Cooking Up a Fuss

This September saw two food related stories break in the same week. The first was the ban on double zero sized catwalk models during Madrid fashion week. This came amidst fears their ‘stick-like’ appearance is influencing young girls to adopt anorexia as a life-style choice. The second story saw mothers of English children surreptitiously passing junk food to their children through gaps in the school fence. Once upon a time, school canteens guaranteed children access to such wholesome perennial favourites as burgers, hot dogs and chips, dished up from a vat of grease. But it appears that along with the fashion industry gaining a conscience, so has the erstwhile no-nonsense dinner lady.

What these two stories demonstrate is that food culture remains problematic. British food is often seen as a bit of a joke in France, a view often forged through student exchanges French parents went on 10 to 15 years ago. Living in France I am often told that baked beans on toast and ‘boiled beef’ should not be referred to as cuisine. But I don’t take this type of criticism sitting down and I often find myself defending contemporary British cooking. Coupled with a grass roots revival of traditional British dishes that breaks free from the shackles of fish’n’chips, in recent years multicultural Britain has seen an inventive fusion of cooking that goes beyond chicken tikka massala. And this has been thanks to that great democratising tool that is television.

British television has been dominated by life-style programming for the past 20 years. The first generation of this type of popular pedagogy was the home improvement show; after all an Englishman’s home is his castle. With the house price boom in the mid-’80s what these programmes really taught us is that the Englishman wanted to fix the leaking ramparts and sell on at a profit in view of acquiring a bigger château somewhere in the south of France. When the housing market collapsed at the end of that decade, these programmes then taught us the merits of cheaper materials. MDF, medium density fibreboard, became the new miracle elixir: you could make furniture with it, cover floors with it, and maybe, just maybe, it could cure baldness. Today, these programmes are experiencing a second wind. Gone, however, are the dodgy refits. The current housing boom has been accompanied by a switch in home improvement standards and programme titles have moved on from the happy-go-lucky days of Changing Rooms where friends would metamorphosise each other’s houses into something akin to a haberdashery omlette, to the altogether more financially direct Property Ladder or the more cerebral Grand Designs.

But somewhere in the gap between housing booms, somewhere between those TV dinner favourites the Pot Noodle and the microwaveable meal, a new breed of hero was born: the celebrity TV chef. The makeover show shifted from refreshing kitchen units to redesigning our diets. These chefs were different from the post-war cooks that taught our parents how to feed a family on a shoestring (boil it until soft). The arrival of these chefs was a parallel to the rise of the techno DJ — both groups fed upon our hedonistic fin-de-siècle desires. The rave scene did this through mass love-ins driven by repetitive beats, illicit substances, and the niggling fear that perhaps the end of the millennium was the end full-stop. The chefs did it by teaching us two different things: the first was how to knock up cordon bleu dishes in only 20 minutes between the moment we got home from work and the moment we went out to get blotto; the second, was how to prepare a three course Michelin star meal to show off when entertaining friends at home.

Some will argue that celebrity chefdom began much earlier with Fanny Craddock, a woman with an explosive character and schoolmarmish presence. She was cooking on British television from the mid-’50s to the mid-1’0s, published over 100 cookbooks, and even had a play written, based on her life, called Fanny Cradock – The Life and Loves of a Kitchen Devil by Julia Darling. In true celebrity style the play recounts Craddock’s ruthless ambition. Regardless of her diva antics on set, however, I would argue that she was an important prophet but that mass communication wasn’t at a stage that could enable celebrity culture as we know it today.

As Fanny Craddock’s television career was coming to an end, Delia Smith beamed into our homes and promptly sold us over 18 million books. A John the Baptist character, she was at the threshold between those that saw it as their mission to hand us the tablets of cookery law, and a brighter age where we would learn to love each other through food sharing experiences. She ushered the way for a mixed generation of olive oil miracle workers, from the kitchen king of verbal abuse Gordon Ramsey to the rather slick Gary Rhodes (yes, that’s him squatting down barefoot on his homepage), from the self-styled Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson to, the self-styled Naked Chef Jamie Oliver (I know there’s a lot of self-styling going on but this is celebrity culture we’re talking about).

