Chef rails at ‘poncey’ eateries
Delia Smith has spent her career bringing simple cooking into the homes of millions of Britons, once famously instructing people on the best way to boil an egg.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that for the veteran TV presenter, the joys of eating out have dissipated due to what she called the “very poncey, very chefy” culture of modern gastronomy. Smith, one of the nation’s favourite cooks, whose no-nonsense books are still the go-to staple of many a kitchen – and have sold more than 21m copies since 1971 – was made a Companion of Honour at Buckingham Palace yesterday.
Asked after the ceremony on whether there are any food fads or techniques she dislikes, she said: “If I get one more plate put in front of me with six dots of sauce on it, I will go mad. I can’t do it, I just can’t do it. The joy, years ago, of going to a really special restaurant and having a really special meal has gone. It is very hard to find one that isn’t trying to be theatre on a plate … I don’t like it all.” But food writers urged her to “get out more”, emphasising that the restaurant scene had changed in recent decades.
“When I moved to London in the late 1980s there was a choice of good-value Indian and Chinese restaurants and, at the other end, stiff dining rooms devoted to nouvelle cuisine. There was very little in between,” said the British food writer and broadcaster Diana Henry. “There is a problem caused by our modern love of the ‘new’ – well-established restaurants suffer in our Instagram culture, and they shouldn’t. But if you want to eat casually and explore food from all over the world, there has never been a better time,” she said. “Even lunch in Claridge’s was a chicken pie, a salad and a glass of wine.”
Adam Coghlan, London editor of the Eater, said contradicting Smith made him feel uneasy. “However, to say that all cookery nowadays is chefy and poncey is to ignore the most interesting chefs and the most interesting cookery,” he said.
“I don’t think Delia has looked very hard. There are countless restaurants of note reshaping what dining in the UK means that care much more about ingredients and their preparation than they do about theatre.”
Claudia Roden, cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist, said: “There are plenty of restaurants that serve good and sometimes great food that is not just theatre on a plate.”
Richard Ehrlich, the restaurant reviewer, said he recognised the type of cooking Smith condemned and shared some of her frustrations. “Those artfully composed plates often look a hell of a lot better than they taste,” he said. “But she’s missing two important points. One is that some of that ‘poncey, chefy’ cooking produces food of exceptional quality.
“Second, her complaint was far more legitimate 10 or 20 years ago than it is now. I get the impression that she hasn’t been to any of the places inspired by Spanish, Italian, Middle Eastern or North African cooking which emphasise bold flavour and relatively simple presentation. Maybe Delia – whom I admire enormously – needs to get out more.”
For Eleanor Maidment, food editor of Waitrose Kitchen, special meals aren’t always “marked by a plate of extraordinarily fussy, highly skilled technical cooking”. “There’s so much diversity now,” she said. “Somewhere like the Ritz is absolutely amazing, it’s a once every couple of years, and there’s a huge amount of skill going on in the kitchen that I can appreciate. But I wouldn’t choose to go and eat at places like that too often. There’s a movement towards more culturally and ethnically diverse restaurants at lower prices.
“For me eating out is also about the company, the wine, the service, even the music … We’ve been living in difficult economic times for many years now and the restaurant scene has been booming, because it’s a simple pleasure.”
Yesterday Smith also stressed that the focus of cooking should be on flavour and it was “very distressing” that the UK is now the most overweight country in Europe. The 76-year-old said she was “deeply, deeply honoured” to receive her award for services to cookery and collecting it from the Queen at the investiture ceremony had been “nerve-racking”. “Over the years I had such a wonderful response from people – in a way their response to what I was trying to do was what spurred me on do it. I think it belongs to them as well,” she said. But she said that despite the popularity of Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course and How to Cook – which spawned the phrase “the Delia effect” to describe a run on a product she had used – it was unlikely she would come up with another any time soon. Her recipes are more modishly online these days.
“There is not the need now to keep [cook] books,” she said. “I think there are far too many of them actually.”