Tuesday, April 03, 2007

TV Review: Great British Kitchen

BBC2, 2.4.07
'There's something Vichy about the French,' commented Ivor Novello with uncharacteristic bleakness in 1940. Chauvinism derives from the French language , which maybe makes the British a little jealous, so good are we at directing it back at our cousins d'outre-Manche. Just look. Banlieues in flames, joblessness rampant, political sclerosis, cultural malaise (now we're talking). Hell, they're even desperate enough to sell us their houses.

Never mind the holy trinity of Arsène Wenger, Platini and Zidane; Emmanuelle Béart; Ming Pei's glass pyramid; José Bové; Eurostar, the TGV; film makers like Jeunet and Rappeneau and Ozon; an affordable Olympics. Even coverage of the greatest engineering feat of the 21st century to date, the Millau bridge, concentrated less on its gargantuan size than on the fact that it was designed, uninspiredly, by a British architect, Milord Foster.

'The French think that we're simply not in their League. But that's about to change,' purrs the BBC's 'royal correspondent' Jennie Bond. Chippy drivel. Yeah, France is finished. Elizabeth David was an unpatriotic apostate. Great British Menu was going to 'take on the capital of haute cuisine' by going head-to-head with a team of premier French chefs to prepare a banquet for the British ambassador in Paris. Actually some might argue that the capital of haute cuisine has for many years been Lyon. Moreover, in this writer's experience, diplomatic staff are often jobsworth dullards with little taste, but let that pass; maybe Sir John Holmes is a true gastronome.

It's hard to define when the obsession with denigrating French cuisine became part and parcel of British media discourse. From the puritanical, straitened 1950s there was a domestic suspicion of French sauces, their richness was a disguise for allegedly inferior produce. But only when cooking became a media property did this garbage become a media property.

There existed a nasty craving for a kind of legitimisation of the newly-acquired super-affluence enjoyed by London's 1980s and 1990s nouveaux-riches. Of course they could afford the Roux Bros at Le Gavroche and Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Seasons. But there simply weren't enough French super-chefs to spread the kudos around; also, given the taste for sensation, conspicuous consumption and vulgarity among this new clientèle, new enfants terribles were unearthed, from sweary Ramsay to moody White. That these guys had the chops wasn't in doubt, but it helped that they were as good at prettifying and pricifying the snap on the plates of punters with eyes bigger than their bellies and wallets bigger than their brains. How else the contemporary idolisation of Heston Blumental (one Australian critic's opinion of the Fat Duck's offering: 'a fart on a cushion of air') and Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Barcelona, whose creations seem to have one eye on the hob and one on the newspaper columns. The snob appeal and multiculti liberal brownie points in exotica, plus the easy way in which they could fill up the column inches of enlightened broadsheets and listings magazines enabled London's gamut of eateries from the subcontinent, Scandinavia and southern California fed a feel-good myth that London was 'the restaurant capital of the world.' That Belgium and even Germany boast a vast array of Michelin stars is kept firmly under wraps.

Tom Wolfe writes, in The Bonfire of the Vanities of the ersatz fame earned by a New York chef, more for his aesthetic abilities with a plate's contents than their quality. One elaborate passage about a Baroquely-executed 'painting in sauce' tells you all you need to know about the role of actual food in the upper end of the public eating experience in the anglophone world.

With the cult of presentation came its bastard cousin, PR, and through the kitchen doors barged through by this unholy pairing surged Ainsley, Jamie, those two woolly woofter Kiwis, Nigella, the Fat Ladies, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. While I wouldn't recommend an omelette of my own making over that of any of the above, one can't escape the possibility that telly chefs who were creations of dedication to the instruction of the French ancestor of haute cuisine, Escoffier, to faire le simple (make it simple) were Delia, Floyd and, more recently, Stein.

The admirably level-headed writer Joanna Blythman flung her plate back in the face of this overloading by the PR men; her riposte took the shape of an excellent book, Bad Food Britain. But she is a rare voice in the wilderness. The cultural sea-change, she argued, was mere sleight of hand, in much the same way that chefs often shift the cheapest dish (and/or the easiest to prepare or preheat) as a 'special'. Her voice remains unheard on British television.

