The Skinny Guide to Food Telly
With much of the food world rocking itself into a pre-spring lull, we pore over the best food-based telly in search of inspiration, tips for media domination, and some clues as to the enduring popularity of Mr Heston Blumenthal
Christmas is long gone, we're a couple of months into THE FINAL YEAR OF THEM ALL, but spring is yet to... well, spring. Without fluffy rabbits and lambs to massacre and turn into tasty dinner, those in charge of the television seem to be compensating with lots of food-based television programming. After all, the only thing better than tasty food you can eat is tasty food prepared directly in front of you, yet completely beyond your grasp, to be enjoyed by some smug, well-lit twazzock. With that in mind, we sat down for an evening of the finest food telly around to try and distil the essence of the perfect food programme. That was the plan, anyway.
A Question of Taste – 7:00pm
And we begin with A Question of Taste, a food quiz hosted by noted political journalist and Weegie Kirsty Wark. It looks cheap, and immediately strikes as a bad idea. The set-up is simple – a team who love rhubarb take on a gang of supper club enthusiasts in a variety of 'fun' 'games' of food identification. It's a cross between Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Countdown, but with food. And it's shit. Kirsty has a sidekick who sits in Kitchen Corner (TM), who isn't very interesting or good at his job, and the whole thing looks very weird. There are a lot of crash zooms on our Kirsty, presumably to keep the viewer in a perpetual state of terror at the next violent camera move onto a group of dull dull people.
WHAT WE LEARNED: Food programmes should involve some cooking; self-professed 'rhubarb enthusiasts' should stay off the telly.
How to Cook Like Heston – 7:30pm
Oh good, some actual cooking. Well, some self-aggrandisement first, then cooking. First line of the episode, from Heston: "I taught myself to cook," followed by a sly glance to camera. What. A. Prick. Heston is going to let us in on his innermost secrets in the field of potatoes, the first of which appears to be that he's a mentalist who shouldn't be allowed out of the house. In fact, that's unfair, he's really just a misunderstood scientist. You can tell because he uses loads of hi-def slow-motion close-ups for no reason, and follows talk of mashed potato with the phrase "You'll need a blow torch."
As for the show itself, it's an odd one – it's like an old-school Delia Smith Christmas special, but with more incongruous shots of dog-shaped lamps and cutaways to Heston cooking food with a hair-dryer. Having said all that, I do want to eat everything he's making, and it's a nice touch for him to invite real people along to puncture his mad bastard bubble. Heston cracks on with a potato mash with lime jelly, a bizarre and wilfully zany recipe that no amount of crisp Helvetica font and stop motion animation can excuse. Heston closes by encouraging viewers to set wood on fire in their kitchens and make potatoes into jam, sending us off into the evening with a burning rage at the continued popularity of this absolute lunatic.
WHAT WE LEARNED: Quirky graphics are handy distractions from odd and unpleasant food; there is such a thing as being 'too out-there.'
Masterchef – 8:00pm
We join BBC One's titanic prime-time cookery bunfight midway through the series, yet there's no recap. Why is there no recap? Because this is Masterchef, and there's no room for part-timers. Suffice to say there were more Masterchefs, and now there are not. Our contestants are asked what they would do if they had to leave the competition, to which they give stock reality show answers about this meaning the world to them. Well, apart from the guy who states that he'd “kill everything and everyone.” There are eight Masterchefs at this point, learning three European cuisines, taking part in dinner service and receiving motivational niceties from swarthy foreigners. That blazed by in a total of 14 minutes. There are pans everywhere, everyone's running, and there's constant music blaring in the background. You can tell this is primetime BBC One, because there's a cast of thousands and mad camera angles everywhere. From the pro kitchens, we move into the weird Thunderdome-by-Habitat that is the contestants' kitchen. Oh, and our judges Statler and Waldorf are here. Note: only one of these two is actually a chef. The other is just a fat bald man.
