The Chef Season by Quentin Bates

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Sometimes they simper, sometimes they roar or swagger. They’re almost always condescending, often to a degree that makes us mere mortals want to take short-range pot-shots at them, preferably with bricks.

I’m talking about those über-beings, TV chefs. I can’t be sure if this species has spread across the planet, being mainly familiar with British TV where these modern day demi-Gods hold sway. I’ve seen Icelandic TV and the pale imitations they have there, both the homegrown variety and one or two imported Danish versions; TV chefs who cook stuff without ranting or preaching.

In the days of black-and-white we had a few chefs such as Fanny Craddock and the Galloping Gourmet who whipped up soufflés and stodgy puddings live on TV in a fairly slapdash sort of way that seemed to work well enough, before the present generation of their sleek, waxed, toned and principled heirs appeared in primetime, telling us to go for the organic option or not to spare the fair-trade cumin seeds on our devilled whelks.

Between Fanny and the new generation there was Delia, now a culinary celeb in her own right, and the wonderful, inimitable, tipsy, late Keith Floyd. I encountered him once, fleetingly, at a fishing industry demo where he stole the show simply by being there, funny and extremely drunk. Sadly, Floyd’s star faded, what with the wives, the drink, the failed businesses. But he brought a passion and a flair to food that none of his predecessors had or that his successors have managed to emulate, flinging in handfuls of this and that, not measuring anything, making mistakes that he cheerfully admitted to on air, haranguing his cameraman and just, well, enjoying himself.

Then came the new generation, chefs with sensitive ecological principles or chefs with cojones they’re happy to flaunt, as well as the outrightly camp variety; Oh, and there’s Nigella…

They have their private lives picked over by the tabloids and the gossip glossies, they growl and howl abuse, flinging the F-word about with the wildest abandon (after 9PM, obviously). Some of them saunter in a faux cheeky-chirpy Cockney swagger or else brood darkly and twitter about organic wind-dried sorrel.

You can sense the hand of the director just out of shot… a little more concern, darling, please. Look mortified, could you? Or the presence of the sharp-eyed publicist totting up the column inches.

I’m fond of my food, and not just for the sake of my own taste buds. Food can be a hugely important device for a writer, as spices and aromas anchor a story in place in a way few other things can – and I won’t say too much about Icelandic delicacies here. But most of all, food should be enjoyable, communal fun that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and that’s just where those God-like TV chefs come unstuck. There are exceptions, as with any diverse group of specimens, but by and large they seem to take everything so damn seriously.

I didn’t deglaze the pan with a glass of dry red? Good grief. I won’t be able to brush my teeth out of shame at the sight of the corner-cutting slacker glaring back at me from the bathroom mirror.

As if it’s not enough that we’re expected to follow pernickety details in using only cardamon seeds gathered on the south side of the valley and pickled in ecologically- and ethically-sourced squid ink, preferably accredited by an NGO that may or may not have a grasp of much beyond its own narrow brief. Food is a tricky business, but the reality is that planet Earth is getting on for a human population of nine billion – and not much short of one billion of those people will go to sleep hungry tonight. All nine billion of us could be fed sensibly and responsibly. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to sort this out.

Maybe I’m doing the TV chef tribe as a whole an injustice, but someone prattling about how we should eat free-range eggs and not battery when almost a billion people are undernourished tends to rankle, especially when that someone has trousered a decent wedge of cash for plugging one of the supermarket giants that have so much to do with the horrors the dark side of the food business inflicts on the rest of us.

It’s getting on for that time of year again, the one that brings out the TV chefs with their autumn series coupled with the Christmas book, leading up to the feature-length Christmas specials, all making their own variations on stuff your grandmother did without blinking. It’s all recorded in August or September because the stars of these shows, if they have any sense, are spending Christmas within truffle omelette-tossing distance of a sandy beach under tropical sunshine and not under a grey European sky.

This year I’ll happily give the and their recipes all a miss and just keep making it up as I go along.

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