"The Taste" is like "The Voice" for foodies. The competition, which begins tonight on ABC, starts with a blind taste test, in which a combination of professional chefs and home cooks try to impress chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain, British domestic goddess/cookbook queen Nigella Lawson, restaurateur/"Top Chef" Season 3 third runner-up Brian Malarkey, and chef/author/"Top Chef Masters" contestant Ludo Lefebvre with just one spoonful. Each judge picks four people, based on the dish alone, and then mentors their team through weeks of team and individual challenges with a variety of themes. At the end of every episode is a blind tasting, and the owner of whichever bite the quartet deems the worst is revealed and eliminated.
Malarkey and Lefebvre spoke with Yahoo! TV about the stressful process of eating mystery meat (and the unstressful follow-up of washing it down with alcohol), what they looked for in a team member, which judge they most wanted to impress, and what they would have prepared if the tables were turned.
First things first, Brian. Why not one of your signature hats?
Malarkey: They wouldn't let me wear one. The lighting wasn't right, and it would block my eyes. I was a little bummed because my trailer was full of new hats I bought for the show, but it lets the world know I have hair.
Why should people tune in to "The Taste"?
Lefebvre: It really is completely different from any other show out there. We never know whose food we're tasting. It is all blind. We try to help our team, but the minute we leave the kitchen, they could ignore what we said, and next thing we know, we could be voting off our own. Also, no one holds back, and Nigella is hot!
Malarkey: It was always very exciting to see the big reveal of which chef we'd voted for and who made the best bite. And this setup is just honest. On other shows, it's easy to think that someone goes home because they don't like their attitude, or maybe they stay because they're good TV. This cooking show is based entirely on the taste of the dish.
How was the transition to judging rather than competing?
Malarkey: When I first got the job, I was like, "This show's going to be great. I'm going to sit next to Bourdain telling people what I think about their food. I'll be breaking hearts and making dreams come true." But then I realized we were going to be in the kitchen with them, so it wasn't as comfy a job as I had imagined. It was very stressful. We were competing with our teams half the time, and you could send your own teammate home on accident. That could really play with your head. We put our own egos and styles on the line, too.
Was it easy to reject people and dash career plans?
Lefebvre: It's never easy to criticize people to their face. We didn't realize the contestants could hear us when we were tasting and discussing their bites. I don't think any of the judges wanted to destroy someone's hopes and dreams, but we had to tell the truth, and some bites just didn't taste very good.
Malarkey: We just picked our favorite and least favorite dishes every week. We didn't do it maliciously. But it was rough sometimes. People cried.
Did you eat every bit of every bite?
Lefebvre: I ate every bite in full. Sometimes I didn't want to, and I promise you I did not enjoy them all, but I was there to "taste" everything and had to pay respect by eating one full bite. [Poor] Anthony does not like scallops, and we had four or five in a row once. We were all so stuffed by the end of the tastings. I felt like I had a 60-course tasting menu from a chef on some crazy drugs.
Malarkey: I believe I only spit one thing out the entire show. Once we picked teams, we expected a certain level of quality, but during auditions, there was some stuff I wish I hadn't eaten. We ate a lot of really rich food on a day-to-day basis. I was surprised how full I was at the end of a round.
Did you cleanse palates between bites?
Lefebvre: We had water to help wash things down but nothing truly cleansing. In between groups, I might have cleansed my palate and mind with a sip or two of tequila.
Malarkey: Water, beer, and wine. And a gin and tonic. What? There was definitely alcohol involved in the show, but most of the time we just took a sip of water between bites. As a chef, I'm used to walking around and trying this sauce and that sauce and a bite of potatoes. I multitaste all the time.
What were you looking for in a team member?
Malarkey: I looked for people who cooked in my style and made food similar to something I would prepare so that I could understand them and their food and really help. If I eat a dish and don't get it, that's not someone I feel like I could mentor.
Lefebvre: I was trying to be strategic because my competitors were also the judges. I wanted to have a balanced team. Nigella likes homey comfort, so that meant getting at least one home cook who was not all about restaurant-style execution. Tony is such an international traveler that I felt I needed someone that had international experience or heritage. Not easy to do when you have one blind spoon to judge. I also needed some professionals. My kitchens are always run as a brigade, so having people familiar with that style would be helpful.
Was it easy to figure out if the contestant was a home cook or pro?
Malarkey: We played that guessing game for a while but realized we were really bad at it. There are some pretty freaking good home cooks out there nowadays, and they would make bites that were as amazing as the trained chefs. One advantage of the home chef is that they have their repertoire and they do the same dishes over and over again to the point of nailing it. But chefs often get bored. We make a great dish, and then we want to move on. And often we overcompensate and overcomplicate in an attempt to woo people.
Lefebvre: It was really surprising sometimes, mostly when a professional chef served something really bad. I don't know what the hell some of these people were thinking. Not that I expect a professional chef to be better than a home cook, because as Nigella would say, "They cook with love just to cook." Some home cooks had pretty amazing technique, and that was surprising.
Were there people you regret not picking?
Malarkey: There were definitely people that slipped by me that I regret. It was hard. You only have four spots, so you're asking yourself the whole time, "Gosh, that was really good, but what if someone else is better?" We were all so hesitant that good people didn't get on a team. We were all kicking ourselves at many points during the auditions.
Lefebvre: There were a few I should have pushed the yes button for, and some that I was so close on ended up on other teams, but I'm very happy with my team.
Having competed in a food-competition series, could you relate to the contestants more than other judges? Did it give you an advantage?
Malarkey: It certainly didn't hurt. I know how to work with the stress of the cameras and have practice coming up with dishes on the fly. As a mentor, it helped me convey confidence to my team in the competitive cooking-show arena. For sure, they were going, "Oh man, tell us what to do. You've been here before."
Lefebvre: I definitely understood how difficult it can be to cook under the pressure of television and a clock, but I don't feel like I had any advantage. This is so different from "Top Chef Masters" and totally new to me. I'm not used to the long hours of television. Tony and Nigella are, so they may have had an advantage.
If you had been a contestant, what would you have made for the judges?
Malarkey: Crispy-skin duck breast, drizzled with balsamic blackberry sauce and served on top of a celeriac puree.
Lefebvre: I have no idea. That is a lot of pressure, and I need time to think of one perfect bite for three different people. Happy I wasn't a contestant.
Obviously you want to beat all of them, but was there someone you felt most competitive with? Why?
Lefebvre: Not really. I just wanted to win. It didn't matter if I had to fight with one of my idols [like] Tony, who could be intimidating because he speaks so well, or the lovely Nigella, who I used to have a crush on. It was game on for everyone. I was focused on three judges and 16 contestants.
Malarkey: It is no secret that I wanted to take Ludo out every opportunity I had. Nigella's so sweet and Bourdain is iconic, so Ludo is the one I'm gunning for the whole time, and it is obvious on the show. He just asks for it with his French mannerisms and cocky arrogance.
Anthony Bourdain answers questions about the show:
"The Taste" premieres tonight at 8 PM on ABC.