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Interview - Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Screen

After dominating the television schedules, cooks are now taking centre stage in Hollywood films...Jan Moir chews over the inexorable rise of the chef.

Am I being anal retentive about this? Catherine Zeta Jones as an uptight chef in 'No Reservations'Not so very long ago, chefs and cooks knew their place, which was below stairs stirring the soup. Every now and again, someone such as Delia Smith would make a timid dash for immortality, with a series about egg cookery filmed in a Norfolk gazebo or a seasonal special on how to cook through Christmas with only limited supplies of tranquilisers, but that was about it.

Cooking on the big and small screen was no big deal. Nobody made a fuss. Robert Carrier might venture forth in cashmere with some interesting ideas on canapés. Joan Crawford made everyone cry as the pie-baking mom in the 1945 film Mildred Pierce. Chiffon-clad Fanny Cradock could always be relied upon to wield the piping bag and explain how everyone needed a piece of really good cake “at least once a year”. Generally, though, cooking and its practitioners were merely savoury titbits in the entertainment banquet, never the main course. How things have changed.

On the menu tonight and every night for the foreseeable future: chefs, chefs and more chefs. Like some monstrous regiment hell bent on celebrity and the perfect Caesar salad, chefs have marched out of the kitchen and on to the big and small screen in unprecedented numbers. Catherine Zeta-Jones packs her lush curves inside a chef’s white jacket for No Reservations, a new Hollywood romcom in which she plays an uptight, perfectionist cook whose life is a mess but whose sabayon sauce is perfect. Ratatouille, the new animated release from Pixar, featuring a rat called Remy who dreams of being a great French chef, is one of the smash hits of the summer in the US and due here in October. In the current film release Waitress, a restaurant worker escapes the drudgery of life by baking tasty pies. Why not? It worked for Mr Kipling, after all. Meanwhile Gordon Ramsay has just finished one series of The F Word and returns soon in the fourth series of Kitchen Nightmares, in which he shows struggling restaurants how to succeed. After years of sneering at television chefs, Marco Pierre White eats carefully seasoned humble pie by joining them when he presents the new series of Hell’s Kitchen on ITV next month. Right now on Tuesday evenings, Jamie Oliver is back on Channel 4, showing everyone what to do with a bumper crop of courgettes and a barbecue, while Rick Stein dominates Wednesdays with a typically avuncular BBC2 series focusing on Mediterranean food. Ramsay protégée Angela Hartnett teams up with veteran reality cooking show chef John Burton Race for a new series called Kitchen Criminals, which runs every weekday evening for the next four weeks, while Ramsay’s wife Tana does something cute with mackerel niçoise and Tom Parker Bowles on Market Kitchen (UKTV) every day at 8pm. Raymond Blanc will shortly be pitching up on BBC2 with a new series called The Restaurant, while Gary Rhodes will appear anytime, anywhere he’s wanted, and even bring his own apron. Any television producer requiring a moor cleared of wildlife and the despatched carcases transformed into salmis without delay knows to contact Clarissa Dickson-Wright, while at this very moment, Nigella Lawson is sizing up a selection of satin basques for the perfect amount of cleavage overspill – think of a rich fold of cheese soufflé puffing over a ramekin – for her new cookery series. As the cold weather approaches, so does Antonio Carluccio, who turns up foraging in the woods every autumn like some hairy old bear. Have I missed anyone out? Yes. Ronnie Corbett. After his successful appearance on The F Word, in which his own pasta dish was deemed better than Gordon Ramsay’s in a cook-off, the comedian is to host a new BBC cookery show called Corbett’s Cookbook, in which he travels round Britain searching for classic recipes.

Now that even The One Ronnie is being co-opted into foodie ranks, the significance is clear. Chefs and cooks are hot. So hot that they have become self-basting; flambéed with the juice of heady celebrity, scorched by stardom and more in demand than ever been before. Doctors, lawyers, detectives and assorted cops and robbers used to be the default character choice for scriptwriters and the editors of television factual programmes, but all that has been swept away by the Cinderellas of the kitchen brigade, the new kids on the chopping block. Carême and Escoffier were both celebrated men in their time but could either of them even have contemplated what it might be like to reach the giddy heights of whipping up supper from the £5 bag of groceries on Ready, Steady, Cook or being shouted at by Nancy Lam for manhandling the rice noodles for her bhud thai? Or could they imagine a world in which millions mourned the death of Chalky, Rick Stein’s pet Jack Russell terrier, which featured in many of his shows and now has his own doggy memorials on You Tube? It seems unlikely.

