Monday, January 28, 2013

The Taste

I'm a sucker for a good cooking competition show. I watch Chopped and Iron Chef (the original and the American version) religiously and I watch Master Chef and Top Chef when I can. Last week I watched the pilot episode of The Taste (Tuesday Nights on ABC). In the show, both professional chefs and home cooks competed side by side. Each were given the task of preparing the perfect bite of a dish of their choice. The judges (Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, Ludo Lefebvre, and Brian Malarkey) had to make a decision based on that bite, and that bite alone, on whether or not they wanted the cook to compete on their team. The best part is that the tasting is done blind. The judges don't know what the dish is or who cooked it.

I was pleasantly surprised (which seems to be a growing trend for me) but not by the food. Don't get me wrong, many of the dishes were things that I'd love to taste myself. However, as good as that was and for as many times I said "oh my gosh someone needs to invent-smell-o-vision," the stand out aspect of the show was the judges reactions. Some of the more sophisticated, gastro pub-ish dishes that I was sure would be loved by all, were panned across the board as being un-original or lacking a bit of _____. There were also several bites where the judges couldn't identify the components. These are all well travelled individuals with experienced and perhaps even refined palates. Heck, after nine seasons of No Reservations, there isn't much that Anthony Bourdain hasn't put in his mouth. If anyone could identify an obscure ingredient, it should be him. So when he and the other judges couldn't identify Chilean sea bass, I was taken aback. This isn't a rare ingredient. How could they not know?

Well apparently, it's a lot harder than anyone could have predicted. After much consideration, I concluded that their befuddlement wasn't due to any fault on the judges' part but the unexpected result of the blind tasting. Because so many foods have equally tasty cousins, unless you've got the taste buds of a sommelier, it can be really hard to tell the difference between Atlantic cod and Chilean sea bass, for instance. While the mystery aspect was one of the show's biggest draws, and certainly its most interesting twist, it meant that in many cases, the judges couldn't give the dishes the merit that it deserved. How could they judge if an ingredient was cooked properly if they didn't know what that ingredient was? There were several instances where as soon as they were told what the dish was, they understood it and therefore wanted its creator on their team. Unfortunately, by then they'd already logged in their vote and it was too late to change their minds.

Another interesting development was that more home cooks were chosen than professionals. The dishes prepared by the professional chefs stood out from the others because their mastery of certain cooking techniques or their knife skills gave them away. As soon as the judges picked up on it, they instantly held the chefs to a higher standard. Any flaw, whether it was a lack of acidity or not enough salt, was enough to send them home. But if those flaws were in a dish made by someone who was obviously a home cook, most of the time they let it slide.

It occurred to me that because of these two elements, the show has something in common with publishing. Like the show's contestants, we spend a great deal of time and put an equal amount of thought into our creations. Because of that we have a lot of faith in our work and have a lot of hopes riding on it as well. There's nothing wrong with that. It's human nature. What I do find to be wrong is reacting negatively to rejection. Some of the contestants cursed and stormed off while others graciously accepted the criticism and vowed to do better in the future. Again, both reactions are normal for the situation, but where I feel that the former erred was that they either forgot or didn't realize that their reaction was our final and most lasting impression. Lets theorize for a moment that a restaurant owner looking for a new executive chef watched the show. I think it's pretty clear which contestant would have a better shot at that position. No one wants to work with a jerk.

It's the same with agents, editors, colleagues, readers, and everyone else involved in the publishing industry. If you're nice, professional, and a likable person in general, you'll get a lot farther. It may not necessarily get you published, but it will get you farther. I've lost count of the number of books I've bought just because the author was really nice. Also in the example I mentioned earlier, we also saw this effectiveness of this on The Taste when the judges liked a dish after they met and spoke with its creator.

I realize that none of these revelations are earth shattering, but I always think it's interesting how many parallels can be drawn between creative pursuits of any kind.

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