The best television chef ever is Adam on Northern Exposure (surely the greatest series ever made). Dirty, self-centred, arrogant, appallingly rude, yet phenomenally talented – he once turned down a job at the legendary Tour d’Argent – Adam appears periodically, often accompanied by his neurotic, hypochondriac, and equally selfish wife, Eve, cooks incredible food, and then vanishes.
Adam is the anti-foodie. His enthusiasm for cooking isn’t borne out of snobbery or a desire to demonstrate either his sophistication or moral superiority, but, rather, out of a liking for food and eating. And possibly a hatred for the people for whom he cooks.
He is a world away from the TV chef-celebrities who populate cooking-driven channels like the Food Network. Indeed, when Northern Exposure aired between 1990 and 1995, the idea that a single TV channel could be devoted entirely to food was relatively new. In the US, the Food Network launched in 1993, and the now-defunct Carlton Food Network – for which, incidentally, a young David Cameron did PR – aired for the first time three years later in the UK.
Now, food is everywhere on television, and food programmes have evolved from their most basic format – a chef cooking in a kitchen – to embrace travel and reality programmes. There’s been a lot of fuss about the launch of the most recent incarnation of the unbelievably successful MasterChef franchise in South Africa. In fact, the evolution of MasterChef says a great deal about how food on television has changed over the past few decades.
The original MasterChef series aired in the UK between 1990 and 1999 and was presented by pasta sauce entrepreneur and mid-Atlantic accent promoter, Loyd Grossman. It was all very serious and restrained and most of the contestants were terribly tense ladies from the Home Counties who replicated the nouvelle cuisine they had eaten at Le Gavroche, with varying degrees of success and anxiety.
It was revamped in 2005. With two shouty judges and considerably more socially representative participants, its popularity demonstrating the shifting significance of food within middle-class Britain. The new series’s focus on training contestants to be good, highly skilled chefs is meant to produce people who could, conceivably, run their own restaurants – which, to the credit of MasterChef, winners like Thomasina Miers and Mat Follas have done successfully.
The Australian, American, and South African versions of MasterChef have increased the emphasis on teaching would-be chefs how to work in professional kitchens. Of course, people watch these series for the same reasons that they tune into The Amazing Race, Strictly Come Dancing, and Project Runway. But MasterChef has the added appeal that it aims to teach its audience about cooking: the master classes offered by its presenters are aimed as much at those watching the series as at the contestants.
In fact, the earliest and most enduring TV cookery shows were intended primarily to educate, rather than only entertain, audiences. Dione Lucas – who claimed, incorrectly, to be the first woman graduate of the Cordon Bleu Cookery Institute in Paris – taught classical French cooking to the affluent American middle classes during the 1950s. Julia Child, an altogether warmer and more appealing presenter, did the same in her long-running series. Their aim was to teach Americans how to cook properly – and during the 1950s and 1960s, ‘proper’ food was French food.
Even Fanny Cradock, despite her increasingly ridiculous television appearances towards the end of her career, cooked a version of French cuisine which was meant to be affordable and accessible to her audience. Delia Smith’s first series, Family Fayre, in the mid-1970s was intended to teach its audience how to cook. Her success – built partly on the fact that her impeccably-tested recipes always do work – owed a great deal to her ability to teach and to de-mystify processes which may at first seem difficult and complicated.
Many of the cookery shows of the 1980s and early 1990s were made by the BBC’s Continuing Education Department: Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom, among others, owe their early success to the Beeb’s efforts to educate audiences. It was only with the coming of Graham Kerr – the ‘Galloping Gourmet’ – and, more successfully, Keith Floyd, that cookery programmes began to shift their emphasis from education to entertainment.
I’ve never really understood Floyd’s appeal, as Paul Levy writes:
Keith Floyd was a television cook who enjoyed and profited from a large audience despite having no outstanding talent, either as a cook or as a TV presenter, no great knowledge of his subject, or any apparent passion for anything but drink.
But he could be amusing – and more so than most of the considerably more serious presenters of food programmes in Britain. In many ways, the entertainment- and lifestyle-driven series presented by Nigella Lawson, Ainsley Harriott, Sophie Dahl and others are part of Floyd’s unwitting legacy.
I’m more interested in the way that presenters of food programmes have linked their teaching to wider, social projects. In post-revolution Cuba, cookbook writer Nitza Villapol used her long-running television series to teach Cubans a cuisine which was at once ‘authentically’ Cuban but also compatible with the country’s system of food rationing. During the Special Period, she provided recipes and advice for making limited supplies go further. She is still – regardless of her association with the period – seen as the pre-eminent expert on Cuban cooking.
In Egypt, Ghalia Mahmoud has recently emerged as a popular TV chef on the 25 January cable channel. From a working-class background, Mahmoud teaches audiences ‘traditional Egyptian food, such as mahshi (stuffed vine leaves), bisara and keshk, simple fava-bean and buttermilk-based stews.’ Not only do her recipes respect the differing dietary requirements of Egypt’s range of religious groups, but she cooks with an awareness that many members of her audience have limited resources. This is patriotic cuisine for a new Egypt: one which demonstrates how to feed a family on only 250g of meat a week.
It’s particularly telling that the TV chefs of the final years of the Mubarak regime were, as Mahmoud says, ‘bigger than movie stars and spoke English and French.’ The most popular cookery teachers on television – and this includes Ina Paarman in South Africa – have been lower- to middle-class women. It’s a common observation – even complaint – that while the majority of people who cook family meals are women, the best-known and most feted cooks are all male. This isn’t entirely true. Arguably, the most influential cooks of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – those who actually teach their audiences how to prepare food – are women.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.