OUT OF THE BOX
Graeme Blundell picks his favourite television chefs
AS Nigella Lawson once famously said, ‘‘ Cooking is the new rock ’ n’ roll.’’ And it’s easy to see, as we salivate on our sofas in front of the television, how food preparation is losing its attachment to a living culture and turning into entertainment.
The abundance of TV chefs probably confuses as much as it assists anyone at home trying to learn the subtleties of cooking, or efficient careful preparation. But the rest of us drool like slobberhounds over the populist, telegenic foodie flirts on the screen, soaking up their subliminal message about money, self-esteem and an elusively elegant lifestyle.
The best ones, I think, are not necessarily those who change the eating habits of nations, but the ones who understand and exploit the medium, such as Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. These testosterone-fuelled, gabby guys are redefining the meaning of cooking. Talking about food has greatly expanded the nature of lifestyle programming as well. Cable channels, such as LifeStyle Food, are now devoted to cooks pushing the envelope, both culinary and showbiz.
The brazen celebrity chefs, dozens of them, seem to cycle around endlessly. Ramsay says he hates being labelled a celebrity chef and has little interest in seeing ‘‘ this scrawny, crinkly, wrinkled face like the map of Wales’’ on the screen. But he is practically omnipresent on pay TV. He seems to have been invented by Jerry Bruckheimer as a foodie version of his cop show aesthetic, all explosive angles, extreme close-ups, and rapid-fire editing. There is a mental acuteness at work with Ramsay, stylised, sophisticated, contrived psychological attention-grabbing.
Ravaged Keith Floyd, failing restaurateur turned telly chef, continues to pop up, but the shabby drunk act quickly becomes tedious, although he was the first whose demonstrations didn’t insist on telling us how much flour to the nearest gram was required. Gary Rhodes stacks food too much, his thin voice eventually grates, and there’s too much produce-caressing. Which you don’t get with the earthy Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his River Cottage series (LifeStyle Food). Fearnley-Whittingstall is altogether darker than the more visible and aspirational chefs, uncompromisingly committed to real food and wild produce, but he’s not for those who regard eating nettles and shooting squirrels for the pot as simply appalling.
These days, cheeky Oliver is no joke. Beginning his career as the Naked Chef, he is in for the long haul; he has an implicit understanding of television, and his recipes work . He, too, has become a genuine TV star, alive with resonance for his audience. I wonder each time I see him about his attitude to reticence and privacy, but none of it seems to worry him. Yet in Jamie’s Italy , he openly pondered his pact with the old celebrity malarky, slagging paparazzi lurking in the street as he hooked a portable kitchen on to the back of his restored 1956 hippie campervan. ‘‘ Don’t cry,’’ he admonished his weeping wife Jools as she farewelled him, cameras whirring. ‘‘ Not with the pap up yer arse . . . you’ve just made ’ em 50 grand.’’
Presently I’minfatuated with the gentle Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa (LifeStyle Food) and the way the sweet-faced, no-nonsense Garten is always reflecting on the flavours of what we ate in the ’ 60s, and finding new ways of creating them. ‘‘ Real food based on memories,’’ is her mantra, and she has the kind of seductive voice that takes you back to past places you don’t necessarily want to visit. She leaves Lawson in the pantry, for me. Depending on who you speak to, Lawson is a younger, culinary Susan Sontag, or the foodie’s Anna Nicole-Smith.
I feel vindicated in having dumped the domestic goddess when I saw her on Parkinson recently. The breasts might be a soft pillow, but ‘‘ She looks messy,’’ my wife remarked disdainfully. ‘‘ You just know her collar wouldn’t be ironed.’’
I had given Lawson a clandestine whirl, cooking up her tagliatelle with duck and grapes when my wife was at her book club. I ripped pieces of duck off the bone with my fingers, licking them lasciviously as I watched myself reflected in the kitchen window and sensuously pan-fried the morsels with the grapes and pasta. It turned out to be an inedible, greasy dud.
Rick Stein remains the best of the TV chefs, whether it’s re-runs of his early seafood shows, his brilliant Food Heroes or the wonderful travelogue and cooking demonstration, Rick Stein’sFrench Odyssey , which is more than anything else a culinary reverie.
Dismissively described by one critic as being as boring as ‘‘ a plateful of smoked haddock, poached egg and mashed potatoes’’, Stein is certainly earthy and calmly ordinary . He’s about food that can’t be hurried, an approach, he once said, ‘‘ that’s not for those who peel prawns with a knife and fork’’. Graeme Blundell is TheAustralian ’ s television critic.
Cook and more: Clockwise from top left, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; Rick Stein; Gary Rhodes; Nigella Lawson; Jamie Oliver; and Ina Garten