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“It’s like I have an amputated arm squirting blood all over the place, and you’re saying ‘At least it’s not cancer!'” –Anthony Bourdain after a fellow judge gently pointed out that a vegan cupcake had tasted dry
First of all, I still can’t get over how Anthony Bourdain turned out to be the perfect Evil Tom Bergeron and no one in Hollywood had to script/cast that. It just happened! Too funny.
For season 2 of The Taste, Bourdain is joined by Nigella “Seduce Me Orally” Lawson, the Sriracha-tempered Ludo Lefebvre, and — new to the table, replacing Brian Malarkey — Ethiopian-born Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson. Tonight’s two-hour premiere covered the entire audition process, thank God. (And wow!)
Fire up the huge spoons that make the judges look like kids eating cereal! The 16 finalists are….
Shellie Kitchen: No way her last name is really Kitchen. Am I stoned? Shellie might be! The 41-year-old chill wave mom runs the Brass Knuckle food truck, which caters to stoners. I want to gobble up everything they show in that truck, marijuana optional. It’s just this crazy-looking slop. But the official presentation of her Taste bites was beautiful: pork chorzio beer-basted prawn with wonton chips. Stoners love spoons! Too bad Shellie forgot to include a Big Dish along with her Bites. “There would be no connection between the stoner nature of your business and the non-arrival of your plate?” Bourdain wryly wondered. It was okay, though. He’s been stoned before. And “I’ve had a career working with, manipulating, managing stoners,” he continued. However, I’m pretty sure Shellie wasn’t stoned at the time. “I just want to prove to my kids you can do things that you love, and succeed,” she gushed. Survey says: Stoned.
Lee Knoeppel: Probable winner #1 right here? All four judges/mentors yanked out the green YES-crank for this 27-year-old executive chef-turned-waiter. He just couldn’t handle the 85-hour weeks, he admitted, and had begun to dread going to work. Bourdain held up a single diva hand and looked off to the side — “Say no more,” he assured his protégé — and Marcus and Nigella hummed in approval. But Ludo didn’t like Lee’s quitter mentality. Bourdain sold Lee when he said “You remind me of me — young, directionless, already burnt out.” Lee had concocted a ghee poached lobster in bacon chowder with a potato chive crisp that I just wanted to dive into… forever. Goodbye, life. Hello, savory salvation.
Dana Micek: “Um, no offense, guys — I don’t love working with male chefs.” Hmm. Good luck, lady! But Bourdain and Marcus, who both liked Dana’s steak tacos with pickled radish and corn, knew where she was coming from. Bourdain: “I fully understand the pain of finding yourself in an over-testosteroned kitchen with people talking about their groins. Or worse, sports.” In his quest to be Dana’s mentor, Marcus offered a weak campaign involving the concept of falling in love (Dana wasn’t havin’ it), but the huge Tony B. fan picked her hero because… he said in one of his books he loved Cleveland, and she loved Cleveland. Sure, this’ll work.
Brad: He’s one of three no-last-namers who got only a few seconds of footage. Marcus and Anthony both liked his seared black cod with a miso soy cream sauce, which Brad himself called “passion on a plate.”
Don Pullum: The 56-year-old wine maker from Mason, Texas boasts a tremendous beard. His teary-eyed account of his late wife’s struggle with ALS had me sobbing. But I knew I loved him just a few seconds in, when he declared one should “never eat without wine, never drink without food.” HELLO. It’s like he’s been directing my life all along. Marcus and Ludo both pulled their cranks for Don’s deep-fried oyster with Thai-based gastrique, but Don had really appreciated Marcus’ teaching style at a demonstration of his he’d attended in Houston. Sweet!
Sarah: Another no-last-namer; made a seared lamb loin and saffron cous cous. Angry aside to my word processor: For the last time, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS COWS COWS.
Audrey Johns: “I wanna get into Nigella’s kitchen,” Audrey announced right away. “I love to take naughty things you’re not supposed to have… I know Nigella loves meatballs.” I have a feeling Nigella would have totally approved of Audrey’s quasi-sexual aggression towards this task. Turns out Audrey had spent the three last months of her mom’s life watching Nigella on TV in her mom’s hospital room. “I feel like if I meet Nigella today, it’ll be like seeing my mom again.” Yikes. And then Nigella didn’t pick her! Nigella didn’t mind the dry flatbread under Audrey’s Greek meatballs, but overall the bite didn’t work for her. So she’s probably not Audrey’s mom. None of the judges/mentors had much praise for Audrey’s dish, but Marcus saw “a humbleness here and a willingness to learn.” After the whole two hours were up, I thought this seemed kind of nuts — weren’t there much, much better chefs than Audrey who could’ve won a spot on a non-Ludo team if they’d showed up earlier in the process?
