Keeping things simple is the recipe for television success
I DON’T know about you but I have tired of cooking shows such as MasterChef, overproduced melodramas with their reality conventions, forced tears and competitions within competitions.
I liked it when it started because it seemed to reveal something of the power of television democracy, how spectacle and humanness can sometimes accidentally intermingle in a contrived, hardnosed commercial setting. But how bloated it’s become, its reality TV conventions strangling spontaneity, every moment too contrived to ever suggest actuality.
I prefer my food shows simple, sometimes meditative and useful. Most, but not all, are on pay-TV channels. All of the series featuring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rick Stein, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver remain popular, and all in their different ways are still fine, often innovative, TV.
Stein is always irresistible, no matter how many times you’ve seen his shows, especially his odysseys overseas where he so agreeably wears his gentle, slightly dotty Englishman-abroad hat. He’s brooding, full of literary allusions and endearingly fond of a drink.
Jamie at Home is Oliver at his best, eschewing his reality style social experiments and cooking in and around his garden on barbecues, his hands dirty and the food always looking deliciously rustic and hearty. He, too, has become a genuine TV star, alive with resonance for his audience.
Lawson is also brilliantly produced, and has perfected a supremely simple act. She’s the culinary Susan Sontag who can so eruditely mention Marcel Proust in the same breath as praline, producing, as the English like to say, posh nosh for girly intellectuals. And we would kill to be at one of those parties.
Fearnley-Whittingstall tends to get overlooked in the celebrity chef stakes, maybe because he’s too much of a crusader. For more than a decade he’s been on a mission to remind the supermarket generation about where food comes from, or indeed where it should come from, as well as the values of homegrown produce.
He’s 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.
More recently I’ve discovered Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers. He is, by his own account, a British cook who writes, the author of seven books and food columnist for The Observer for many years. And, like his books, his beautifully photographed TV series offers recipes, notes, and often almost poetic insights.
He’s an elegant writer, somewhat in the elegiac tradition of Elizabeth David, deceptively simple, his prose almost musical. His memoir of his boyhood, Toast, is told really through what he ate, and is wonderfully evocative. The first sentence is perfect: ‘ ‘ My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead.’’ He speaks like that on TV too.
Simple Suppers is j ust that: Slater unveiling a week’s worth of uncomplicated meals, though he also features four other practical recipes, one cooked on location away from his studio. He raids his cupboards, fridge and vegetable patch to show how, with a little imagination, everyday ingredients can produce results.
On the local front, there’s no stopping Luke Nguyen, owner and chef of acclaimed Sydney restaurant Red Lantern, and now a TV star. Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam, which recently concluded on SBS (a new series starts next year), was picked up by more than 50 territories when it debuted last year.
Matthew Evans’s Gourmet Farmer, now in its second season on SBS, is always worth a look, an engaging blend of cooking show, personal makeover and Boy’s Own adventure, the former food critic an unlikely, dorky hero.
And the ABC has a culinary winner, too, in Poh’s Kitchen, built around the Malaysian-born cook who won the hearts of Australia as runner-up on MasterChef.
Produced by the Adelaide inhouse team that created the lovely The Cook and the Chef, this irresistibly informal series is currently slightly rebranded as Poh’s Kitchen on the Road, with the captivating chef taking us for a culinary tour of Australia and its neighbours.
And the new show is a gorgeous example of how so many food shows have evolved into a beguiling hybrid of cooking demonstration and travel narrative. Poh’s a TV natural: sincere, intelligent and naturally curious.
But the best TV food show is the British series Come Dine with Me, where a group of people cook for each other for a modest cash prize. It’s TV’s zaniest social experiment, forcing people to mix with other, usually obnoxious, characters to see how they cope.
The contestants invariably present themselves as intimidating exemplars of self-esteem, discipline and ambition, but are usually revealed to be psychologically fragile by show’s end: deluded and desperate for affection and understanding at the end of their presentation.
Modestly conceived, it has been a smash hit internationally, quietly reinforcing cooking’s attachment to a living culture by taking the camera out of the studio and to the kitchens and dining tables — sometimes hastily improvised — of real people.
Occasionally, one of them is able to provide a good meal. But more frequently kitchen sinks collapse, desserts are tossed out of windows, cooks develop incapacitating migraines, smoke alarms go off and contestants find hairs in their soup; that is, if they’re not already too inebriated to see their plates.
Just as happens in real life.
There’s no stopping personable young chef Luke Nguyen
Nigella Lawson mixes culture and cooking