The first contestant to appear on the season premiere of Nigella Lawson’s US food talent show The Taste was Jeff Kawakami, a 32-year-old chef from Los Angeles, who quickly revealed that he had overcome a drugs problem in order to pursue his career in the kitchen. “Cooking really helped me pull my life together,” Jeff said, over the sensitive background Muzak. “I’ve been able to prove to myself that I’m a strong person and I can’t be beat down.”
Lawson is both a co-host and executive producer of The Taste, which, depending on your televisual palate, is either a high-concept fusion of complementary cuisines (The Voice on a bed of mashed MasterChef, drizzled with a Hell’s Kitchen reduction); or an over-seasoned stew of mismatched ingredients. The series began on Thursday night with amateur cooks and pro chefs competing to prepare a single bite of food to whet the appetites of Lawson and her fellow mentor-judges – chefs Anthony Bourdain, Ludo Lefebvre and Marcus Samuelsson – in a blind taste test.
The judges each picked a team of four, based on that bite, to go forward to a series full of food-based challenges. Kawakami opted to prepare elegant comfort food: deconstructed bacon fried rice, topped with a fried quail’s egg. So is it any wonder that Lawson, presently emerging from her own personal drugs-related nightmare, invited him to join Team Nigella?
Production of this second series of The Taste was already complete before the recent disclosures about Lawson’s marriage to Charles Saatchi – including those allegations about her drug use. A UK version of the programme, also starring Lawson, begins on Channel 4 next week, and coincides with the reissue of her entire cookbook collection.
Lawson is said to have sold six million books worldwide and amassed a personal fortune of £20m based on her fame in Britain. When it first aired in the US last year, The Taste was considered her long-overdue entrée into the living rooms and kitchens of Middle America. Now, its second series has become her make-or-break moment.
The 53-year-old wouldn’t be the first UK star to resurrect her reputation on American screens. In recent years, the likes of Piers Morgan and Gordon Ramsay have weathered British headlines with success on the far side of the pond. The Taste’s ratings flopped towards the end of its first run, but if the show’s viewer figures can rise again like a perfectly judged soufflé, Nigella’s future would be secured. If they remain flaccid, however – jeopardising the chances of a third series – then the prospects for the domestic goddess could look a lot less appetising.
The nation’s sweet-toothed sweetheart saw her reputation sour with the recent fraud trial of sisters Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, formerly her close aides, whom Saatchi accused of unlawfully spending his money on frivolous luxury items including flights and designer clothing. The Grillos were acquitted, but only after a painful public trial during which Lawson was forced to admit to having used cocaine, and to smoking cannabis in front of her children.
The defendants claimed their spending had been the price for their silence about Lawson’s alleged drug-taking. Some observers even suggested that an embittered Saatchi had engineered the case as a forum in which to attack his former wife. Lawson deplored the drug claims as a “ridiculous sideshow”. Following the trial, friends insisted it was “business as usual” in the lead-up to her transatlantic TV offering.
But on Thursday, in her first interview since the verdict, Lawson admitted that having “distortions” about her private life made public had been “mortifying”. During her appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America to publicise The Taste, Lawson said she had been “maliciously vilified without the right to respond”. Although illicit drugs went unmentioned in the exchange, the TV cook did admit to having eaten “a lot of chocolate” since the trial.
America’s distaste for the UK’s tabloid culture may make its audiences sympathetic to British celebrities who have been humiliated at home. Yet in spite of her best efforts, Lawson’s US fame is slight in comparison with other TV food imports such as Ramsay or Jamie Oliver. She was first on US screens in 2002, when Nigella Bites was first broadcast on the E! and Style channels, with the book tie-in becoming a Christmas bestseller. She penned a regular column for the New York Times, and the then First Lady Laura Bush even used one of her soup recipes at a presidential Christmas dinner. But the critics were not always kind about Lawson’s seductive cooking style, and it has taken The Taste to truly put her on the US TV menu.
Chris Coelen, the chief executive of Kinetic Productions, which created The Taste, gushed before the first series that Lawson’s “dream has always been to conquer America, and she is now well on her way… I am sure 2013 will be the Year of Nigella in America.”
Instead, 2013 was the year of Nigella in court. Friends and colleagues are reportedly concerned that her travails could place Lawson’s burgeoning US reputation in jeopardy, but while the US is in many ways more puritanical than Britain, it can also be more forgiving. Home-making megastar Martha Stewart, who was sentence to five months in prison in 2004 on charges related to insider trading, enjoyed a successful comeback following her release.
Lawson’s co-star Bourdain, as he related in his bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential, was an enthusiastic consumer of heroin, cocaine and LSD during his younger days as a tyro New York chef. “We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in refrigerator at every opportunity,” he wrote. Yet he went on to become the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan, and later translated his edgy past into an edgy TV persona with incredible success.
Several of the amateur cooks featured in Thursday’s audition episode of The Taste cited Lawson as an inspiration, and the Twitter response to the show, and particularly to its British star, was almost universally positive. Although, in what could be viewed as a bad omen, Jeff Kawakami – he of the drug problems and deconstructed bacon roll – decided to join Team Ludo instead.