From across the pond comes this startling pronouncement: Televised food shows are creating a generation of people who eat bad food while watching chefs make good food.
The thesis was stated by Prue Leith, a former chef and restaurateur who has also gained fame in the United Kingdom as a novelist and memoirist.
Personally, I have never heard of her. But considering that she is a British chef, perhaps we should take what she has to say with a grain or two of fleur de sel. On the other hand, her name is Prue, short for Prudence, which has to be just about the most wonderfully British name ever. And she seems kind of cantankerous and liable to complain about anything, so she is just my kind of gal.
Here is what she had to say, as reported in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph: “No one cooks from celebrity chefs at all because it has nothing to do with cooking, it is just entertainment. … It is heartbreaking that we see these chefs doing beautiful things with wonderful ingredients while they are sitting on sofas stuffing their faces with pizza, Pot Noodles and chocolate bars.”
Note that she is not blaming the chefs themselves. They’re out there, cooking their little hearts out. The problem, as she sees it, is that the people who are watching them are not paying attention to what they are seeing. On whatever level they are watching the shows, that is not translating to cooking for themselves in a similar manner.
She then goes on to suggest that people who buy cookbooks by celebrity chefs leave them out on coffee tables to be seen, but rarely actually cook out of them.
Naturally, the reaction was huffy. “The old dear doesn’t know what she is talking about,” wrote one online commenter. “I have quite a number of ‘celebrity’ cookbooks, and I can assure Prue that they don’t sit unopened on my coffee table but are regularly read and cooked from, and I’m sure I’m not in the minority.”
My hackles, too, were raised. And then lowered. I also have several cookbooks by celebrity chefs, but when I think about it, I have to admit that I rarely make any of their dishes. I made a John Besh creation a couple of years ago. It was great. But I haven’t really gone back to his books or those of anyone else currently popular. If anything, I prefer the books of chefs who were celebrities before there was even such a concept as a celebrity chef: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and, more recently, the Too Hot Tamales, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.
That doesn’t mean the cookbooks put out by celebrity chefs are bad. It just means I find them hard to take seriously.
After taking on the culture of televised celebrity chefs, Leith next tackled another pet annoyance, molecular gastronomy. The trendiest trend of the last decade or so, molecular gastronomy is a new intersection of science and cooking, where chefs use gadgets and chemistry to make food look and taste like something completely different.
“The trouble with all these fashions is that every second chef who is half good thinks they can do it, too. It tends to be dominated by machinery they have got in the kitchen rather than the quality of the ingredients or what things go together,” she said.
“You get too many flavors because something has been dehydrated and pulverized until it is a sort of sand or powder, or something has been dropped into a calcium bath to make it into little balls like caviar. Then there is a lump of meat that has been in a water bath for a long time …by the time they have done all that, where is the flavor?”
She has a point, but it may be too late in the making. Based on my own observations, molecular gastronomy appears to be on the way out, making a quiet and almost unnoticed exit in the way that nouvelle cuisine did in the 1980s.
But as was also the case with nouvelle cuisine, it was only the excesses that disappeared while some of the better ideas remained. With nouvelle cuisine, the sauces and presentations became lighter. And with molecular gastronomy, it might just be sous vide — the “lump of meat that has been in a water bath for a long time.” It makes sense, it isn’t too weird and, most important, it can be quite delicious.
So chalk one up for the cranky Brit. But I can’t agree that food television is turning us into couch potatoes. I think we’re doing that to ourselves.