Shehu Fitzgerald: Probable winner #2. All four judges fell in love with this huge, tattooed tenderloin of a man, who’s cooked professionally in NYC for 20 years. Nigella and Marcus both favored his seared scallops with celery root puree and red wine reduction, but Marcus wisely won his fellow New Yorker for his team by invoking the Wu-Tang Clan and promising the Staten Island guy, “You and I can keep creating beautiful music.” Really? Excellent.
Reina Bazzi: Loves YELLING. “We’re going to BOOM! Explode like a diamond, yeah,” she shouted. “I love to use the flavor of my FINGERS.” The Venezuelan “professional chef for my husband and family” didn’t impress the three other judges with her Mediterranean beef tenderloin with pomegranate-infused eggplant (which appeared to have been splashed onto the plate by the kitchen’s sprinkler system), but Nigella could taste that Reina had “cooking in your heart, blood, fingers.” She got the fingers thing! They’re a match in party heaven.
Crystal: We may never learn her last name, either, but she made a sea urchin mousse, which looked gross. Who cares, though? TASTE!
Jay Qualls: “I tried to eat away the gay, pray away the gay…” This guy will be a fan favorite for sure — the Tennessean celebrity wedding cake designer is quick-witted, totally open to criticism, and seems like he’d be a dream to work with. He used to be 400 pounds and married to a lady; now he’s a newly confident cake boss who wants to show America he has more under his pink polo shirt’s sleeve than just cake. Ludo, Tony, and Nigella all liked his ginger pork pot stickers, but Jay had envisioned himself in Nigella’s kitchen all along. “You can’t fight this. You cahhhhhhhhn‘t,” Nigella attempted to seduce him. Girl, he wouldn’t dream of fighting it. Sold!
Jacquelyn: Wait, there’s a Jacquelyn? I don’t remember any of this, and I was taking notes. Will report back….
Jeff Kawakami: Bourdain wasn’t impressed by his deconstructed bacon fried rice — “This is a hipster dish. Hip-sterrrrrr….” he clarified slowly for Lefebvre. Jeff, the first contestant shown during auditions, surprised viewers by picking the aggressive Ludo over the seductive Nigella. “I want the push, I guess, so I can take myself to the next level,” said the former drug addict who’d rebuilt his life through cooking.
Cassandra Bodzak: This woman must have pored over season 1 of Friday Night Lights for behavioral cues, because the Minka Kelly lookalike has the Lyla Garrity “I’m going to slowly and sweetly announce things to adults as if they’re children” bedside manner down pat. And from previews of the season, it looks like she’ll be hooking up with Lee! The “healthy happy living guru” and Juicepiration author is the first vegetarian to make The Taste — and on Ludo’s team no less! With a vegan cupcake! Complete madness. “J’accuse! Traitor to France!” Bourdain admonished Lefebvre after Cassandra had walked away. Ludo claimed he’d just tell her to “put some fat in her food, that’s it.”
Louise Leonard: The peppy, blonde L.A. food stylist’s elderly parents seemed kind of sick of her at their Tennessee home, but she had an “explain your unlikely agenda in five seconds to people who already know it” ultimatum to pull off, and I’m sure they love her very much. As soon as she mentioned she was a food stylist, Ludo rolled his eyes. But it was too late; he’d enjoyed her beer-braised pork meatballs. He looked legitimately terrified as she walked away. Well done, Louise!
Marina Chung: She has a zest for life… and MURDER. “I’ll cook anything! Raccoon, whatever. I can hunt and cook and kill the animal. Drink the blood,” she raved. This tiny, happy-go-lucky mom was saying this weird stuff. Ludo finally (and barely?) approved of another dish: her broccoli stalk, fried shrimp, and fried rice.
We didn’t see too many train wrecks, the worst of which was egomaniac Sevan Abedessian, who was the best kitchen incarnation of a completely delusional American Idol contestant I’ve ever seen. Season 1 ne’er do well Kyle Schutte, who’d scared off the judges with a conceptual dish in season 1, made the same exact mistake with a “reconstructed Caprese salad” that Ludo ended up regurgitating onto his poor spoon. I wouldn’t be surprised if they brought camera-friendly 26-year-old vegetarian Vidya Krishna back at some point throughout the season, or keep her around as the alternate if someone drops out. She seemed to win over all the judges with her good-natured explanation of her parents’ disapproval of her new non-career. Maybe they’ll want to help her prove them wrong.
Who did you love tonight? Will you be watching this?