Box­ing clever

Keep­ing things sim­ple is the recipe for tele­vi­sion suc­cess

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - GRAEME BLUNDELL

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

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