You can track the increasing popularity of television chefs through a trajectory that began with Cradock and the Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr in the 1960s and 1970s, and went on to include the likes of Robert Carrier, Keith Floyd, the Roux brothers, Delia Smith and the Two Fat Ladies (Clarissa Dickson-Wright and the late Jennifer Paterson). Yet until quite recently the cooks, and the dishes they produced, appealed to only a niche market. It was still rather Hampstead dinner party, a little bit en brochette, all salmon with cucumber scales, Van Dyke tomatoes and mustard glazed lamb cutlets. In the sterile tradition of the English cookery show, the chefs were rarely seen eating the food they produced and – with the exception of the claret-fuelled antics of the rumbustious Floyd – an air of constipated unease hung over the proceedings like the fug from a burnt roast. By this time, brown Windsor soup and grilled grapefruits may have been consigned to culinary history and stock jokes but we were still rather anxious about food and what exactly we should be doing with it. However, the rise of the newly affluent, food-smart middle classes from the 1980s onwards changed all that. Restaurants became democratised, both front and back of house. After the silliness of nouvelle cuisine, more and more chefs began to break free from an adherence to French menus and French ways that had become stifling. In London, restaurants such as Langan’s Brasserie, then later The Ivy, Quaglino’s and Kensington Place opened to cater for a new breed of consumers who wanted to eat well and be treated well in relaxed, convivial surroundings. After all, these were people who had travelled. They had sampled lemongrass. They swooned at the grilled squid with chilli and rocket at the River Café. On top of this, they had disposable incomes and unlimited leisure time, plus a wok and a Magimix as wedding gifts. They wanted to learn more and, waiting in the wings, was a woman who knew what to do to help them.

If you want to blame one single person for the ubiquity of chefs and cookery programmes on British television right now, then Pat Llewellyn is your woman. In terms of cooking stars, she is the mother hen who laid the golden egg, discovering Jamie Oliver, the Fat Ladies, Gordon Ramsay and inflicting the weirdness of John Burton Race on an unsuspecting nation. Her company, Optomen Television, produces many of the current batch of shows, including the new Kitchen Criminals, in which Burton Race and Angela Hartnett attempt to wean cack-handed members of the public off their foul attempts at making food – steak pie sandwiches, trout stuffed with cheddar cheese – and learn how to cook properly. It’s like The X-Factor with more calories but less charm. “I’m not eating that!” squeals Burton Race, whenever a Tupperware box with some amateur’s fetid idea

of cuisine is thrust under his nose. Llewellyn feels that the popularity of food-based entertainment is part of a recurring theme.

“I think it’s a cyclical thing,” she said. “It is absolutely right that there is a huge amount of food on telly at the moment but people are watching all these programmes, and they seem to want more. Whether they want to be entertained or whether they want to learn, there is a programme out there, from the frothiness of Ready, Steady, Cook on one hand to Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection on the other. Heston’s series was amazing, really quite advanced. A few years ago if anyone had suggested one recipe per programme they would have been laughed at. But people are really interested in food now, and where it comes from.”

Meanwhile, up on the big screen, chefs are frequently depicted as noble creators who cannot communicate with the world at large. Alone in their kitchen, their only solace and way of expression is to make the perfect bouillabaisse or spun sugar cage or fried green tomatoes. Adam Sandler’s tormented head chef character in Spanglish (2004) wants to make the perfect herb garnish plus a successful marriage on the side while in Chocolat (2000), Juliette Binoche uses chocolate and sweetmeats to soothe and excite the inhabitants of a small French town.

