Channel 4 flexes its culinary muscles by asking four big hitters in British cuisine to make documentaries looking at the gastronomic state of the nation.
A fascinating culture clash was aired this week in Big Chef Takes On Little Chef, with the notoriously artistic Heston Blumenthal trying to revive the fortunes of the roadside restaurant chain. Next week, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall asks Tesco some pertinent questions about chicken welfare in Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too (Monday, 9pm). On Thursday, in Jamie Saves Our Bacon (9pm), Jamie Oliver frets about the declining fortunes of UK pig farmers and wonders how he can encourage us to buy British pork again.
Finally, Gordon Ramsay turns his attention towards the doubtless cowering man on the street in Gordon's Great British Nightmare (next Friday, 9pm). He wants to encourage the economically challenged general public to get back into eating out.
What are they trying to do?
Blumenthal is aiming to give a struggling business a dose of creative renewal, but the gulf between the menu at his highly conceptual Fat Duck restaurant and Little Chef's carbohydrate-intensive fare gives him little chance to effect real change at the venerable food chain. Still, this series has put Little Chef back in the public eye; there's no such thing as bad publicity.
Fearnley-Whittingstall has campaigned on chicken welfare for some time. He cites growing sales of "higher welfare" and free-range chicken from supermarkets as a result of his series Hugh's Chicken Run, which lifted the lid on the intensive farming practices used to bring cheap poultry to the shelves. However, Tesco has so far resisted his attempts to persuade them to meet the Freedom Foods standard – so it's Tesco he wants to convert.
Oliver wants to do something similar for pigs in Jamie Saves Our Bacon, aiming to show how cheaper pork imports are harming British's pig-rearers as well as causing unnecessary suffering to the animals. He highlights the British farmers who have already given up and predicts that the entire UK pig-farming industry could be lost unless consumers get back to supporting it.
As for Ramsay's mission to keep Britons eating out: well, doesn't he know there's a recession on? In a feature-length special, Ramsay succeeds in turning around the fortunes of two restaurants, only to be faced with the realities of the credit crunch. His challenge is to convince people that it's still worth their while to patronise local business – and to maintain the fledgling success of his project restaurants in the face of market forces.
Blumenthal was dumbfounded by the magnificently daft business-babble of Little Chef's chief executive, Ian Pegler, who seemed to want the chef to add glamorous novelty to the existing product rather than tackle the root problems. Blumenthal found that any attempt to introduce unorthodox menu choices were rejected by perplexed punters, who wanted their Lancashire hotpot without an oyster in it, thank you very much – and certainly didn't want to pay £10 for it.
Tesco claims to endorse the Five Freedoms concept, as proposed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which includes protecting farm animals from disease, behavioural restriction and mental suffering. Fearnley-Whittingstall disputes this in the case of chickens and took his campaign to Tesco's AGM in 2008. He bought one share in the company and gained 10 per cent shareholder support for a resolution to improve chicken welfare across the whole Tesco range rather than just for costlier products. Tesco says it needs to provide a budget range but cannot do so using Freedom Food chicken.
Meanwhile, Britain's pig farmers have to meet higher welfare standards than most of their EU competitors. British pork, produced from animals who are given more space to live in than their European counterparts, is more expensive. Imports from Holland, Germany and Denmark have risen. These cheaper products come at a price to the welfare of the animals, however. In the importing countries, it is not illegal for pregnant sows to be kept virtually immobile in metal cages. Male pigs can be castrated without anaesthetic – and wretched conditions can lead pigs confined closely together in darkness to attack each other.
The reaction so far?
Online opinions on Big Chef Takes On Little Chef centre on the incongruity of the two protagonists. Bloggers say Gordon Ramsay would have been a more apt Little Chef partner than the "mad scientist", but it seems accepted that it makes for interesting viewing.
"Like getting Stockhausen to refigure the Radio 1 playlist, or Strindberg to rethink the Teletubbies," marvelled Andrew Billen in The Times. "Fun, but not that much fun," sniffed Sam Wollaston in The Guardian, but he did nip out to Blumenthal's Little Chef at Popham and spend £50 on a three-course meal. The Independent's Tom Sutcliffe admitted that Channel 4 has "signed up for an effectively unloseable each-way bet" with this pairing, but some of their haute cuisine vs low-brow grub sparring left a "sour taste".
Big Chef Takes On Little Chef hauled in 3.2 million viewers on its first night, but was beaten out by ITV's drama Unforgiven, whose first episode attracted 5.5 million. Channel 4 hopes its other chefs can defeat terrestrial rivals such as Trial and Retribution and Hustle.
There are other contributions to the Great British Food Fight. Gok Wan's Too Fat Too Young was a study of teenage obesity, while the Marchioness of Worcester's Pig Business (More 4, 3 February) adds weight to Oliver's pig lobbying by linking European production methods to ill-effects on environmental and human health.
BOILING POINT: THE CHEFS WHO WANT TO CHANGE THE RECIPE
Owner of the tiny but world-renowned Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, Blumenthal's obsessive approach to creating food is sometimes termed "molecular gastronomy". His fun dishes include bacon and egg ice-cream, while a seafood creation called The Sound of the Sea is served with a sonic side-dish – each gourmet is provided with an iPod programmed with the sound of lapping waves to listen to as they eat. The bods at Oxford University approve.
Old Etonian Hugh eschewed a career in the kitchen, becoming a freelance journalist instead. His television breakthrough came with 'Cook on the Wild Side', where he went back to nature to work with unorthodox ingredients, including grey squirrel, before his 1998 move to River Cottage in Dorset provided him with a run of successful series. He has developed his own Stinger ale, which is made with nettles.
Last year, Oliver was forced to apologise to Sainsbury's staff after his trenchant criticism of the supermarket's failure to take part in a public debate on chicken farming in his series 'Jamie's Fowl Dinners'. A little surprising, given that Oliver earns a reported £1.2m a year from the grocer for promoting it. Has come a long way from his childhood days peeling potatoes in his dad's Essex pub-restaurant.
A promising football career was ended by a series of injuries, so Ramsay switched to the kitchen. He now owns restaurants in Dubai, Tokyo, Florida, Versailles and New York – among many others – and boasts Michelin stars galore. But not everyone is impressed; Delia Smith went on record in 2008 to lambast Ramsay for his constant use of foul language on his TV shows. "That's not teaching," she reproved. "I like him when he does his recipes, but I'm not keen on his swearing."