A real kitchen-sink drama

The world of the television chef is one of deadly competition, with no room for compromise
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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE A room filled with plumbers; or with arbitrageurs; or with circuit judges; or with circus clowns; or with poets, or shoe fetishists, or supermarket check-out girls, or Savile Row tailors, or publishers, or burglars, or radiologists, or people in even more rarefied occupations, such as dowsers, chicken-sexers, or those glamorous women who parade around boxing rings while the pugilists are being swabbed and de-bloodied, carrying huge signs saying "Round 6"... Imagine any of these groups of individuals from the same trade or profession or persuasion, think of them in an upstairs room, sharing the same oxygen and canapes, and ask yourself: what would they talk about? And how would they get on?

It's a seasonal enquiry, of course. In the pre-Christmas party season that lies ahead, there'll be thousands of such convocations across the land, thousands of petty rivalries and jealousies and flirtations and sudden, urgent claspings (and indeed unclaspings) after midnight. There will be the usual carnage of embarrassments at company thrashes, the time-honoured games of Telling the Group Head Where He Can Stick His Annual Assessment, the furtive advances by the "quiet ones" on the staff, and the unscheduled disrobings of the bought ledger department - but that doesn't concern us now.

What intrigues me is how groups of semi-professionals get on together. Journalists, for instance, rarely talk about journalism at newspaper functions. They tell each other stories - that is, after all, the sea they swim in - and take the piss out of each other's pretensions to importance. But what about barristers? Do they say, "I freely concede that..." and "May I refer you to Crown vs Pilkington-Smythe, 1908?" and bitch about the price of wigs and Michael Mansfield's fees, or do they argue about football? Do armed robbers, when they meet in a noisome dive, discuss the virtues of the hammerless sawn-off shotgun or new trends in leather jackets? If you walked into a roomful of Treasury wonks, would you find them deep in discussion about whether Alanis Morissette had or hadn't extended the boundaries of the confessional lyric?

Some professional groupings behave according to type. I once attended a senior common room lunch at an Oxford college, where the menu promised a "traditional" baked-apple pudding dating from Tudor times, and witnessed a heated exchange, full of academic sneers and toxic put-downs, about the exact date at which sugar was introduced to English cooking. But, by and large, people remain people when they're huddled en masse in the company of their peers.

Just don't ever get me in the same room as a lot of celebrity chefs, that's all I ask. What a shower. Always barking with paranoia, always full of rivalry, always pugnacious, quick to anger and full of dyspeptic condemnation of their rivals, they're never going to be jolly company, are they? In a new book, Bob Mullan, a psychologist, interviews 18 of the blighters and, instead of learning the secrets of the perfect souffle, finds himself presiding over a noisy cat-fight.

What does Tom Aikens (of the hugely expensive Pied-a-Terre restaurant in London's Charlotte Street) think of Nico Ladenis's establishment, Chez Nico? "A pile of shit." What does the grand, world-conquering Marco Pierre White make of Pied-a-Terre? "Shit. The cooking falls apart." How does Michel Roux, sainted foodie doyen of the restaurant Le Gavroche, regard the views of Mr Ladenis? They're "bollocks with a capital B". What does Nico think of M. Roux? "He is like a dead sheep."

And so on. This a world of deadly competition, with no room for congratulation or compromise. The violent mutual dislike of the nation's top chefs is wondrous to behold. Their vicious squabbles over who "deserves" two or three Michelin stars are like schoolboys fighting over house points. And, we learn from Mullan, the violence of their language is often mirrored in their kitchens, where it's apparently routine for trainee chefs to get punched in the face for dropping a plate, and the lady straining over a hot stove at the super-trendy Pharmacy in Holland Park occasionally throws a pot of boiling legumes at the wall in a fit of irritation.

But where is Delia Smith in all this? The nation's favourite cook has never, to my knowledge, opened a restaurant and thus has never had to suffer the consequences of strutting her stuff nightly. Though Gary Rhodes may have criticised her condescending approach to boiled water, she's never had to suffer the cruel slurs of the lavatorial Mr Aikens. Instead, from behind the redoubts of the best-selling cookbook and the popular series, she lectures the country on Spanish omelettes in a delivery so precise, so Anglo-Irishly bossy, that the country instantly does whatever she says. But what would she be like in a restaurant kitchen? Would she stop being fragrant and measured, and take on the spirit of all these warring chefs?

Picture it: How to Cook with Delia Smith, Episode 9.

Delia: Hello again. Today we're going to be making toad in the hole with saffron potatoes. Helping me in the kitchen today is my friend Eric, who lives next door. Eric, what's the first thing we do with toad in the hole?

Eric: Um. Erm. Chop an onion?

Delia (tinkly laugh): Oh, dear me no. The first thing we do is get out at least 24 little glass bowls and measure pointlessly tiny amounts of ingredients into them, one by one, including "oil" and "pinch of salt". It takes hours, and it's hell to wash up, but it looks good on TV.

Eric: Righty-ho.

Delia: Now, we put the flour into this bowl, make a little well, drop in the egg and whisk it until we have a lovely batter. Eric, what are you doing?

Eric: Peeling the spuds, Delia.

Delia: Not with a potato-peeler, you silly boy. You must use the Tungsten Steel Advanced Tuber-Flaying Implement that I've been recommending the nation to use, a snip at pounds 19.99.

Eric: Sorry. Shall I get out the sausages?

Delia: Cooking sausages is an essential element in English cuisine, yet people constantly get it wrong. Simply take the sausage in the right hand, place it on the hot, oily surface of the frying-pan and leave it there.

Eric: You forgot to prick them with a fork.

Delia: Don't you tell me what to do, you pipsqueak.

Eric: But I thought you were supposed to prick sausages.

Delia: Listen, sweetie, who's the one with the Sainsbury's contract round here? Who sells 60,000 discounted hardbacks a week - me or you?

Eric (mutinously): It's only sausages.

Delia (screams): It's my life's work! Telling people how to cook more and more elementary dishes in increasingly elementary ways! And you come in here telling me how to run my kitchen...

Eric: OK, OK. (Backs away.) No need to get excited. (Drops whisk.) Oops.

Delia: My egg whisk! Or, more precisely, my De Luxe Aluminum Ovum Flagellator! Take that (punches Eric on nose).

Eric: Ow. Ow. Ow. This is assault.

Delia: And battery. (Throws bowl of liquid at Eric's head.) Now get out.

Eric: Christ, I'm bleeding.

Delia: Aha. (Turns to camera.) Black pudding can be a nourishing and inexpensive addition to any breakfast. First, catch 50 fluid ounces of blood in a bowl, or more accurately a Premium Grade Plated Chrome Haemoglobin Receptacle, only pounds 48.75.