“Food isn't theatre,” said Delia Smith in an interview this week. Well, she should have been in the room when more than 200 people fell completely silent to watch a clip of a man making a bowl of couscous. Yes, that's right. A bowl of couscous. It wasn't Heston making snail porridge, or Jamie with his blowtorch and a creme brûlée, but the simple preparation of a grain that's a staple of North Africa and the Middle East.
To be accurate, it wasn't just any man making the couscous, but Yotam Ottolenghi, who is as exotic a figure in the world of food as Delia is familiar. And it certainly was theatrical. Ottolenghi was winning a prize for his TV series Jerusalem at the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink awards last night - an event at which the redoubtable Christopher Hirst, of this parish, also won a prize - and in many ways he's the living contradiction of Delia's assertion that TV chefs are so intimidating that they undermine the confidence of home cooks.
Ottolenghi's recipes are not what you'd call simple. There's nothing particularly fancy about his cooking process, but unless you have sumac (a Mediterranean spice) and ras el hanout (a North African blend of spices) in your kitchen cupboard, you might as well stick to the coq au vin. His accent is on the ingredients, and the subtle mixture of flavours that make up the polyglot cuisine of his home region - he was born in Israel - and although you might find it hard to find the components for his concoctions in your corner shop, he has persuaded a huge number of amateur cooks to take the trouble and try their luck with his tuna cakes with yuzu sauce.
And among a stellar crowd at the Food and Drink awards, he was the one who attracted the most flashlight. “People are afraid to cook,” said Delia. But here's Ottolenghi - who is arguably the most intimidating of TV chefs given the recherché nature of his cuisine - being treated like a rock god. I once saw him do a live demonstration in a windswept field in Gloucestershire at Alex James's music-and-food-festival, and there was standing room only. A couple of my friends use Ottolenghi's cook books to the exclusion of all else. Now, it may be easy to dismiss all this as middle-class faddism, nothing more than the obsession of the polentocracy, but the popularity of food shows from Masterchef to Come Dine With Me cuts across class lines, and there is evidence to suggest that these programmes have been successful in getting people to spend a bit more time at the cooker. (That's, of course, if they can drag themselves away from all those cookery shows on the telly).
A study reported yesterday that an average meal contains half the recommended daily intake of calories and almost all the fat a normal person is supposed to consume in a day, so it's right that home-cooked food should be a matter of serious interest. But Delia has the wrong end of the ladle. And, in any case, she may have been the most intimidating of all. Just remind me: how do I boil an egg?