As I read the following quote from the new magazine for the Saturday edition of The Times, I was filled with the deepest despair: "Fifteen years ago, it might have been possible to be a success in the restaurant world just by putting good food on people's plates. Now, to make it to the top, you have to impress the critics, talk about your life to writers and cook on TV. Not only must your food impress your customers, but it has to look good in photographs, too."
This was the opening paragraph to Jean-Christophe Novelli's weekly column, "Novelli's Secrets" - a highly talented chef's musings on fascinating culinary bits and pieces: recipes, tips, kitchen lore, un bon petit truc, how to look gorgeous and moody and be a very nice chap - gleaned from life in his busy restaurant kitchens. But I genuinely thought, as I read these words of wisdom, that he was then about to launch into a tirade, as his observations seemed to come across with cynicism rather than how he really felt. But no!
His initial drift then meandered into the intricacies and artistry of food photography: "All the top food photographers understand and love food, and most of them like to cook. They know how shadows and light work with each ingredient to show it at its best, how a sprig of chervil placed just so can alter the whole perception of a dish." Can a diminutive branch of mildly aniseed herbage really perform this extraordinary magic?
I find it absurd - and, frankly, dangerous for many young and budding chefs - to now be told that it is necessary for the restaurateur or chef- proprietor to have to perform over and above the traditional happy chore of offering a Bill of Fare, cooking the chosen food nicely, having it served up with pleasure, the dirty dishes washed up before going to bed and payment gladly made in full. Then it is "Goodnight! Thank you for coming! Look forward to seeing you again before too long ... mind how you go
The sad thing is, that those same neighbours would just love living next door - even upstairs - if their nearby resident chef suddenly had a weekly slot on the box. "Bang your car doors all night long, chuck, we don't mind. We live next door to Tony dos Rossini's restaurant... you know, the cheeky chappie who's on Can't Cook What's The Point. And we've got the book, too! Signed, of course..."
Perhaps Novelli is right. Well, of course, I know he is right, speaking as he does, as a chef turned auto-didact PR machine. But what about the chef who just wants to cook because he is exceptionally talented, has good taste, likes his customers (every bit as much as he may come to like the restaurant critic) and looks after his staff (which I feel sure that JC does), but has no wish to appear on television or to talk about his life to writers or journalists or even to Fern Britton?
The crazy, out-of-control leviathan that is the 1990s pre-millennium food extravaganza seems to charge around madly with only one particular aim: that of "fame" - and, inevitably, fortune; nowt wrong with the latter, but let it be honourably earned, at least. Are some of the chefs who appear on Ready Steady Cook really happy to be seen woefully to undercook several ravioli (stuffed with tinned pate, as one did recently), simply because they had run out of time - further compounded by also wishing to show off their pasta-making skills?
Making pasta is all to do with the pleasure of cooking at home, the time set aside, a manual labour of love; almost sensual. It is not something to be thrown together as a necessity: "I must make pasta because everyone is doing it." Of course, what it should be is: "I feel like making pasta today because I have lovely tomatoes, a gift of some olive oil from a friend and basil in the garden." Or simply go out and eat home-made pasta in an Italian restaurant.
Over the past few years, all of us have been seduced by the enthusiastic charm of the affable television chef, Rick Stein. Now, as far as I recall, when I first ate at his Seafood Restaurant in Padstow in 1979, the restaurant seemed busy and the food was memorably good. The people who went to eat there did so because they had been told it was good by others who had enjoyed it. I still think it is a truly great restaurant and that Ricky is a natural in the kitchen and brill on the box, but I might hazard a guess that many who now wish to eat at the Seafood in Padstow go there for altogether different reasons than simple hunger for a plate of good food. If that has become part and parcel of making it to the top, then eating out well in this country is doomed.Reuse content