Lessons In Broadcast Dining

Cookery programmes on TV today seem to occupy a strange aspirational gap, somewhere between travel programmes and cookery, often including some human interest twaddle too. The Hairy Bikers or Rick Stein take a journey across several countries – or around just one – where they eat nice things, look at lovely scenery, and cook pretty food. They’ll probably talk to some of the locals, too.

I like this kind of TV, as it kills two birds with one stone for me. I love food programmes, and I love travel programmes. I even love it when competitive cooking programmes – for instance MasterChef in its final rounds – jet off to some far flung places to taste some lovely food, look at some pretty scenery and cook lots of food for the hungry local people. Who knew Peruvian food was so appetising?

Even the cookery programmes which are rooted to one spot – for instance Nigella – manage to introduce the exotic in to their visuals by virtue of outlandish set designs. No, I do not, for even one second, believe that that is Nigella’s home in Nigella’s kitchen. Even her trips out to the shops are shot so that they look like they’ve transported her to some exotic foreign land. Just London, really.

TV when I was growing up had a tendency to be rather humdrum, and a split between the more interesting things in life showed that all too well. In the past there were travel programmes – “Wish You Were Here”, and the outlandishly titled “Holiday” spring most readily to mind – and there were cookery programmes – such as whatever Delia, Ken Hom or Madhur Jaffrey were up to that year.

Thankfully we always had Keith Floyd to liven things up a bit and to set the ball rolling. It could be argued, at least due to their “discovery” of Rick Stein, but mostly because of their globe-trotting tendencies, that Keith and the people behind his TV series’ invented the genre of travelling food programmes. They continue to produce Rick Steins marvellous travelling food series’ to this day.

MasterChef used to be a most staid affair: locked in a blacked out studio, contestants cooking in primary coloured kitchenettes, under pools of light. They were interviewed by the rather odd figure of Loyd Grossman, and any number of chefs, each adopting various levels of received pronunciation for reasons far beyond my understanding. I gobbled up every series I could, and I loved it all.

The problem is that I think the current formats are becoming too stale now; we expect them to be travelling somewhere beautiful, eating something pretty, and cooking. Let’s liven things up a bit.

My first suggestion would be to send an amateur on to MasterChef: The Professionals, to see how far they got. My reasoning for this is that most of the professionals, at least in their first episodes, are brutally awful. The gap between the first skills test and the final is so astonishing as to render me unconvinced. How can someone who couldn’t even take the skin off a piece of haddock produce a radical reinterpretation of Sole Meunière, garlanded with sea vegetables and a perfectly split sauce?

Instead, send in a pair of amateurs, with no kitchen experience, and see how they fare. Will they be spotted by the judges? The other contestants? Send them on a basic skills course to a restaurant with a few stars and a desire to be on TV, just so they know how to sharpen a knife, and what all of the Jay Cloths are for. The offshoot show, behind the scenes docu-drama style, will be a ratings smash, keeping the viewing public on the edges of their seats for week after week. Just imagine.

Sick and tired of having to choose between a fully foody travel show and a fully competitive cooking programme? Me too! Let’s combine the two for a sensational – ratings grabbing – televisual treat.

It’s all well and good seeing two good natured telly “chefs” exploring the countryside of somewhere they and their production company have decided way ahead of time would make for great TV: where’s the competition in all of that? Where’s the drama? Why don’t we take two people we all like to see on TV and pit them against each other in a series of challenges, across a globe-trotting TV extravaganza? Each week the destination is decided by one of our TV cooks: they compete to see the sexiest landscapes, cook the tastiest food, and have the most awkward interviews with strangers.

Our cooks would take turns introducing their partner in culinary crime to some of their favourite places, chock full of their favourite foods. Challenges could be set to see who had most captured the local spirit in their cookery. Puzzled locals could look on, hoping for some free food, even if it tastes nothing like their granny’s beloved recipe for Pahoehoe Adobe with deep-fried Manatee skin.

Silliness all, but still things I would happily watch. But, wherefore my interest in such hypothetical musings? I watch a lot of this kind of TV, and I’m very interested in where it is going. If it is going down the shitter, then I’m going to have to find a new hobby; if it’s going to get better and better, then I’m going to have to look for other interests to let go of. Parenting would be a splendid start.

What I dread is the glitz and glamour of our general televisual landscape creeping in and ruining the perfect balance of light entertainment and low-impact viewership. I look at international variations of MasterChef and I am put off by huge sets, huge budgets and huge runs; Britain is far more twee than that: we are sedate for a reason, and we’re very good at it. Keeping it on a human scale works.

I resist the urge towards pessimism, but I keep my eye on the horizon nonetheless. I’m not saying I miss Gary Rhodes’ cod-French accent from 90s cooking programmes, but I also don’t want Gordon Ramsey shouting at a bunch of children who can’t make a soufflé. Somewhere in the middle would be nice; somewhere sunny, with lovely food, lots of places to park up and cook, and lots of locals.