The fightback begins here. Nigella Lawson makes her comeback this week as the champion of Britain’s amateur cooks.
She does so by launching an attack on professional chefs in a new television series beginning on Tuesday.
Miss Lawson’s latest television vehicle The Taste is a competition which essentially combines Masterchef with the X Factor.
The programme, which runs for 10 weeks, sees professional chefs and amateur cooks compete against each other in blind taste testings, presided over by Miss Lawson and two fellow judges.
In the first episode, to be broadcast on Channel 4 on Tuesday, Miss Lawson — described in the show as an “award-winning food writer and culinary superstar” — takes sideswipes at over-elaborate, professional chefs.
“Chefs obviously have a lot of experience, they have got techniques, they have training,” she says in episode one. “But actually home cooks are so used to thinking of food in terms of flavour we are not so easily distracted by trying to do something clever.”
Later in the programme she castigates a professional chef. “This competition is called The Taste and palate is so much more important than dexterity and technical know-how,” she declares.
At another point, Miss Lawson, 53, asks: “Why do people always think home cooks are not good cooks?”
Her insistence that amateurs are often better than professionals drew a sharp rebuke last night. Jason Atherton, a Michelin-starred chef with three critically-acclaimed restaurants in London, said: “I think Nigella is a million miles away from where she needs to be.”
Mr Atherton, widely recognised as one of the best chefs in the country and about to star in My Kitchen Rules, a rival cookery competition on Sky Living, added: “Nigella has never been a professional chef. When people go out to dinner they don’t want just nice tasting pasta with a tomato sauce. These people are paying for Michelin-starred chefs to create an experience.”
The Taste, unlike its BBC rival Masterchef, pits amateurs against professionals.
The series is expected to be a hit, given the headlines attracted by Miss Lawson over the past year, beginning with images of her then husband, Charles Saatchi, with his hands around her throat at a restaurant and ending with an admission in court that she took cocaine.
The American version of The Taste, now on its second series, has already been a success across the Atlantic.
Miss Lawson’s spokesman has said that the television cook has seen her popularity soar despite — or possibly because of — the grilling she received in the witness box at the trial of two sisters found not guilty of fraud.
Miss Lawson has been widely perceived as the victim of a feud with her ex-husband and her admission that on very rare occasions she took cocaine at difficult times in her life has apparently not harmed her standing.
The first episode of The Taste begins with X Factor-style auditions in which 25 competitors — a mix of professionals and amateurs — compete to reach the final 12 and the knockout stage.
Half have “no professional experience” but fare as well as — if not better than — their trained rivals. Miss Lawson and her fellow judges — Anthony Bourdain and Ludo Lefebvre — each pick four contestants to mentor. One is then knocked out each week before the final.
It is fair to say that Miss Lawson appears to favour amateur cooks, even without knowing who are amateurs and who are professionals. At one point in the first episode, she picks for her team a “home cook” over an executive chef in a top London restaurant.
The programme also differs from Masterchef in that the judges blind taste the food which is served to them only on a spoon. They have no idea who has served the food.
“My life is in this spoon,” declares Kelly, 32, a cookery teacher from Bristol, the first contestant in the opening episode. She served tea-smoked duck breast, sprouts, pickled cherries and chocolate.
Readers of Private Eye familiar with its spoof column “Me and My Spoon” might recoil while viewers will have to tune in to see if Kelly is picked by Miss Lawson.
Last week, in her first television interview to publicise the US version of The Taste, Miss Lawson said of her court ordeal: “My only desire, really, was to protect my children as much as possible which, alas, I couldn’t always do.
“To have not only your private life but distortions of your private life put on display is mortifying, but there are people going through an awful lot worse.”
“The Taste” will be broadcast on Tuesdays at 9pm from January 7 on Channel 4.