Essay

A cook's life

Start off with a young woman walking up the steps to her apartment building, juggling handbag, computer, briefcase and shopping while she presses in the code that will open the door, walking through the bland carpeted silence of the foyer and going up in the lift to her apartment, undoing the several deadlocks, still juggling bags, dropping them on the coffee table. She loves her apartment, small sitting room, tiny bedroom, large marble bathroom, so elegant, so tasteful, so much her space, minimalist but comfortable. She pours herself a glass of red wine, opens the cupboard with the microwave and sink in it, and puts a slice of pizza in the microwave to heat up. You're supposed to be able to wrap it in paper towels and have it come out as if it's been freshly cooked but whatever she tries it ends up soggy or somehow stale. She tries not to let it be redolent of group houses and forgotten pizza growing mould in cardboard boxes under piles of discarded clothing, a way of life now also most happily discarded. The red wine is a good one; taste that instead.

So, what's this? Is it an extract from my new chick lit novel? Or is it a poignant little urban tragedy? Maybe even an urban myth?

Here's another: the young woman picking up her children from crèche, late as usual but there was a crisis at work. She was going to cook some vegetables and make a pasta sauce but no time. The kids will love KFC. She knows that the "F" in KFC stands for fried, but just this once (another once) won't hurt. She pours herself a glass of white from the cask in the fridge, a good one it is, two-litre, and says to the children that, all right, they can eat out of the packet. Just this once.

The next paragraph in both scenarios is the turning on of the television. Settle back, take a good swig of wine, and watch Celebrity Chef. Pick up the copy of the gourmet magazine you bought at the shops and flick through the pages.

The television program might not be called precisely that but that is what it will be about – some famous person telling people eating rubbish how to cook amazing food. There is a paradox here. The more we eat takeaway and junk food at home and the less we cook for ourselves – to the point of building luxury apartments without kitchens – the more rampantly do programs and magazines and books about food proliferate. As if we are becoming a nation of virtual eaters. Unfortunately we are not getting thin 
on this diet.

 

BUT THOUGH WE BANDY ABOUT THE NOTION OF CELEBRITY CHEFS, they are not often in fact very celebrated at all. They may achieve a certain celebrity by being featured on programs posited on their having it, but it is much more a matter of gimmicks than of fame. The most truly brilliant of cooks are not household names. And none of them rates on the real celebrity scale, which is the extent to which their marital woes make headlines. The real test is the marital headlines. Do we find food people in all the monosyllabic glory of their pet names on the front pages of our newspapers, denying or confessing that they have cheated on their spouses?

The standard here is Posh and Becks. Somebody like me who knows nothing about football and less about popular music recognises them instantly. Charles and Di don't do too badly, specially considering how long she's been dead. Next might be Jen and Brad, though there we are rather more likely to say who? unless we are avid readers of Who Weekly. Jen and Ben?, otherwise known as Bennifer: their antics can be grotesque, but hardly front page. What about Jamie and Jules? Maybe, in certain circumstances, Britain's Naked Chef and the wife, who turned up sometimes on the telly with him while she was still a fiancée, might command a small headline were they to break up. But if I said: "Shock, horror, Jill and Tel to part" or "‘She cheated on me,' says Chris of Mags", only the cognoscenti would know what I was talking about. And even they wouldn't, because Terry's and Maggie's names aren't abbreviated into press nicknames.

And yet as cooking celebrities go, Jill Dupleix is high on the list. She had a fine reputation in Australia for her cookbooks and newspaper columns before she went to London to work for The Times, and Terry Durack is an accomplished restaurant critic and food writer. Christine Manfield is one of Australia's most brilliant chefs and has recently opened a restaurant in London, and Maggie has long been her partner in life and work. In terms of food, their achievement is magnificent. But their fame does not come anywhere near that of Posh and Becks. Becks is real talent. (Football is probably the most hugely famous thing in the world.) He recently transferred to Real Madrid for such enormous sums of money it's impossible to get your head round them. Posh might not have great talent but she was a pop star. We were sold the pair as the perfect couple, and a number of companies bought them as that, once again for enormous sums of money.