Instead, Great British Menu concentrated with pornographic detail, less on dishes than good shots; instead of instructions as to how caramelise onions just so, the camera doted with eye-candy coloristic juxtapositions and salivated over a slab of ham hock like a director over a starlet's cleavage.

British culinary culture offers encouraging signs. Henrietta Green's Food Lovers' Guide to Britain and more recently, TV's opportunistic setting up of its own farmers' market-stall, Rick Stein's Food Heroes are meritorious, insofar as they often and with the authority of knowledgeable housewives, march past multiethnic gimmickries of samosas and chutneys and stress indigenous and fresh ingredients people can cook with. Not packaged flavours, but agents by which the adventurous can explore gustatory pleasures of their own making.

Cooking is, for most of us, still regarded as sybaritic at best, a chore at worst, the preoccupation of the affected or those with too much time on their hands. Better by far to either 'knock something up' store-cupboarding and shortcutting, or, best of all, eating out. You've done it; I've done it. This saves on time outlay and infuses a warm glow of bourgeois consumption (eating out, even in downmarket joints, is still a pre-eminently middle-class concern. This continuing refusal of the British to investigate taste and texture for themselves allows showiness and expense to lord it over basic quality. Just because people have heard about jus, emulsion and drizzling doesn't mean they have any idea what any of those words signify.

Ask most people who would they prefer to cook the dinner and they would name Ainsley over an equally competent but much better-value gastropub chef such as Andrew Canning at the Clytha in Abergavenny or Stephen Harris at the Sportsman in Seasalter, and Ainsley will win every time. Why? Ainsley's on telly. Applying this moronic criterion to other fields proves how dumb it is - Bobby Crush got on the box more than Thelonius Monk but this didn't make him better at the keyboard.

Publicity-driven hierarchical thinking is increasingly affecting France. The gastro star system occupies a place discreetly outside the box there, but the stakes and prestige are equally high, if not more so. The tyranny of Michelin's Guide Rouge star system led to the suicide of Bernard Loiseau in 2003. Disaffected French foodies, baulking at price and le snobbisme which made dollar signs and Michelin stars indecipherable from one another, have turned to a new generation of bistros within and without urban centres from Dieppe to Draguignan. Genuine greats like Bocuse are still secure dispensing ambrosia from their three-star pantheon, but things are changing. This, of course, is the crucible of good eating; what one can acquire for a bargain. It is still infinitely easier to find excellent simple fare, even snacks. Patisseries of the highest order can still be found, in number, in the most ill-starred French burghs. This inculcates a habit of being able to eat well at home and in a local caff. It is possible to eat the most stomach-churning ordure in France, but less likely than in the country of the gastronomic revolution. Not that you'd know this from Great British Menu or the propaganda of which it forms a pernicious part.

Grab your car, motor out and find anywhere good to eat in places one might not normally ever go - like Maidstone or Carlisle - and you'll look in vain for establishments for which the Guide Rouge reserves the judgement 'mérite un détour'. Unless you pay big-time. Chefs in many gastropubs in Britain are starting to understand this, that the smell of well-cooked food is preferable to niffless neutrality or that of refried onions, and that fair pricing is preferable to exorbitancy.

This, not the uplands of expense and presentation, is where the French are still so far ahead of us they are out of sight. But TV cooking has never been about Escoffier's dictum of doing the easy things well.

This dog's dinner of a show summed it up; chandeliers, marble, swan-white toques; all that was missing was that classic bourgeois buzzword of snob appeal, 'exclusive'. The 'Great British Chefs' are all starred - few, one surmises, come cheap. Good food is thus ghettoised as the province of the monied or the fortunate, not for the proles; while France's top kitchens charge the earth, eating well in that country doesn't cost the earth.

There is no reference whatsoever to the evolution of French and British styles (some would argue the latter has none). That this could be (usually was) like judging a competition between flamenco and death metal guitarists, or who'd win a ruck between The Sweeney and Starsky & Hutch, we never learned. Most unforgivably stupid of all was the obligatory 'your chance to vote' for which 'Great British Chef' would go through and sock it to the frogs. Not that any of the voters have the chance to taste any of the dishes, or have an idea of how they are made.

Fantastically pathetic television. We're talking Crush's rhinestones versus Monk's negritude and daft hat again, aren't we? But then the British never really got music, and on this evidence they still don't get food either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How pretentious.

The british never got music?

You just love the sound of your own voice pal.