I have my own theory on the war of the chefs

Last night I went to a dinner party full of middle-class north-London liberals, and the conversation followed its predictable path - property prices, New Labour, state education, property prices, Tracey Emin's bottom, Dennis Bergkamp, property prices and Coronation Street. But then somebody mentioned Delia Smith, and for a moment I was transported back to the early 1990s or even the late 1980s, when the spirit of Delia hovered over every stripped-pine table in the land. "Mmm, this is delicious. Delia?" A bashful nod. "Delia."

Last night I went to a dinner party full of middle-class north-London liberals, and the conversation followed its predictable path - property prices, New Labour, state education, property prices, Tracey Emin's bottom, Dennis Bergkamp, property prices and Coronation Street. But then somebody mentioned Delia Smith, and for a moment I was transported back to the early 1990s or even the late 1980s, when the spirit of Delia hovered over every stripped-pine table in the land. "Mmm, this is delicious. Delia?" A bashful nod. "Delia."

In the past few years, however, Delia's mottled hands have lost their tight grip on the dinner party. "Mmm, this is delicious. Delia?" A confident smile. "No, Nigella, actually." And then Delia was excised altogether from the exchange. "Mmm, this is delicious. Nigella?" "No, Jamie, actually."

The trend was spotted by the recent TV series Alistair McGowan's Big Impressions, in which the brilliant Ronnie Ancona took off Delia to a cream T, then skewed the impression by making Delia simmer and finally boil over with resentment at the success of other TV chefs. She would get her own back at Christmas, she snarled. How we laughed. Wouldn't it be funny, we thought, if Delia really did have a bitchy streak.

And now, with her lambasting of fellow telly chefs Gary Rhodes and Antony Worrall Thompson, we discover that she does. But of course, it wasn't just bitchiness that made Delia take a rolling-pin to her reputation as the Florence Nightingale of cookery, the Mother Teresa of clarified butter. No, if I know Delia - and I feel as if I do - she is not a woman to pour vitriol without precisely measuring it out beforehand. Clearly, this was a carefully premeditated outburst, intended for the front page of the Daily Mail and designed to put her name firmly back in the minds and mouths of the British public. If last night's dinner party in Crouch End is anything to go by, it has worked triumphantly.

Besides, the closer one examines Delia's reported remarks, the cleverer and more calculated they seem. For years she has risen above prevailing trends in TV cookery, eschewing the in-yer-face chumminess practised and perfected by Keith Floyd, Ainsley Harriott, Rick Stein, the Two Fat Ladies, Rhodes, Worrall Thompson, Jamie Oliver, you name them. In other words, she has blithely ignored the zeitgeist, preferring to produce one she baked earlier. And for years we have loved her for it.

But this is the age of the makeover, and even Delia has now succumbed. It didn't work for William Hague, donning a baseball cap then boasting about the quantity of beer he used to guzzle. But I fancy it will work for Delia; in fact she should now consider yanking up the temperature and appear on telly wearing leathers and a tongue-stud.

The other factor in her favour is that what she said was right. The BBC's flagship food programme, Food and Drink, is indeed pretty awful. Its resident oenophile, Jilly Goolden, truly is a bit of a nightmare. Gary Rhodes does come across as rather a pillock. Moreover, by feuding with her fellow cooks, Delia is merely subscribing to a venerable culinary tradition that can only enhance her reputation.

For example, Nico Ladenis fell out with Marco Pierre White, who fell out with his mentor, Albert Roux, who fell out with his brother, Michel Roux. It's what great cooks do. But then, great cooks also run great restaurants, and Delia has never done that.

The theory we reached at last night's dinner party is that, a year away from bus-pass eligibility, Delia is beginning to worry about her epitaph. She wants to be remembered as a great cook, not just the woman who showed Britain how to boil an egg. That is why the knives are out.

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