Forget Hollywood week.
Culinary auditions are finally over for Anthony Bourdain's new cooking competition, which pits home cooks and pros against one another in a battle of spoons. The new reality TV show shifts into competition mode tonight as four teams duke it out in comfort food challenges -- and two competitors are sent packing.
Cue the dramatic music, because thiiiis --dramatic pause -- is "The Taste."
The first challenge has the chef-mentors in the kitchen with their teams, coaching them through the first comfort food challenge: Make something wonderful with bacon, cheese and eggs.
The best spoon from each quartet will be judged by Gabrielle Hamilton, chef of New York City's Prune and author of "Blood, Bones & Butter." The winner gets Hamilton's help in the team kitchen and immunity in the elimination challenge, when the mentors -- Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Brian Malarkey and Ludo Lefebvre -- do a blind taste test to decide who's going home.
"The risk of eliminating cooks from our own team is very real," Bourdain tells us. "Our pride is on the line."
"We're coming for you, Ludo!" Malarkey crows from his team's kitchen.
Comfort food, take one
The chefs offer tips and critiques as their teams work on bacony, cheesy dishes. Bourdain tells his team to "keep flavors simple. Don't make it too pretty."
Food blogger Sarah is racing around, long hair flying as Ludo hollers at her. Her work station looks like -- OK, it sounded like he said Baghdad. It's certainly a debris strewn mess -- and later, it will be a flaming, debris-strewn mess. Just you wait.
The hour quickly ticks down as contestants taste their teammates' food and decisions are made on which spoons to present to guest judge Hamilton.
"It's a group decision and I made it," Malarkey announces, picking Jeff's macaroni and cheese. Nigella's group chooses Lauren's chicken stew, while Bourdain goes with Ninamarie's couscous. Ludo chooses Sarah's mac and cheese and screams, "Plate it! Plate it! PLATE IT!!!!!"
Hamilton anoints Lauren the winner, a pronouncement that makes Lauren shriek with joy, while teammate Diana -- the New York restaurant consultant with the super-sized ego -- snipes, "You want to turn her over and shake her."
Now the cooks are on their own, cooking up a new round of comfort food, sans ingredient restrictions. There are dishes of every type, from Diana's Korean-inspired bibimbap with a quail egg to Renatta's apple butter crumble. Khristianne has made a seafood chowder with coconut milk, while Uno works on sticky chicken wings under a steady barrage of trash talk from teammate Diana.
"She's a bitch on wheels," Uno says. "Are we Team Diane now?"
Sarah, the only home cook in a team of professional chefs, has managed to set a paper towel on fire while working on a shrimp and grits dish. Just as a teammate says Sarah likes to play the damsel-in-distress role, she hoists the flaming towel in the air and says, "Oh! I'm on fire. What do I do with it?" The teammate grabs the towel and douses it in the sink. Moments later, Sarah hoists a second flaming paper towel -- and moments later a THIRD. She finally moves the stack of towels away from the gas range. Ahem.
Spoons don't lie
As the judges begin tasting, the 16 competitors line up to eavesdrop, literally behind their backs. Diane may be cocky but that massive ego seems to be backed up by considerable skill. "Bring me another spoon of this," Nigella says in tones of utter delight.
Khristianne's seafood chowder wins raves as well. Bourdain says, "Comfort food? I want to order a very expensive bottle of wine and crash a Ferrari."
Then it's into-the-chutes time for seven cooks -- the three best and four worst of the bunch. Sarah and Khristianne score high, but Team Bourdain's Diane takes top honors.
"Give me five seconds of gloating," Bourdain tells his fellow judges.
The bottom four include Micah and his bland Mediterranean chicken stew, Renatta for a forgettable apple crumble, and Shawn who is righteously indignant about his under-seasoned West Indian curry -- he says that's the way it's served in the Caribbean, but we suspect he's mad because teammate Gregg warned him it needed salt. Lauren's first-time Shepherd's Pie also got the thumbs-down.
"Today was a very, very good day to have immunity," Bourdain tells her as she exits weeping.
Backstage, the competitors debate who's going home. As Micah's teammates predict his departure, Khristianne says, "Why do you guys have a smile on your face? You're not a good person." Which makes us love her more.
Indeed, it's Micah and Renatta heading sadly home -- and we're surprised to discover that just three weeks in, we're sad too.
Next time: Fourteen cooks remain and wine is imbibed -- many, many glasses of it.