Above all others, it is perhaps Oliver who stands out the most. The cheeky chappy celebrity chef has known the biggest transformation from his early days as a fresh-faced commis to the most powerful person in UK hospitality last year according to CatererSearch, the website of industry magazine Caterer and Hotelkeeper. There is no doubt that he was at one point the leader of the Cool Britannia cooking posse, with his pinch of “bish bash bosh” preparation and hint of “pukka” approval. But with the success of the Naked Chef franchise came overexposure. His mockney accent, clips of him shopping on his scooter, his mockney accent, his adverts for the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, and his mockney accent, brought the honeymoon period to an end. But just when it looked like he was past his sell by date he turned his fame into the driving force for a culinary crusade.

Two years before Gordon Ramsay and Hell’s Kitchen came along, Oliver managed to combine reality TV with life behind the restaurant scenes in Jamie’s Kitchen. Here 15 youngsters from troubled backgrounds (some where homeless, others had learning difficulties) were trained to become professional chefs. All five that managed to graduate have gone on to work in top London restaurants and the success of the show has since spawned four Fifteen restaurants from London to Melbourne. Of course, the real difference perhaps between his show and other contenders, is that the Jamie’s School Dinners. The task was probably the most difficult one the man from Essex had yet to encounter: to wean kids off a diet of turkey twizzlers and cook a healthy school meal for a ridiculously low budget [some schools only spend 37 pence ($0.70) per child]. The four-part show not only demonstrated that this was possible, but it also pushed Tony Blair’s government into taking measures to try and guarantee a healthy balanced lunch for the nation’s school children. Oliver met both the Prime Minister and the then Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, who promised a seemingly massive investment of £280 million.

This may seem like a noble cause defended by a knight in shining aprons. Though he only has an MBE, I might be pushed to agree. But it would seem that there are parents out there who think Oliver should be minding his own plate. Furious at the idea that this 31 year-old should dare dictate what their children can and cannot eat at school, some mothers have taken it upon themselves to do fast food runs where they take clandestine orders (and the cash) at the school gate during mid-morning break and then pass the burgers et al. through the fence at lunch (along with the change). These mothers, or ‘sinner ladies’ as they were dubbed by The Sun, believe that the new style healthy food is, as Julie 43 put it, “disgusting rubbish”. Apparently the food is better at the local takeaway. I am myself not averse to the ‘dining out at home experience’, but the arguments put forward by these anti-Oliver campaigners do seem tenuous. Apparently their children are returning home hungry, turned off from the canteen food by the sight of greenery alongside the meat.

Oliver wants children to be picky about food for the right reasons. But here perhaps lies the real problem. Access to both a balanced meal and education about healthy diets may lead children to want food that will take longer to prepare than it does, say, to queue at McDonald’s. It may be generally accepted that it is possible to buy fresh produce as cheaply as the pre-prepared factory offerings, but the preparation itself might be the problem. We can buy the cookbooks (although they are often expensive), but not every family has the time or even the energy to spend long enough in the kitchen every night to knock something up from scratch.

There are some that don’t seem to comprehend what all the fuss is about. Rob Lyons writing in sp!ked condemns the new series Jamie’s Return to School Dinners because “Oliver’s crusade is the product of the panic over obesity and children’s diets and his campaign only helps to stoke these fears further.” Ultimately, Lyons’s comments end up as a tirade against Blair’s government and reflect his fear of interventionism. Apparently all that is needed to save the day is a bit of maternal wisdom and Lyons concludes in another article on the school dinner debate: “‘A little bit of everything does you good’, as my dear old mother used to say.” Laissez-faire, indeed.

Let us not forget that this is television. Charitable foundations and health service drives aside, Channel 4, the home of Oliver’s recent broadcasting forays, is a commercial station and these shows generate a lot of revenue for the channel. Sensationalism will help viewing figures, especially if Oliver is caught doing a ‘Gordon Ramsey’ as he was recently. Slamming parents who give their children unhealthy packed lunches he was recorded saying: “If you’re giving your young children fizzy drinks, you’re an a*******, a t****r’.”