There's a challenge; cook something you aren't sure of for a panel of experts and a fat bald man. Needless to say, there are hilarious telly mistakes. One man throws a £150 truffle in the bin, while another hits himself in the head with a pan. There is a tasting, with drama, extreme close-ups and food photography. The French-inspired contestants respond to their tuition by capitulating at the first opportunity, allowing smarty-pants writers to make unfair cultural comparisons. The production team do the full food photography bit on some melted ice cream, in a top-notch display of passive aggressive direction. That gets topped by the French chef icing the eventual eliminatee by saying that her cake would have to be perfect to be French. He tops it with a WINK DIRECT TO CAMERA . He may as well have kicked a stool away, that woman was dead from then on. Consequently the tension and pace falls away, and The National come on in the background as I recover from the breakneck pace. This must be what it's like to go on a crack binge.
WHAT WE LEARNED: Time constrains only weak fools; it's possible to accidentally learn cooking techniques as the information whooshes by; every TV programme should have its own ice-cold Frenchman.
Home Cooking Made Easy – 9:00pm
Lorraine Pascal is a model, and not a chef. Realising she had too much money, she tried her hand at hypnotherapy and car-mending before getting into the cooking game. Here she presents some of her favourite recipes, recipes that you as a pleb can make at home. She then proceeds to make cheese and ham toasties, and to complain, to camera, about how fiddly ham can be. This is followed with salad, cheesecake and chutney recipes. Bonus points here for some bogus hygiene advice, as our hero states that “some people boil their jam jars, I just put them in the dishwasher on a hot setting.” Some people dry their hands before climbing a ladder to change a lightbulb, but here at The Skinny we reckon shaking them a bit should do, and will gladly print such advice knowing that nothing bad could come of it.
WHAT WE LEARNED: Genuine chefs should do the cooking on TV; if you see a range of Lorraine Pascal jams, run a mile.
The Fabulous Baker Brothers – 9:30pm
One's a butcher, the other's a baker, they live next door to each other, and they fight crime. Well, most of that is true. Yes, after 150 minutes it's time for some slightly awkward and homo-erotic scripting. I kid of course, there's no homo-eroticism here, just some buff lads in tight t-shirts with big knives shooting each other unsettlingly intense stares. Nice lads though. They make manly food, like PIES and RED MEAT. Their set is constructed entirely from brown materials. They use words like WAR and BANTER, and make statements such as LARD IS GOOD FOR YOU. They cut to recaps of information they never gave in the first place, and they drill holes in bins to make smokers for their hot dogs. They are men, men cook with fire, men eat meat.
WHAT WE LEARNED: Fire-starting is becoming increasingly common in these programmes; it's very hard to be cool when you're wearing an apron and covered in flour.
Raymond Blanc: The Very Hungry Frenchman – 10:00pm
Raymond Blanc is a very very good French chef, with two Michelin stars. He also has a wild accent that can't be tamed. Clearly the only logical plan here is to send our Raymond off to meet more French folk to ensure that you're straining to work out what everyone is saying, not just him. Raymond says “ooh la la” a lot, and drives a Citroen 2CV because of course he does. The programme compensates for the incomprehensible French accents with overly perky narration akin to an Open University guide to French food. After 3 and a bit hours of culinary onslaught it's both a welcome relief and a taunt. Anyway, Mr Blanc picks grapes with the locals, gawps at cows, complains about French-on-French prejudice, then does a little cooking. He looks at cheese, and points out that different people like different cheeses, followed by more cooking. He does a big final meal, and everyone loves it because of course they do. It's been 4 hours, and either the narration has been taken over by Thierry Henry or it's time to wrap this up.
WHAT WE LEARNED: Genuine Frenchmen < sarcastic Frenchmen; an hour is a long time without any tension or drama whatsoever.
So, to conclude, the ideal food programme would involve a legit paid-up chef with a pithy French sidekick going on an emotional journey. There should be lots of pyrotechnics, and plenty of crazy cutaways and graphics to distract from the safe, sensible cookery. There shall be no questions, and absolutely no baldy super-chefs. We'll decide on the day whether to use the dog-shaped furniture...