BEIRUT: Can it be possible that “The Taste” is only just coming to the Middle East, a place where food isn’t just something you eat, but a daily way of life? After two runs in the U.S. and a version earlier this year in the U.K., filming is underway in Cairo for an Arab edition of the highly successful cooking competition TV show. It is due to be aired at the end of 2014 on An-Nahar TV – and perhaps predictably, two out of four of the judges are half-Lebanese.
The first pick is obvious. Anissa Helou, the 62-year-old giant of Middle Eastern cuisine, has arguably done more to introduce the rest of the world to Levant food than anyone else in her field, and her cookbooks have won multiple awards. Distinguished by her shock of gray and white hair, she grew up in Lebanon with her Syrian father and Lebanese mother before leaving just before the Civil War, and has since become a household name for chefs and food-lovers alike.
For some, however, the second Lebanese choice may seem more obscure. Bethany Kehdy, a 30-something U.S.-Lebanese “home cook,” may not be as well-known as Helou, but she is part of the contemporary vanguard of Middle Eastern food culture. She runs the popular Dirty Kitchen Secrets food blog, an international conference called Food Blogger Connect and Taste Lebanon, which organizes gourmet culinary tours of the country.
She is also the perfect antithesis to Helou, offering up a fresher, more modern take on old classics and an emphasis on using your senses rather than precise measurements in a book.
“I’m thrilled about being asked to be a mentor on ‘The Taste,’” Kehdy told The Daily Star. “I’ve watched the U.S. and U.K. versions before and think it’s a top-class show that if produced correctly is great at engaging the audience and driving home a message close to my heart – it’s all about ‘the taste!’”
Although she has never mentored someone before, Kehdy admitted she had had plenty of practice with her three younger siblings, all of whom have presumably been infected by her unshakeable belief in the importance of knowing how to cook.
“Yes, I think cooking is an art,” she said. “But before that ... it’s a necessity for survival. Therefore, everyone should learn to cook, just like everyone learns to communicate ... we should all want some basic cooking skills and food knowledge for ourselves and our children.”
But Kehdy will not be the only one jostling to make her philosophy heard. She will star alongside not just Helou, but also 25-year-old Saudi Mona Mosly, and 30-year-old Egyptian Alaa al-Sherbini, who has his own cooking show at home.
So what does Kehdy think she will add to the mix?
“Well, my own personality,” she said with a smile. “Also, I’m a proud ‘home’ cook. I’m confident in my culinary skills and think I’m a good example that one does not need to go to culinary school to learn how to cook ... or become skilled in the kitchen.
“An appreciation for good taste, curiosity and a genuine love for food and learning are ample to get you started,” she said. “I hope that my teammates and viewers will feel that I bring a sense of realness and can-do attitude, especially in a world that these days can sometimes feel dominated by what I may refer to as the “tyranny of chefs,” the ones – not all – that look down on the untrained cooks, as though the world never managed to eat properly before their arrival.”
“So, I hope I’ll show a no-frills side to food, no unnecessary showing off. It’s about real, genuine, wonderfully tasting, unadulterated food.”
And it’s this sort of attitude that she will be looking for in a winning contestant, someone who is “humble” but also “bold and creative.”
“They’ve also got to be humble and ready to work hard and learn,” she explained. “The only place for grandiosity in the kitchen is on a plate. “But I also admire cooks that are creative, adventurous, [cooks that] don’t get stuck in the textbook world. It’s not really about the ‘chef’ or the ‘great’ idea/concept. At the end of the day, it’s about the food and all else surrenders to the taste.”