food: Oh what a circus

Along with docusoaps and do-it-yourself programmes, food and drink shows have exploded on to our television sets in the Nineties. But, Simon Hopkinson asks, do the TV chefs really teach us anything about how to cook?
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n numerous occasions in recent years, I have become exasperated, annoyed and occasionally speechless when observing the relatively new breed that is "The Television Chef". I used to find myself shaking with rage, wishing to magic my fist through the screen, and literally shouting at Michael Barry from the very edge of my sofa, "Look, just give it here! Shoo! I'll do it. Call yourself a cook?" My rage wasn't so much a result of the fact that it seemed perfectly OK to present badly cooked food (a thoroughly desiccated roast turkey, its breast carved into near crumbs, was once, memorably, judged as being near perfection). Moreover, it was the arrogance with which the presentation was offered up as being correct, informative and wholesome. And it rarely was.

Maddeningly, in the same breath I admire all these folk - every one of them, both good and bad - for having the gall to do it in the first place. I, most certainly, do not possess that essential gall, for I know I haven't a cat in hell's chance of being the remotest bit good at it. I have tried, oh yes. However, I failed miserably by making a complete fool of myself and once breaking down in tears on location in a pretty French farmhouse garden. So now I know my place, which is here, modestly, in front of a rather ancient, black-and-white laptop screen.

Yet having endured several years viewing of the entire gamut, when I now see shoddy TV cookery - with its ignorant instructions, sloppy techniques and plain silly dishes cooked on extravagantly professional, canary-yellow enamelled cast-iron kitchen ranges - all I now feel is a desperate sadness over this increasingly wayward culinary circus.

I have enormous integrity when it comes to the subject of food that is well cooked, and I remain proud to be so continually obsessed. I know no other way. At the same time, I have no spurious wish to be offensive towards those who, unlike me, have that rare talent of showing off their culinary prowess in front of a television camera. I merely wish to see programmes that are genuinely informative, properly put together and that will simply urge the average person to cook. TV chefs should be there to teach us, as well as to entertain. And it can be done. It has been done. But why is it becoming such a rare thing?

With this in mind, it surely must have fully confounded the curious Food and Drink viewer to be advised that: "If your custard [to accompany Anthony Worral Thompson's apple towers, see right] happens to split when making it, just give it a blast in the liquidiser to get rid of any eggy bits." Ultimately, this almost seemed an excuse for actually having to show viewers how to finish cooking the custard in the first place - which turned out to be the case. But then it did, only for a brief moment, finally cross my mind that once the whole concoction was neatly placed in the very centre of a big blue glass plate and showered with sifted icing sugar, the entire charade might just have been for the benefit of the camera rather than the cook.

Here's one I made earlier

When jolly Ainsley Harriot (pictured left) told viewers that a dish of chicken breast cooked with chopped vegetables would take them only 30 minutes to prepare, he blithely omitted to inform those at home that it might well take them up to an hour to professionally chop those vegetables into such minutiae in the first place - which is a skill the cheery chap has spent most of his hard-working formative years perfecting to a tee.

Why oh why, dear Anthony Worral Thompson (pictured centre, an innovative and intelligent chef if ever there was one), did you find it necessary to slice a peeled apple into five discs and sandwich them together with marinated raisins to form a teetering tower, before finally baking them in the oven? Perhaps the traditional idea of coring an unpeeled Bramley, filling its cavity with dried fruit, sugar and butter, and gently baking it for an hour or two, is now not seen as exciting enough. But at least it works. Bramley apples collapse to an agreeable sticky mush when fully cooked, so it only remains for me to guess that the ones presented could only have been in the oven for 25 minutes at the very most - they appeared to still have a definite crunch to them. The ridiculous thing is, I cannot for the life of me remember any TV chef who has ever cooked a simple baked apple.

While watching Keith Floyd (pictured right) cook possibly the worst shellfish risotto I have ever seen, then casually turn to the camera and declare - in so many words - that this sorry mess was far better than any he had eaten in Venice, it occurred to me how deep a trough had been dredged in the name of TV cookery. n

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