Bee Wilson tells TV cooks to stop bragging
Food - Bragging among TV chefs has reached Mussolini-like proportions
When cooking at home, you do not, as a rule, announce every single dish you produce as the finest ever made. You do not, when sampling your own food, sigh ecstatically before saying: "Look at the beautiful golden crust on this steak-and-kidney pie" and "feel the silky texture of those mashed potatoes" and "just taste the gorgeous caramelisation effect I achieved with those carrots" and "notice all the lovely, gutsy flavours in the salad dressing". Most home cooks begin by apologising. So why is it that TV chefs boast all the time, slavering over the most mediocre collations as if they were catnip to a cat?
Bragging about one's own food on TV has now reached Mussolini-like proportions. One sign of the times is that several newspaper reviewers recently commented on Rick Stein's astonishing modesty after he made a rather fine-looking langoustine tart and said how good it was, only to blush, quite understandably, and admit how embarrassing it was to boast about one's own food.
Stein is a rarity indeed in the current climate of food hyperbole, when to give away that one has cooked anything less than an unforgettable, aphrodisiacal spectacular, even when the dish in question is ordinary white sauce, is seen as career suicide. This phenomenon reached its nadir in a meretricious programme entitled The Best, recently broadcast on BBC2. Here, three hip young foodies - two boys and a girl - competed in a trendy kitchen to cook "the best" version of a particular thing - chicken, say, or pasta, or chocolate pudding. Three more hip young foodies would then taste their offerings and text-message back which one they liked most.
Throughout the proceedings, the three cooks would constantly talk up their own dishes as the most stupendous thing ever eaten by man or beast. This would have been fairly hard to take in any case, and doubly so as much of the food - chicken wings baked in lurid jerk seasoning, fish cakes flavoured with bottled mint sauce - looked faintly emetic. On the few occasions when a dish really did look good, it was usually stolen from the River Cafe or the Sugar Club - debts which were never acknowledged because doing so might have interrupted the stage-managed festival of egos.
How different from the glory days of the great Keith Floyd, when producers were yelled at on camera and dishes went flying off windy fishing boats. The other week, we revisited one of his finest moments, in a gripping programme called The Way We Cooked, a history of British TV chefs across the decades.
Floyd was cooking in the kitchen of a rather severe-looking, grey-haired Basque woman, trying to show us how to make a piperade, that classic mixture of eggs, onions, tomatoes, fat and peppers. Everything Floyd did met with the disapproval of his hostess. Why, she berated him in French, had he laid out all his ingredients in little dishes? No local person, she complained, would ever do this. Floyd translated all this for the camera with good humour.
Then he started cooking, in that rather hasty way the camera requires. All the while the lady stood by tut-tutting. She tried to refuse a taste of the finished dish - she had seen how it was made, so she knew it would be no good - but finally, with a look of disgust on her face, she took a mouthful and gave him hell. The peppers were undercooked, the eggs were overcooked, the seasoning was all wrong. Still smiling, Floyd tasted it himself and agreed completely, declaring it to be like ghastly British Rail scrambled eggs. At last, she made a proper piperade for him, creamy and unctuous, which he pronounced wonderful.
How much better TV, and how much better food this was, than all the empty kitchen boasting we now get.