The cooking competition "The Taste" returns tonight to ABC for its third season. The series introduced blind tasting of food to reality competitions--judges don't know whose food they're eating or even what's in the dish. It also brought Anthony Bourdain to a big, bright, glossy ABC reality show.

The star of Travel Channel's Emmy-winning "No Reservations" and now CNN's "Parts Unknown" seems like perhaps the last person to gravitate to a "The Voice"-like competition for food, but when we talked Wednesday, one day before he was heading to Madagascar for "Parts Unknown," he was clearly, unabashedly enthusiastic about the series, which he also executive produces.

When I asked about whether skeptical fans have now warmed to "The Taste" and his participation, Bourdain said, "I honestly don't think about. It's always a quality of life issue for me. Am I having fun? Am I working with people I like? It is it interesting to me? I very much understand that a big network competitive reality show is not going to appeal to a certain number of people who really like Kitchen Confidential or are fans of 'Parts Unknown'. I'm a guy with a lot of interests. As I've said before, this bus makes many stops; I don't expect everybody to get off on all of them."

"What I hope comes through in the show is how much fun we're having, how invested we are in the contestants very quickly," Bourdain added. "Very quickly we bond with not just the people on our teams, but you start to take a real interest and concern in some cooks on the rival teams who presumably we shouldn't care about, but we do. We all become very involved in the game and our passionate discussions and even arguments continue long after the work day's over."

For season two, the show fired "Top Chef" Brian Malarkey and replaced him with Marcus Samuelsson, and that, along with several other changes, improved the show significantly.

Bourdain acknowledged the difference, saying, "everybody clicked so much last year" and said "it really is like going away to chef camp" for the four judge/mentors, who "continue talking about how things are going with the game after the cameras stop rolling," he said. "That conversation continues if we go out for Korean barbecue, or Vietnamese, or Mexican, or wherever we're eating in Los Angeles. It's like slipping back into a warm bath for us."

Since season one, Bourdain's friend Nigella Lawson has been a mentor and judge, and together they also serve as executive producers. "Our principal concern is and always was a general shaping of the challenges," he told me. "That they wouldn't be silly or novelty challenges, they would have an application in the real world, that they would reflect our own natures and experiences. They wouldn't be nonsensical."

Interview continued on page 2.