OUT OF THE BOX

Graeme Blun­dell picks his favourite television chefs

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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

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