On the other hand, it is difficult to avoid sensationalism when the third report by the UK parliamentary select committee on health published in 2004 :

Dr Sheila McKenzie, a consultant at the Royal London Hospital which recently opened an obesity service for children, offered a powerful insight into the crisis posed to the nation’s health. Despite only being in existence for three years, her service had an eleven-month waiting list. Over the last two years, she had witnessed a child of three dying from heart failure where extreme obesity was a contributory factor. Four of the children in the care of her unit were being managed at home with non-invasive ventilatory assistance for sleep apnoea: as she put it, “in other words, they are choking on their own fat.”

But before I’m accused of being taken in by a government-led initiative, an article in the British Medical Journal by Susan Chinn and Roberto J. Rona puts it in a more balanced way:

Our data indicate that overweight and obesity on the basis of body mass index have increased noticeably since 1984. Most studies have shown poor prediction of adult obesity from child assessments but a consistent positive correlation between child and adult overweight and obesity. Rising trends in children will almost certainly be represented in later trends in adult overweight and obesity and probably in an increase in associated adult morbidity.

Though I do not share Rob Lyons’s view, I do see how Oliver comes across as patronising at times, and I do understand that these programmes are vehicles for his celebrity. On balance, surely trying to tackle this situation can only do more good than harm. What is truly unfortunate is that £45 million of the promised £280 million has yet to be received by Trust, the organisation set up to give independent support and advice to schools. According to the Daily Telegraph, the reason for this delay is that Ruth Kelly had decided this money was to come from the lottery fund, money that she wasn’t entitled to commit. It now turns out that the Trust has to go through the standard application procedure for the money and won’t find out until June next year if it has been successful. This will be more than a year after the money was promised.

As a young child I was sent to school in France for a term. Looking back these were fortunate times. It was there that I encountered perhaps for the first time the ritual of communal dining rather than a scrum for school nosh. The school itself was in a small community in the Loire Valley and when the lunch bell rang we would have to walk through the village à la queue leu leu (in single file) to the parish hall. The food was of a standard I had never experienced outside of the family circle. The freshness of the bread itself would in later years give me an insight into Proust’s madeleine experience of recollection. But French cooking has suffered in the many moons that have passed since this innocent pastoral past.

The idea of celebrity chefs in France is somewhat different to that of the UK. This may be down to the fact that every French person thinks themselves a celebrity in their own kitchen. But insularity is something that has affected la gastronomie française in recent years. Finding it difficult to break free of its traditional heavy sauce dishes, French restaurants became formulaic, the cooking mechanical. This left the way open for other culinary centres have come to dominate the world stage: New York, Barcelona, Bray. I know what you are thinking: what on earth is New York doing in that list?! Admittedly, in recent times Barcelona’s El Bulli and Bray’s (it’s in Berkshire, England) The Fat Duck have been fighting it out. It couldn’t be worse for France when it comes to neighbourly rivalry. But things are on the move. Every August, Restaurant, the industry magazine, publishes its list of top 50 restaurants. This year, France had the most number of restaurants listed, but perhaps more importantly, its highest placed restaurant came third. This honour was given to Pierre Gagnaire, perhaps France’s most inventive chef. Eating chez Pierre is definitely a lesson in the future of French cuisine. The man, however, has nothing of a British celebrity chef. His roguish good looks would undoubtedly come across well on television, but in person he is a demure man. Gordon Ramsey would probably eat him for breakfast. But then Ramsey is a man of taste.

There have been French cooks on French television, the most famous of which was Maïté. But her brand of cooking was definitely closer to that of Fanny Craddock than Nigella Lawson. It famously took Maïté several attempts to knock unconscious an eel with a rolling pin live on television. But where in most countries the station would have been inundated with complaints from viewers worried about cruelty to animals, here in France the episode is periodically rebroadcast by popular demand. I invite you to compare Maïté’s website to Lawson’s – for a variety of reasons I guarantee the comparison will be bring a smile to your face (be sure to turn your speakers on). For the moment the only French chef that has the kind of celebrity status UK celebrity chefs are used to is probably Jean Christophe Novelli. But then again he did move to England 24 years ago!