THE OLD MENU AND THE SEA
WE first encountered Matthew Evans in 2005 in Heat in the Kitchen, the five-part fly-onthe-wall series that looked at why the restaurant critic, then arguably the most prominent in Australia, had suddenly been reinvented as a god.
Producer Ruth Cullen’s cameras entered the kitchens of three ambitious Sydney chefs while following the finicky Fairfax fault-finder as he did his rounds. The series dramatically revealed the daily dilemmas involved in running a highly rated restaurant — and the protracted heart attack chefs experienced when Evans turned up, sometimes without warning, taking notes and interrogating waiters.
Evans presented himself as a model of reasoned equilibrium, decent and modest, if a pedestrian performer on camera. In some ways, his decorum was reassuring given the amount of paranoia he created in kitchens. Thankfully, he didn’t fancy himself as a social commentator appealing to a mythical urban lifestyle they way his predecessor, renaissance Sydneysider Leo Schofield, once grandiosely did.
Unexpectedly, Evans reappeared a few years later, following the huge success of Network Ten’s MasterChef, in SBS’s Gourmet Farmer. Embarking on a new life in rural Tasmania, he was on a mission to remind the supermarket generation about where food really came from, or indeed where it should come from, as well as the value of homegrown produce.
The show’s premise was almost identical to that of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Channel 4 docudrama series Escape to River Cottage, in which the cook quit the bustle of London to live as a smallholder in a former gamekeeper’s cottage in Dorset. His aim was also self-sufficiency; along the way he became famous and very rich.
As Evans’s show developed into a permanent part of SBS’s yearly schedule he seemed to have been having just as much fun as Fearnley-Whittingstall in transforming his collection of mucky cowsheds and weedy garden beds into a welcoming rustic foodie’s venue in the gorgeous town of Cygnet. And as it developed I became rather fond of this modest program. It’s a lovely example of just how hybridised the reality factual TV format has become: a travel show with some superbly photographed Tasmanian scenery, a foodie series with cooking tips, demon- strations and recipes, and an intriguing personal life-changer program.
As we await another season from Puggle Farm, Evans has been busy filming a provocative three-part series highlighting the complex truth about the seafood we consume. The Essential Media series is directed by Stephen Oliver, the idiosyncratic and clever filmmaker who gave us the irreverent Chateau Chunder: A Wine Revolution, the revealing The Secret of Eurovision and the delightful Skippy: Australia’s First Superstar, the story of how the crime-fighting TV marsupial conquered the world.
In his new series, we see Evans as militant crusader in baggy jeans and a crumpled khaki shirt, feisty and a little pushy but never unmannerly, exasperated and, for a former critic, often lost for words, but grimly determined as he launches a campaign around seafood labelling. And at the same time he confronts some of his most cherished beliefs about food, nature and the Aussie “good life”.
Evans somewhat rhetorically asks a lot of questions, not surprised that many corporations and even celebrity chefs refuse to engage with his quizzical inquiries, shouting at one point in despair, “All I want is to start a conversation.”
In the first episode he ponders the consequences of our addiction to prawns, once a treat for special occasions but now one of our most popular seafood choices. What is the real cost of how they are produced? And with more than 70 per cent of our seafood imported, does sustainability come a distant second to the increasing demands of commercial production?
This is TV as social worker, an increasingly common variation on a theme, putting the med- ium in the service of good causes as a kind of representative of a collective social consciousness. As media academic Frances Bonner, author of the defining study of TV talkers Personality Presenters: Television’s Intermediaries with Viewers, has written, hosts such as Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver, Monty Don and now Evans can be seen as popular representatives of this moral conscience. They entertainingly take a position shared by a small section of the population and campaign to advance it more widely.
As presenters they work as social intermediaries to proselytise for a particular ethically based “art of living”. And rather than gain credibility by association with the good cause, they extend their existing credibility through it.
It represents a relatively new form of TV — the campaigning form, sometimes called “celebrity intervention shows”. For almost 30 years, of course, food presenters in particular have spoken evangelically about the preparation of fresh foods, and most recently sustainability and ethical sourcing of ingredients. Though just as many, some more popularly, have flouted the aggressive interventionists, such as Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson-Wright of Two Fat Ladies fame, and of course Nigella Lawson.
But we well know these interventionists are hardly traditional kinds of do-gooders; they tend to be cheeky, mischievous, often comic, entertainers, some of the best communicators on the plasma, with a profound understanding of the immediacy and ephemeral activity of TV.
TV atomises and compartmentalises information. Viewers happily ignore its almost limitless capacity to manipulate, to wrench from context, and its resistance to units of meaning larger than the sound bite or the short grab.
“I was very aware of the need to make this entertaining as well as informative,” Oliver says. “There is no way you can mobilise people power, which is essentially what we are trying to do, without getting them to emotionally connect with the story. Ultimately the issue is all about trying to improve labelling laws on seafood, which didn’t sound very exciting at first, so we had to work out how to hook the audience into the reasons behind what I hope appears in the end to be blindingly obvious. But I always try to keep telling myself it is so much more effective to show, not tell.”
The series works so well because Oliver and Evans understand TV attracts viewers through practical interest, brief flashes of content, emotional appeal and, increasingly, celebrity voyeurism and schadenfreude. Our interventionists, often confronting complex scientific notions, use the same narrative ideas as fictional TV, relating issues to everyday experience and, of course, entertaining us with reference to unusual facts, creating a positive sensationalism.
And that’s what Evans does here as presenter. Normally a dry, rather wry, phlegmatic character, here he’s constantly on the move before the often hand-held cameras of cinematographers Paul Costello and Aaron Smith, bustling and hustling, seemingly never with time to change out of those baggy blue jeans and khaki long-sleeved shirt as he hurtles around Australia and Asia.
He’s in and out of boats and trawlers, wading in putrid prawn farm ponds in Thailand, upending boxes of fish on Asian wharves, striding through supermarkets, and driving through steaming jungles, all to an accompanying soundtrack from David McCormack and Alejandro Gomez-Sanchez that seems to drive him along like the music from The Bourne Supremacy. At times it reminds — though it’s not really like — of that bevy of nervous percussion counterpointing the tense staccato string motif that follows Matt Damon as he circumnavigates the globe to clear his name.
“We scripted the journey of where to go, and I had of course spoken to all the people we meet on the way in advance, but Matthew hadn’t, so those meetings on camera were very natural for him,” says Oliver.
“And crucially Matthew is a smart man who cares about where our food comes from so he got more and more engaged as the series progressed and more and more knowledgeable. And I feel that authenticity really shines through. We worked hard on the tone. It’s vital not to hector people, not to preach and not to patronise.”
One thing is certain: after watching this brilliant show you’ll never want to look a prawn in the eye again now you know where it has been.
Matthew Evans in