Samui Wining & Dining
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We look at TV cooking shows to see just how real the ‘reality’ really is.

 

18I read somewhere that, when it comes to television, the Americans are ten years ahead of the rest of us. I’m not too sure how to interpret that. With the style and presentation do they mean? The format? With new ideas and approaches? Certainly there’s an acknowledged awful lot of rubbish on TV in America – that’s probably because there’s just so much of it. But tucked in amongst the thousands of cable channels there are some superb film and television productions coming out of the big networks. The USA was certainly the country that invented ‘reality TV’. But there was one thing that they just couldn’t get to grips with, and that was TV cookery shows.

Possibly because, as a nation, the popular American diet in the last half of the 20th century was pretty basic. Julia Child (America’s only real pioneer of TV cooking), for example, gained popularity in her first television series in 1962 by demonstrating how to cook an omelette. Whereas in England, as far back as 1956, Fanny Craddock and her blithely sherry-tippling partner, Johnny, was preaching the gospel according to Escoffier and bringing extravagant French dishes to black-and-white screens across the nation.

But those were gentler days. Teachers were respected then, children were polite and ‘bobbies’ (those quaint English policemen with pointy hats) rode bicycles unmolested. A generation later, with colour television, when the baddies got shot they sank like gentlemen with not a trace of blood. And even into the early 21st century British television remained largely … British … with its generally-inoffensive and often earnest productions. And nothing could be more essentially ‘British’ than The Restaurant, which first appeared as late as 2006.

Alan Sugar and his The Apprentice series had already made the viewing world sit up (Donald Trump’s US version was a copy) and ‘The Restaurant’ was an attempt to respond with a similar format. French celebrity chef, Raymond Blanc, plus a team of frosty-faced inspectors, set different tasks for nine couples with little or no culinary experience. These contestants were weeded-out week by week until the winners were presented with a restaurant of their own to be run in partnership with monsieur Raymond.

But far more revealing was the way it was all conceived. It was all ‘ever-so-nice and friendly’. The jolly-ordinary contestants got along harmoniously whilst they were being trialled, sympathised with each other’s failures, and were genuinely pleased by the successes. The avuncular Raymond seemed to become increasingly more like Hercule Poirot with each passing episode, as did his accent (“I theenk you ave murdaired ze deesh!”). The pace was refined, with lingering shots of each event. Even the background music was pastoral and pleasantly philharmonic. And the focus throughout was on the food, its preparation and cooking (plus the overall organisation), and with a thoughtful and detailed analysis as to how these things either succeeded or failed.

Inspired by the show’s success, the BBC had another go, and ramped it all up several notches with the ‘revitalised’ Master Chef series of 2008. Now presiding over the luckless participants were two very egotistical geezers indeed; Australian-born John Torode, ex barrow-boy-made-good and now celebrity chef and restaurateur, plus his partner in pain, the balding and smug former greengrocer and self-described ‘ingredients expert’, Greg Wallace.

Right away the difference in the presentation of this new series became apparent. It seemed to be more about John and Greg than the grim-faced contestants; not that these 24 nervous wannabes didn’t manage to get a word in over the shouting and yelling that passed for witty conversation between John and Greg. They had their say all right, but the strict directions of the production team must have been, ‘whatever you do, do NOT smile’. Which it turned out was quite easy to do, due to the sneering street-speak that was continually heaped upon them, ‘reality-style’: “Nah, der radish should be an undertone, not blow me teef out!”, “Salt in yer soufflé? Salt? SALT? SALT!

To further enhance this offhand abuse, the film-editors racked up some extra overtime. It was rare to see a shot lasting more than a second or two – the cameras cut dizzyingly from one haggard face to another, flashing rapidly via some gooey mess on the end of a spoon en route. The music was pacey, driving and stressful and wholly appropriate to the general air of suffering and panic. The actual tasks and the final reward became forgettable and even the food itself took a backseat.

But the food becomes completely irrelevant when you start to watch the most-recent series of Hell’s Kitchen. Gordon Ramsay is a mega Michelin multi-starred-chef. He’s a likable, cheerful, bouncy working-class guy whose skills, drive and business acumen have taken him to the top. His UK TV shows, The F Word and Hell’s Kitchen, revealed him as dynamic, decisive and testy-but-restrained. Which was simply far too tame and nice for American TV. And so enter Hell’s Kitchen, USA-style.

Forget the food – it might just as well have been set in an office or garage workshop somewhere, because this is all merely a thinly-veiled exercise in contrived nastiness. The editing and cutting is pure MTV, with the leaping cameramen all seemingly on steroids. The music is strident and loud. And the man himself runs everywhere and tries his hardest to swear and yell as hard and as often as he can force himself to do. It’s painful to watch; it’s all so forced and un-real. The only thing missing is blood and broken bones. Oh. Plus the story-line. What story?

As a chef, Gordon Ramsay is one of the world’s accredited finest chefs. His ‘acting’, however, comes a depressingly poor second. This series isn’t about food. It’s a clumsily-made and amateurish attempt to jump on the bandwagon of ‘reality TV’, with the only ‘reality’ being the very real suffering of the abused, humiliated and often-weeping contestants. All the rest is so dreadfully contrived that it’s embarrassing – although the viewing figures would indicate that I’m in a minority with this opinion.

But all of this poses some profound questions. Are people’s attentions spans really so small? Have we been so drugged by flashy sensationalism that this is what we want, and not actual content? I’m interested in food. I’m curious about how to make it. I like its different flavours and textures but I’m in awe of those who can actually imagine different combinations of these things in their mind. I respect the skill, expertise and professionalism of competent chefs. To me, this is reality. But if all of that other stuff is ‘real’ – then give me good old black-and-white Fanny Craddock any day!

 


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