When ABC's new cooking competition show kicks off Tuesday at 8/7c, Bourdain and three other judges — British TV cook Nigella Lawson, Ludo Bites America's Ludo Lefebvre and former Top Chef competitor Brian Malarkey — will taste-test one bite of food from each of 29 hopefuls competing for one of only 16 spots on the judges' teams. But the tastings will be conducted blind, which means the judges won't know if a professional chef or a self-taught home cook prepared the dish.
For Bourdain, the most effective dishes elicited an emotional response, much like the scene in the animated film Ratatouille, in which a world-weary food critic is transported to his childhood after tasting one mouthful of rustic ratatouille. "[That's] the Holy Grail of the show," Bourdain, who consulted on the Pixar film, said at ABC's winter previews. "The cooks who could figure out what our ratatouille was were the ones who were going to do well. That was part of the challenge [of] what I would advise my team: 'Make those jaded sons of b----es cry.' We're four very jaded palates, and I think the cooks that figured that out were the ones who did well. These are people who have eaten a lot of food. Truffle oil is not going to work on these people."
Once the teams are chosen, the judges mentor the cooks for the next round of blind tastings, which will lead to an elimination for the worst bite of food. That means that the judges could potentially eliminate one of their own team members. "We were all very emotionally involved with the progress of this show. That was the surprise to me; that I ended up giving a sh--," Bourdain admitted. "I love my team. I would stand there that first day and look around and thought, 'I don't think I could bear it if any of them would ever go home,' which of course, at least three of them in the best-case scenario are going to have to. It was horrible. I hated it! I became the biggest wuss immediately. So as the show progressed, it became agonizing. It was brutal."
But even though the blind tastings created a special sort of torture for the sentimental judges, they were necessary to make the competition fair. "Non-professionals really had as clean a crack at the gold as professionals," Bourdain said. "Technique wasn't going to help you really. ... In fact, in some challenges, the professionals would trip themselves up by trying to dazzle. They'd overthink or over-intellectualize, whereas the home cooks would try to make the judges happy.
"Some of the challenges ... like a comfort food challenge was obviously in a zone where a home cook is just as likely to be good at it as a professional," he continued. "There was one challenge where it was just a slaughterfest, where everybody across the board just really had a hard time with it. There was just a lot of weeping and rending of garments. I'm talking about the judges."
The identity of the cook isn't the only mystery the judges faced. Despite the decades in the kitchen, multiple cook books, and several restaurants among the four, it was still difficult for them to know exactly what they were putting in their mouths. "We were all really good at the most sophisticated elements of the food I think, like identifying flavors and exotic ingredients," Bourdain said. "What we were occasionally really bad at was identifying basic proteins. Like, 'Is it chicken or fish?' So a lot of things shook out in surprising ways."
Check out this preview of The Taste, which airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC: