed almost giddy.
The Taste is yet another culinary competition show premiering later this month, and Bourdain serves as both an executive producer and on-screen personality. It pits accomplished chefs against home cooks in a blind taste test battle for which he, Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre and Brian Malarky are judges as well as mentors for their team of cooks. They don't know who's made what dish, and they don't know who they're sending home. It's something like American Idol and The Voice combined, but with food.
In other words, a bit hokey sounding, and frankly, when we first heard of it, we were surprised Bourdain was involved at all.
Which made us all the more curious to attend the luncheon to find out why. We assumed the answer would be woven into the speech he gave while food and entertainment writers listened attentively, or fought for space at the mic for the privilege to ask a question. But what we found was completely the opposite.
We rounded the corner into a parking lot to find Bourdain standing casually beside the LudoTruck, chatting pleasantly with four or five reporters. Tables were set up, and a few people were forming a queue to get fried chicken. The scene was incredibly nonchalant, save for maybe Nigella Lawson, who looked red carpet ready despite there being very few cameras around. "L.A. est froid!" Lefebvre said, shivering a little. Later, he and Bourdain would break out a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, perhaps to keep warm. Mostly the small crowd mingled in the sunny spots.
Bourdain must have known he'd get some criticism for going this middle of the road with The Taste. First We Feast recently accused him of going "pop," counting that among their list of things everyone thinks about the food world, but no one will say. Maybe Bourdain heard. Maybe he didn't. Either way, in true Bourdain fashion, he doesn't seem to give a shit.
"At this point in my life I do a lot of things," he told us, "and this is one of them." It echoed a similarly devil-may-care statement he made when he got involved with Ecco publishing company: "I'm doing this because... I can."
Bourdain's voice picked up speed when he began talking about what attracted him to the The Taste. He had a chance to get in at the ground floor, he said, and be part of designing the concept. He added, smiling, "It seemed like a really scary, foolhardy, uncharacteristic thing to do, which appealed to me as well."
But he knows what this looks like. The Taste is network primetime glitz and glamour, which doesn't tend to breed a lot of substance. Still, he said, "Seeing this big Bond-like set and everything, one tends to assume the worst. But [the mentors] all ended up getting really into the game, and getting involved with who was playing. It was a real Stockholm Syndrome. We were living and breathing it, and we really cared."
He also seemed to relish how much he got schooled while making this show. They'd eat barbecue pork, for example, and assume a guy must have made it, and they'd be wrong. Or they'd identify French cooking techniques and figure one of the professional chefs must have made that dish, and be wrong again.
"I like being made to feel stupid," he said. " I like having to face a really sudden and steep learning curve, so having my preconceptions and prejudices stood on their head, even if it's deeply embarrassing, I kind of like that. And it happened a lot."
He points out, though, perhaps acknowledging the formulaic nature of the show, that he doesn't play the Simon Cowell role. "I didn't want to send anybody home. I was a complete wuss the whole time."
Whether The Taste is fabulously entertaining or a total dud remains to be seen. But either way, while Bourdain going mainstream may make a lot of us uncomfortable, that doesn't mean our food maverick is selling out. He's not involved with The Taste for the fame or money. In fact, in a way, he's doing it in spite of all that. He's thrilled with the thing, and he doesn't seem to care if that calls his cool factor into question. "All of the decisions in my life now are quality of life decisions," he said, "and I really had a good time."
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