“Your chance to cook for Nigella Lawson” is not an invitation that drops into your inbox every day, especially in the midst of Lawson’s unseemly public battle with her ex-husband Charles Saatchi. “No personal questions allowed” is the not-unexpected proviso (leave that to the barristers, eh?), but the chance to serve the tarnished Domestic Goddess seems like a story to, well, dine out on. And if that makes me a confrère of David Cameron on Team Cupcake, so be it; I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Nigella, not so much for her womanly curves as in appreciation of the high camp of her TV shows. Please tell me we’re not supposed to take them seriously.
The idea is to make for Pinewood studios, where the production company is filming The Taste, Channel 4’s British facsimile of Lawson’s successful ABC show in America. It’s a cookery competition in which contestants serve one perfectly formed spoonful of their food to the judges, who also double as mentors: Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and the Burgundian chef in LA, Ludo Lefebvre. The tasting is blind, starting at the audition process where the judges pick their teams on taste alone. In effect it’s The Voice to MasterChef’s The X Factor.
“There are so many reasons that differentiate it from MasterChef”, says Lawson, looking as perfectly coiffed and expensively face-creamed as you’d hope and expect. “It is just this one spoonful, and the proportions have to be right in the spoon. We don’t care at all about what it looks like, so we don’t need anything to be made to look pretty. And we don’t make any distinction between home cooks and professionals. We put them both against each other.”
“And we don’t know who they are”, says Anthony Bourdain, a New Yorker who has managed to transform himself from the slightly louche culinary adventurer and whistle-blower of Kitchen Confidential and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations into a slick frontman of reality TV shows – albeit of the terse Simon Cowell variety. “Particularly in the auditions phase, we taste to pick our teams and try to extrapolate from this spoon what a cook might be like… what their level of expertise is. And we’re almost always wrong. In that sense, it’s as close to a level playing field as we can create.”
The Taste is one of two new TV cookery contests that, in the new year, will park their tanks on MasterChef’s well-worn front lawn – Sky Living’s UK version of the Australian show, My Kitchen Rules (in which couples compete against each other) also starts in January, hosted by Jason Atherton and Lorraine Pascale. But back to The Taste – the various rounds in the American series included using every edible body part of an animal, making a unique sandwich, matching food to wine and creative, seductive “sexy dishes” (come on down, Nigella), and the British version can be expected to follow suit.
“The other things that distinguish us from MasterChef is that we have to judge who’s best and who’s worst”, Lawson says. “And someone gets eliminated and we don’t know who it is so we could be saying disobliging things about one of the cooks in our own kitchens. I’m sure that will give a certain appeal, but for us it’s pretty unpleasant when it happens.”
Bourdain explains the difference between the UK and US versions of the show: “Much more focused on the food and less interested in the interaction between the contestants and their story. Frankly a higher level of cooking because this such a food-crazy country now, so deep an appetite for real food-related programming as opposed to food-based entertainment.”
The second series of the American show has been filmed and ABC has stated that it has no plans not to broadcast it as planned in January, despite Lawson’s admission of cocaine use. “Sources” quoted in the Daily Mail claim the network is, however, “debating” the show’s future in light of the revelations. But that is for the future and right now, I have to decide what to cook. “Your brief would be would be to create a sensational dish that will wow the judges,” the publicist’s email says. “And you will have 45 minutes.”
My first inclination is to knock up one of Nigella’s recipes since they are often so quick and easy – but then that might smack of sucking up, so I use a Gordon Ramsay recipe that I’ve been trying recently in lieu of spending £200-a-head in one of his restaurants. My current favourite is pan-fried sea bass with broccoli and sorrel sauce, but I doubt that I can complete that in under three-quarters of an hour (it’s the base for the sorrel sauce that is the killer), so I plump for Italian sausages with lentils, which is slightly more sophisticated than it sounds, delicious and relatively quick, if I can boil the lentils in time. The studio kitchen is rather like the MasterChef kitchen without quite so much laminate flooring. As I’m taken though the health-and-safety procedure – the knives are far sharper than most of us would use at home – and am introduced to induction hobs (a little freaky), I am distracted by my first sight of Nigella and her fellow judges seated behind the smoked glass of their chamber. And then we are off.
As I wait for my water to boil, my inner John Torode starts tapping his watch and I realise it’s going to be touch and go with the lentils. I dice the carrots, onion and bacon rapidly enough, and start to slow fry my Italian sausages – and it all comes together on my spoon with a couple of minutes to spare. No sweat. But judges have gone off for a break. Charming. When they do return and slurp my spoonful of delight I am relieved that the first word to come out of Lawson’s mouth is, “Mmmm”. The rest goes something like this:
Nigella: “I like this Germanic approach. Is it Polish sausage? The lentils just needed a teeny bit longer.”
Nigella: “And a bit more fat.”
Ludo: “A little dry.”
Nigella: “I like the tastes though.”
Ludo: “It’s completely about the taste and it tastes good. It takes time to cook lentils.”
Nigella: “Lentils should cook within 40 minutes easily.”
Ludo: “Not 40 minutes.”
Anthony: “A good flavour... a good proportion on the spoon...”
Nigella: “I like the choice of what was on the spoon. Not obvious. Different, but not fancy. They are quite simple foods, but I do think that earthiness of the lentils is good with the saltiness of the sausage – if the lentils had been cooked longer and had had a bit more fat in them it would have been perfect...”
Ludo: “If you are doing this competition we would be a bit more hard with you because you didn’t make the sausage. We are judging on cooking, non? – not on the buying of food?”
Nigella: “I quite like this because to me it doesn’t matter to me that the lentils are French, and the sausage is Italian, it has that northern appeal...”
Ludo: “But it’s dry.”
Nigella: “We said the lentils weren’t cooked and needed more fat.”
And that’s it – three spoonfuls gone and I’m left with a panload. Luckily, one of the assistants finds me a doggy bag and I take home a hearty supper. Even if the lentils are a bit crunchy.
The Taste begins on 7 January on Channel 4
Italian sausages with lentils
Taken from Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Sunday Lunch’, Quadrille
Olive oil, for cooking
200g smoked bacon lardons
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
3 bay leaves
500g Castelluccio or Puy lentils, rinsed and drained
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large garlic clove, peeled and smashed
12 Italian sausages
100ml dry white wine
Handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
Heat a little oil in a saucepan and fry the lardons until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, carrot and bay leaves, stir well and cook over a medium heat for 5-6 minutes until the onions begin to soften.
Tip in the lentils, stir well and pour in enough water to cover. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 25-30 minutes until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the lentils are tender. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Cook the sausages in the meantime. Heat a little oil in a frying pan. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the sausages and pan-fry for about 5 minutes, turning occasionally, until lightly golden. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and bring to the boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, and leave the sausages to braise for 15-20 minutes until cooked through.
With a pair of tongs, transfer the sausages to the lentils, nestling them among the vegetables and lentils and adding the pan juices. Divide among bowls and sprinkle generously with parsley and ground black pepper.