After a bruising end to 2013, Nigella Lawson launches her new cookery show, The Taste, on Channel 4 tonight. Already a huge hit in the US, it involves 12 amateur and professional cooks blind-serving top chefs one spoonful of food before someone is voted out. Grazia's Lottie Lumsden was invited to take part in the challenge...
'It’s 4pm on a Thursday afternoon and I’m frantically rushing around the aisles of Tesco, Slough trying to find some brown crabmeat. It’s an emergency, given that in an hour I’m cooking for chefs Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre and Anthony Bourdain, judges of Channel 4’s new programme, The Taste. Each week on the show, which hits our screens in January, contestants have to make a perfect spoonful of food for each judge, and at the end of each episode the creator of the worst dish is voted off.
Today myself and 11 other journalists have been invited to battle it out against each other as part of the press launch. We have just 45 minutes each to create a delicious mouthful of our chosen dish. A daunting task in itself, so it didn’t help when I realised on the train to Slough that I had forgotten to put brown crabmeat on the list of ingredients I needed for my dish, Crab Orecchiette. Kind of crucial.
Crab finally purchased I grab a taxi to Pinewood Studios where the show is filmed and 45 minutes later, I’m in the green room wearing a ‘The Taste’ apron and clutching a fishy plastic bag, waiting my turn to cook. I’m not feeling particularly confident.
I’ve never cooked orecchiette pasta before. I chose it because linguine, which I normally cook this dish with, wouldn’t fit on the spoon. To make matters worse, the night before I was meant to do a practice run, but ended up in the pub instead. So when someone mentions that one of the other journalists won the press launch of Masterchef, my heart sinks. Surely that’s not fair? Suddenly the door opens and another journalist walks back into the green room looking downtrodden. He whispers, 'They said it was the worst thing they’d ever tasted.' Oh God. 'Nigella said I had wasted the life of a chicken.’
But there's no time to quiz the chicken killer because it’s my turn. I'm taken into the studio decked out to look a homely country kitchen with twelve work stations. The heat is overwhelming. Not good when you’re this nervous. In the corner is a glass room where the three judges, headed by Nigella, are currently grilling a journalist about her food. She looks scared.
Once at my station, which has a hob, sink, oven and a worktop with all my ingredients plus three china spoons for the food, a producer on the studio floor tells me it’s time to start.
It's quite an easy recipe and should only take about half an hour to cook. So I take my time chopping my parsley, grating my Parmesan, zesting a lemon and making my sauce. When 15 minutes have gone I step it up a gear and shove my pasta on to boil. There are no instructions and I realise that I have no idea how long you’re meant to cook orecchiette for. So when I'm told I have five minutes left and the pasta is still on the wrong side of al dente I feel a rising sense of panic.
When the two minute shout out comes I realise I have to get the food on the spoon. I frantically drain the pasta but end up pouring the boiling water all over my hand. The pain is excruciating but I don't have time to think about it. I taste the pasta – seems OK to me – and put it on the spoon before being led into the glass fishbowl. I’m sat on one side of the ‘Taste Table’ facing Nigella, Ludo and Anthony. They taste my food and make notes. There is silence. Nigella is the first to speak. ‘Mmm, lovely bits of chilli in there,’ she says. I think we’re going to get on. She’s very beautiful in the flesh and her skin is flawless. ‘I always find orecchiette very difficult to cook because it tends to taste overcooked and undercooked at the same time.’ Oh. Thanks Nigella. Anthony, a statuesque silver haired man with a strong New York accent, chips in, ‘I like it because the sauce clings to it and gets stuck in the pocket. But it would have been better with clams.’ Ludo says nothing. Nigella looks up, ‘I like the tanginess of the sauce and the flavours but the pasta and the sauce don’t tie together.’ I normally would use linguine I say. ‘With linguine it would have been great,’ she smiles.
It’s a rollercoaster of emotions - praise one minute, criticism the next. Ludo still says nothing. I’d been told by the PR that he doesn’t speak much but this is excruciating. ‘I like your blusher,’ says Nigella. ‘Where is it from?’ Finally Ludo pipes up. ‘Can you stop talking about make up.’ Nigella turns to face him. ‘Sorry, do you want to talk about your make-up?’ ‘I have a lot on my face,’ he says sarcastically. ‘I can talk about that too.’
There’s clearly a lot of chemistry between the three judges who have just filmed the second series of The Taste in the US. But they don’t agree on everything, not least my crab pasta. ‘We have fun but there are difficult moments too,’ smiles Nigella. ‘We disagree. Ludo will say something is really good and I’ll say I don’t like it.’ Anthony says, ‘There are some errors that we take more personally than others. Desserts that are too sweet are a no-no for Nigella. I’m really tough on pasta. I get murderous. You’re in a bad place if you come at me with bad pasta.’ Thank goodness he liked mine.
They’ve had their fair share of bad food during filming. Anthony says, ‘There’s always one wannabe molecular gastronomist who is not interested about their food being delicious but in showing how brilliant they are.’ Nigella explains, ‘Suddenly they want to turn a mozzarella ball inside out. What has it ever done to them?’ What I proffer, would they cook if they had 45 minutes. ‘Eggs,’ says Ludo. Nigella turns to him, screwing her face up and looking unimpressed. ‘It’s very difficult to do eggs,’ he shrugs. Nigella turns away. ‘45 minutes is nothing,’ she says. ‘I’d do liver with onions and bacon as it doesn’t need to be cooked for long.’ Anthony smiles at me. ‘I’m still working out how to get a full English breakfast on a spoon. A tiny black pudding, bacon, beans...’
My time is up. I say thank you and head back to the green room where I realise my burned hand is really very sore so I’m shipped off to First Aid. On the way back to London I’m still flying high on adrenaline from the day but I’m pretty sure I haven’t won the competition.
Next morning when I turn on my computer at work there is an email from the PR. ‘I’m sure you’re on tenterhooks anxiously waiting to find out if you created the Best or indeed Worst Dish. The mentors thought your crab pasta was an impressive dish and Nigella could tell it would have been delicious with linguine.’ Damn that orecchiette. ‘There was a divide in the tasting room as two mentors championed one dish and one another,’ it continues. ‘After much deliberation, the Best Dish title went to….’ It’s the girl who appeared on Masterchef. The rest of us never had a chance. At least Nigella liked my make-up.'
'The Taste', 9pm, Channel 4, from 7 January