Posh with spice – the food aristocrat who can dish it out

Don't obsess over organic, says media foodie Tom Parker Bowles. It's just a buzzword for the middle classes, he tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

"We talk about Britain being in the middle of a food revolution – no, it's not. It's a purely middle-class invention that," says Tom Parker Bowles. "Yes, we have more people talking about food. But obesity rates and diabetes are still rising and the Government still thinks food is a lifestyle thing. You can go into an NHS hospital, come out of a triple-bypass operation, and your first meal will be soggy, deep fried fish and chips."

Parker Bowles makes these criticisms in spite of being one of the most high-profile members of Britain's growing food media. He has his own television show, a new radio programme and national newspaper and magazine columns. He is, of course, the stepson of our most famous advocate of organic farming, Prince Charles. And he is talking, over bagels and herbal tea, in Notting Hill, the epicentre of trendy London eating.

"There's a Notting Hill set who'll tell you that everything has to be organic. That's bollocks," he says. "Why is it that a rotten onion from five miles away is better than the pert thing from the continent?" He doesn't like these "buzzwords" – organic, seasonal, local – that are seized upon by the "finger-waggers" who tell us what to eat. But he won't name these people, saying merely that they are, "rich hippies on the whole".

It might be that he is thinking about the fast-approaching birth of his second child, but Parker Bowles, a passionate defender of British farming, seems more in the mood to express fears over an impending world food shortage than celebrate the culinary advances resulting from "lifestyle" cookery media. "Global warming is a big issue but the food crisis is going to be the biggest issue that mankind faces," he warns.

Television chefs enjoy celebrity status but have limited impact in changing the diets of "a nation of voyeurs", says Parker Bowles, 34. "We watch a lot of food telly and read lots of food books but it's not translating into a nation of cooks. Forget organic, local and seasonal. The most important thing is to get children boiling an egg or making a stew. We have to stop calling cooking in schools "domestic science". It should not be about making choux pastry but about the basics of baking and roasting, the basic grammar and vocabulary of cooking."

Parker Bowles may have developed his taste buds as a member of the elitist Piers Gaveston dining club at Oxford, where he went to study English after leaving Eton, but he is not a food snob. Unquestionably he is well-liked by the food establishment, a close friend of chefs Mark Hix and Fergus Henderson, and the critic Matthew Fort, one of his fellow presenters on the Good Food Channel's Market Kitchen, the TV show he has worked on for the past three years. He says the food world is "quite small" and that the combination of the TV show, his columns for The Mail on Sunday and GQ magazine, and his new radio programme on London's LBC network, has enabled him to, "pretty much know everyone, every single chef, food writer, wine-maker". The son of the Duchess of Cornwall refers to a "food aristocracy", mentioning Michel Roux, Sir Terence Conran and Pierre Koffman as the sort of guests he invites on to Market Kitchen.

In that small world it's maybe no surprise that he is a staunch defender of Gordon Ramsay. "They're all turning against Gordon but he's a very talented chef, he worked his arse off," he says. "He's a proper gent on set Gordon, he's never been rude to any of the runners – and you see a lot of people being rude to runners. He's polite to everyone yet you don't see that side of him. He might be different in the kitchen, I'm sure it's different in the kitchen."

Parker Bowles has had his own bad press, most notably in 1999 when, while working as a PR in the film industry, he was exposed for offering cocaine to a tabloid reporter. He has no complaints. "I can't blame anyone else except myself. I had a name. I have the good side of that occasionally and if you get the bad side it's your own fault. Mea culpa. The tabloids were just doing their job."

He says he reads almost every national newspaper, every day. "I think the British press is the best in the world and with these super injunctions coming in, it's a really dangerous time." His income is paid in no small part by Associated Newspapers but such consumption of the press must mean he is exposed to negative commentary on his family.

"Of course it gets you annoyed when anyone is rude about your mum. But I love newspapers. I can't have it both ways, write for newspapers and say 'Aren't they awful?'"

More than celebrity chefs, Parker Bowles seems to admire the campaigners within the food industry. He praises the writer of the "Muckspreader" farming column in Private Eye for highlighting flaws in government policy on abattoirs. And one of his favourite guests on his shows is Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London. "A brilliant man; if there's any one hero I have it's him, he's been talking about the problems of food production for years and it's only now that people are listening."

Parker Bowles has written a series of books on food, the most recent being Full English: A Journey Through The British and Their Food, in which he explored culinary history and sampled cider brandy in Somerset and poultry in Lancashire's Ribble Valley. "Every food culture is made up of just three things; history, geography and climate. You can see the history of a country through its food," he says, while admitting that his book is, "not troubling Dan Brown as we speak".

He is careful to be humble at every turn. Even though he agrees that there is a good television programme in developing his ideas on how hospital food and other official policies contribute to the obesity crisis, he quickly adds: "I'd be the wrong person for it."

I don't know. Managing obesity and food shortages might not be the obvious table talk for the Piers Gaveston, but Parker Bowles clearly cares about such things.

Tom Parker Bowles presents Food & Drink on LBC 97.3 in London and nationally on digital radio and television, Sundays 4pm-5pm