But celebrity at this level is essentially a lie. It may be a relatively benign lie, a fairytale concept for our delectation, like the Jen and Brad narrative, the true love of beautiful people, constantly threatened but not destroyed by idle gossip, or if it does break down, we move our interest to another subject; candidates are never lacking. In fact, the true love is more likely to be a marketing concept, invented to sell sports shoes or sheets. Or movies. But it is essential that the lie be believed. The size and stridency of the headlines are the measures of our disappointment as that primal lie – Posh and Becks the perfect couple, the perfect family – is betrayed by other, and real, lies -Becks the sleazy phone-sex philanderer, and in his wife's bed at that. Food can't compete. And the only response to that would have to be, thank goodness. The colossal dishonesty of it is too destructive to live with in any healthy way.

 

IF YOU LOOK AT COOKING PROGRAMS YOU'LL SEE THAT their essential assumption is that, unlike football, the process is quite boring. (Football is so exciting that a 67-minute video of Becks sleeping is on show at the National Portrait Gallery in London, presented as a work of art and described as mesmerising.) But food is not intrinsically exciting; you can't have much of it, the main thing has to be some kind of gimmick to amuse people. So, Two Fat Ladies: put together two minor cooks who've never met, both extremely large and upper-classy, both alcoholics but only one doing something about it, give them a handsome old Triumph motorbike and sidecar, send them off to forage for their food in idiosyncratic locations and cook it in peculiar circumstances, highlight their dietary incorrectness – butter and more butter, cream only if it's lashings – and you have an entertaining program and lots of spin-offs: books, aprons, oven gloves.

The BBC took certain already-famous chefs and lent them to rich people to help cook for dinner parties. The chefs were famously grumpy or at least eccentric and told people off, they zoomed in to the rich people's smart kitchens, set them to cooking from their own gorgeously glossy books a great number of fancy and unfamiliar dishes out of ingredients they didn't care for, which nobody who has ever given a dinner party would dream of doing, and then disappeared, leaving the unfortunate cooks to make desperate calls on the mobile for help. That gave a chance to see the great men at work in their kitchens. In between there were interviews with "friends" of the home cook, which were disarmingly frank – you'd have thought the tittle-tattlers didn't know they were on camera – and certainly if they'd been my friends I'd never have invited or even spoken to them again. This is as close as food programs ever get to reality TV, and it is as ugly and demeaning as any Big Brother or Survivor, even if it ends in sugary compliments and the chef making a surprise visit to discover everything is lovely.

The one thing it didn't do was make these already important and serious cooks, people who run their own restaurants and have achieved measures of success in this difficult field, any more famous. You didn't think, isn't that marvellous, I must go to his establishment immediately. You rather wondered why they lowered themselves thus.

The most recent gimmick has been Curtis and Stone Surfing the Menu. Take two personable young men, one Australian and one English, send them around Australia to exotic locations – Broome, Margaret River, the seriously glamorous holiday sites where superb and rare raw ingredients are to be found – have them engagingly offer useful hints for dealing with these, and, should they come our way, put them in cars and boats and in touch with charming or characterful locals and give them a preoccupation with surfing, the literal kind.

These programs are performance art for television. They are not seriously about food as, for instance, Christine Manfield is, or Marco Pierre White, or Gay Bilson. It's hard to make a truly serious television food program. Stephanie Alexander had a go with A Shared Table and roused all sorts of ignoble passions, from jealousy of the "Why her? Why not me?" kind, through pique that the title had been borrowed (plagiarised?) as claimed by the author of a book of almost the same name, to a certain Schadenfreude when it was perceived to be not as successful as it doubtless would have been had any of the people who were miffed at missing out been given the chance to do it. In a lot of ways it was what makes Stephanie so good as a chef and so important an instigator on the Australian culinary scene that militated against the success of the program: the absence of gimmicks, the slightly didactic, even proselytising nature of her presentation. And there were budgetary considerations. The idea was to travel around Australia, looking at local food production, local specialities, and even here the actual cooking of the food was not the main thing. I remember the segment on Kangaroo Island, when guests and cooks had to work in a howling gale. There wasn't enough money in the budget to wait around until the wind dropped. You couldn't see what was being cooked and how it was being eaten. Just people bent double and everything streaming in the wind.

