Delia Smith

Chef rails at ‘pon­cey’ eater­ies

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Na­dia Khomami Delia Smith cook­ing at her beloved Nor­wich City in 2010. The chef, writer and TV pre­sen­ter be­came a Com­pan­ion of Hon­our yes­ter­day Pho­to­graph: Al­ban­pix/Rex

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.”

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