Last Night's Viewing: Marco Pierre White's Kitchen Wars, Channel 5
The Men Who Made Us Fat, BBC2
I've been meaning to review Marco Pierre White's Kitchen Wars for a couple of weeks now but I kept on catching sight of the on-air trails and being disabled by nausea. It's unprofessional, I know. As the broadcasting equivalent of a restaurant inspector, I'm supposed to be able to take the odd rank odour in my stride. I should have gritted my teeth and just got down to business. But there's something about his on-screen persona that is so off-putting that I simply couldn't manage it. Shamed by my dereliction of duty I have now made myself watch an entire programme from soup to nuts, or, in the case of last night's show, from scallop raviolo to lemon tart.
The core of the programme is pretty standard chef-to-chef combat. Marco is searching for the country's finest cooking couple, usually a front-of-house/stove-top combination of manager and chef. The competitors assemble in his "Battle Kitchen", where they cook for 25 diners each, with fairly tight restraints on preparation time and service. They have to aim for the right balance between the doable and the impressive, since there's little point in bringing off a three-Michelin-star starter if it means that your guests get nothing else to eat at all.
And if you like this kind of thing, I suppose it's fine. It delivers the familiar flavours of race against the clock and narrowly averted disaster, and adds to those an extra ingredient in the shape of marital tension (though Raymond Blanc also thoroughly explored that dynamic in The Restaurant). The only real problem is Marco Pierre White himself, who lurks around the place toying with a large chef's knife like the villain in a straight-to-video movie. He taps it on the kitchen surfaces, waves it in the air ostentatiously, strokes it and even eats with it when he tests the competitors' cooking, which frankly just makes him look gormless.
Even worse than this silly pantomime of menace is the way he delivers his lines. He seems to be aiming for granite obduracy. But he gets pure pinewood – a stiff, affectless manner that is more likely to make you giggle than cow you into compliance. Refreshingly, one of the competitors last night, a no-nonsense Scot called Rosaria, simply ignored his attempts at glacial command and bossed him around like a kitchen-hand. She then let herself down badly by torturing her customers with an Italian aria, apparently believing that this would enhance their dining experience... but you can't have everything.
Jacques Peretti began the second part of The Men Who Made Us Fat by going for breakfast in Great Yarmouth. At a local diner, he ordered himself the Jesters Kidz Breakfast, so called not because it's a suitable portion size for a child but because it weighs as much as one. "Obviously, it's not something that you should eat every day," the proprietor told him as heaved a cairn of fried food on to the table. Peretti's subject this week was the supersizing that has made such a thing even thinkable, from the Chicago cinema manager who first realised that selling popcorn in skips was a short cut to profit to the elephantiasis of the Mars bar that occurred in Britain in the eighties.
There was the usual parade of corporate mendacity about "consumer choice" and "value" but also scientific evidence of the weakness of our cave-man brains when faced with what looks like nutritional bounty. The human appetite is not a bottleneck at all but will stretch to accomodate what's in front of it. Which is why snacks themselves have become "expandable", a bit of food industry jargon that means finding new ways to increase the amount of junk we funnel down our necks. Laughably, we rely on industry self-restraint to reverse the obesity crisis this has engendered. But they just can't stop themselves gorging.
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