I liked this program; I am an admirer of Stephanie and I enjoyed listening to her telling me about things. But it wasn't gimmicky enough to become popular. Maybe if she'd had a motorbike, or taken to a surfboard.

 

SOME COOKS ARE FAMOUS AND THEREFORE ARE GIVEN TELEVISION SLOTS, such as Stephanie or Rick Stein. Others are catapulted to fame by their programs, like the Fat Ladies or Nigella. She is pretty celebrated these days for her beauty and sexiness as she cooks, her erotic greed as she opens that gorgeous red mouth wide and stuffs it full of wicked food, or sensuously licks a utensil, before dropping it down for some unseen fairy to whisk away and wash. The slight frisson: how much of that tumbling black hair is actually falling in the food?

Here I should say that television food programs are normally at the opposite end of the scale from reality TV. They are the most artificial of constructs, highly rehearsed. Those almighty messes just off camera, cleaned up by invisible helpers; wouldn't we all cook so lasciviously if we didn't have to wash up afterwards? The here-is-a-dish-exactly-the-same-I-just-happened-to-have-made-already trope. Yes, of course we can't all wait around for half an hour, or two, while the cake cooks, or the tripe, but I can't help wondering: how many goes did it take to get it looking like that? And who actually cooked it? Like as not, it wasn't Nigella. I remember, because however critical, not to mention cynical, I am about these programs I'm addicted to watching them, even if it is only for the shivers of horror they inspire: Nigella's deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, à la manière d' Elvis, for instance; I remember that the dishes the Fat Ladies drew out of their Agas were always dramatically different from the ones pictured at the end.

My first observance of Nigella was as the acerbic restaurant critic of The Spectator, which is very low down in the fame register. She turned up cooking on the telly bearing the sad narrative of her husband's illness and death. She achieved considerable celebrity in this medium; we watched her cooking for friends and small children on family occasions, such as birthday parties, or jolly Christmases. We saw, rather jerkily photographed, her friends. We went shopping with her at local speciality shops. We admired her pantry, much larger than most of our kitchens, which she raided for the goodies she'd put there for that purpose. We wondered how she kept such a small waist with all that gorging, though clearly her bottom was pretty large and her breasts were opulent. Some people didn't give a stuff about the food; they watched it for its sexy presenter. "What a root rat," said a young man of my acquaintance.

Nigella might almost rate in the Becks and Posh celebrity test. (All this is hypothetical of course. I am not suggesting marriages are breaking up, just, if they were to, would they make headlines?) She is now partnered by one of the Saatchis and I could imagine a newspaper headline, though not screaming front page, if they decided to part. But the Saatchi element is important, lots of money and a famous name. And the rather poignant fact that most of us found her likeable and think she deserves happiness after her tragic loss.

 

I ONCE WROTE AN ARTICLE UNDER THE HEADLINE: "IS THERE FOOD AFTER COLOURED PICTURES?" 
It suggested that not only were photographs of the food replacing the actual making of the dishes by the people who read the books and magazines featuring them, but that the pictures were actively discouraging. It is as if chefs said grimly to themselves, "I'll show them", and constructed dishes of dreadful complication with pictures to show just how unattainable they were by the home cook in order to frighten imitators off or cause them to fail. But leaving aside evil intent on the part of chefs, I do think it entirely appropriate that there be things they can do that we can't. Philip Searle's chequerboard ice-cream, for instance, or the unearthly essences made by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in northern Spain that are supposed to make you happy. I like to cook but the kind of thing that needs an army of sous chefs or me in the kitchen for a week doesn't interest me.

So what about my opening narratives? The businesswoman in her kitchenless luxury apartment -or maybe it has a gorgeous gleaming never-used designer cooking space -the single mother succumbing to KFC once again, both watching chefs performing amazing culinary feats on the telly. There are ironies, and possibly sad ones, in these scenarios, but maybe these women aren't too hopeless; they are at least looking at, even if they aren't eating, interesting food. It's got as far as being an idea. Maybe, one day, they'll make some.

As for cooks and celebrity and the Posh/Becks scale, who'd want it? A comfortable and appropriate recognition, that's a lot safer.   ♦

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