However, the usual celluloid scenario is that the chef’s struggle is seen as a symbol of the modern artist and, frequently, he or she will also have an obsessive need to be in control. So far so very realistic, even if the most successful restaurant or food movies of recent years have tended to be independent, heartfelt productions such as Babette’s Feast (1987), Big Night (1996), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and Dinner Rush (2002). Catherine Zeta-Jones’s No Reservations is itself a remake of German independent film Mostly Martha (2001) and is serious in intent and food appreciation. We know this because Zeta-Jones’s character wears a beret and always has one tendril of glossy hair falling across her creamy brow as she cooks. This is Hollywood shorthand for, respectively, European cultural profundity and the dignity of labour, particularly when a glamourpuss is labouring. “There is no greater sin than to overcook a quail,” says Zeta-Jones early on in the film, which is nonsense, of course. The greater sin is to overrate a quail, which is only used so frequently in restaurants – and restaurant movies – because its tiny size makes it an easy portion to cook and serve, and its appearance on a menu or on a plate gives a veneer of fraudulent sophistication. Quail doesn’t actually have much taste and only excels as a carrier for other items, such as the cailles en sarcophages (quails stuffed with foie gras and Périgord truffles, then cooked in a pastry case) made in Babette’s Feast. But I digress.

The food in No Reservations is all blow-torched desserts and overwrought scallops and the plot is as obvious as a slap in the face with a hot steak, but as Zeta-Jones herself remains the greatest dish to ever come out of Wales, much can be forgiven. The other week she was on American television trying to explain her chef character’s neurotic tendencies to a gastronomically conscious, coast to coast audience. “Am I allowed to say anal retentive on the Food Network?” she wondered aloud.

Apparently, to research her role, Zeta-Jones worked as a waitress in a popular Manhattan restaurant called Fiamma Osteria. Sure she did! That must have been an interesting ten minutes. However, it matters not how much research she did or did not do, for it blanches into insignificance beside the monstrous efforts put into making Ratatouille as realistic as possible. In this charming Pixar film, culinary royalty such as Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain and Guy Savoy are involved as consultants, while the cheese trolley, service and décor are modelled on the exact specifications of the great old Parisian restaurants such as Taillevent. Even though rats are involved, Ratatouille somehow captures the madness, the integrity, the passion and the spirit that it takes to run a proper restaurant kitchen in the way that few films can. The attention to detail is incredible, including capturing the exact way sliced leeks fall into a pot and the horizontal burns on the wrists of the chefs. These days, British television chefs spend so much time in studios, not in their actual kitchens, that the last time most of them got burnt is when they stood too close to a spotlight.

How ironic that it has taken a cartoon to remind us all of what is real and authentic in the world of cooks and kitchens, even if the big screen version of chefs remains hallowed and undimmed, a veneration of the artist at work, which has few roots in reality. In contrast, our cheerful telly chefs are the everyman toilers in the culinary trench, prepared to get down and dirty, week in, week out. They are the people who are ready and waiting to show you six cheeky ways with prawns, a foolproof method of making puff pastry and how to toss food in a sauté pan in that really, really annoying way. Whether you want them to or not.

Jan’s top three TV cooks

Rick Stein: His programmes, and in particular his new series Mediterranean Escapes (BBC2), are really more about eating than cooking. You can tell Stein doesn’t really want to be stuck in the kitchen rustling up nosh. He wants to be out there chatting up some Puglian housewife about her broad bean purée.

Some find his constant literary references corny but gems such as D.H. Lawrence’s observations on Sicilian citrus groves are always worth hearing again. “Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching one another all around,” wrote Lawrence, almost 90 years ago. Stein is the opposite of a polyglot but, no matter what the language, he understands what is going on in the pot and that is what’s important. I like his increasing reliance on the camouflaging benefits of an untucked shirt and his way of getting into real kitchens to see real food being prepared. If you take comfort in the exasperation of strangers, you will enjoy his discomfiture that life and tomatoes ain’t what they used to be.

Keith Floyd: Yes, he’s a maniac but Floyd always looked as if he enjoyed cooking for its own sake, rather than as a means to a lucrative supermarket advertising deal. He excelled in ramshackle, outdoors locations when things might, and often did, go wrong. I still treasure my copy of his Floyd on Fire barbecue book. His recipe for grilling pheasants over fruit tree prunings in a misty, late autumn garden encapsulates his romantic side.

Angela Hartnett: On Kitchen Criminals (BBC2), Hartnett has to cope with enormous disadvantages – namely the public and John Burton Race – but shows every sign of being a true cooking star in the making. She is authoritative in an attractive, downhome way, and remains cheerful and charming when the heat is on. When Hartnett actually starts cooking, she does so with the speed, delicacy and captivating grace of a true artist. She is one to watch.

No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta Jones, opens in the UK on August 31 2007.

  • This article first appeared in the Financial Times on 18th August 2007. © Jan Moir

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