PASADENA -- A meal can be a fine dining experience or a gastronomic nightmare. The new ABC reality competition series, "The Taste," will determine, with one single bite, which end of the culinary scale a chef's dish belongs.
It premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22.
Chef/author Anthony Bourdain, British food star Nigella Lawson, chef/author Ludo Lefebvre and chef/restaurateur Brian Malarkey put their taste buds to the test when 16 culinary competitors -- from professionals to home cooks -- whip up a speciality that's delivered on a spoon.
Bourdain, Lawson, Lefebvre and Malarkey coach teams of four cooks and then at the end of each episode sample the dishes with no knowledge of who cooked which tidbit. There's a chance a chef and mentor could send home one of their own team.
Malarkey's maverick approach to food has been an instant success as evident by how popular his San Diego restaurants -- Searsucker, Burlap, Gingham, Gabardine and Herringbone -- have become in less than two years. He is one of the mentor/judges because his approach is so different from the others.
"We are a million light years away from each other," Malarkey says. "We have Ludo who is definitely very Frenchie. We have the wonderful British princess in Nigella and then you have the hardened traveler in Anthony Bourdain. Then I'm the happy-go-lucky California boy.
"The fact you can take these four different taste buds, who like different types of food, and whittle us down to one winner is pretty incredible."
The competition will come down to whether it's better to make a simple or complicated dish -- and which ingredients the competitors choose.
Lawson, whose books "Nigella Kitchen," "Nigella Fresh" and "How to Eat" have sold more than six million copies worldwide, is a champion of the home cook. One thing that makes her mad during the judging is when a fellow judge suggests that a dish that tastes great has to be the work of a professional chef.
"I don't like fancy foods, so I'm obviously going to go for people who have a simpler approach," Lawson says.
As for judging based on one spoonful of food, Lawson points out that it isn't just how good or bad it tastes but the sample offers an insight into judgments a cook makes, such as keeping in mind a dish will get cold or only works as a big plate. That spoonful for her is an honest representation of a cook's abilities and tastes.
Bourdain, best known for traveling the globe with "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" and "The Layover," saw during the audition process how far over the top a chef can go with added ingredients.
One dish was layers and layers of "ridiculous flavors." Bourdain laughs and says that putting a cherry on top doesn't automatically make things better.
The rule of thumb for Bourdain is that a simple, good thing is hard to beat.
Malarkey says how complicated a dish can be starts with the central ingredient.
"If you have something very delicate, less is more. If you have something that's hardier -- like a piece of steak or pork -- you can put more flavor in there and give it more personality," Malarkey says. "It's a whole different thing when you close your eyes and take a bite of something. We are all just used to food as nourishment and we forget about the subtle flavors and tastes and textures that are going on in that spoon.
"When you start going to the acidity, the fattiness, the crunch, it's amazing. All of our taste buds got better by the end of the show."
Among the cooks who will go through the audition process in the first two episodes is Buchanan High School grad Lauren Scott. The 24-year-old -- who regularly appeared in local community theater productions with Good Company Players at Roger Rocka's, Children's Musical Theaterworks, and CenterStage Clovis, has a journalism/nutrition degree from Cal Poly.