LONDON • In the beginning, there was the green pepper and the red tomato.
Contestants had a mere £5 to fill a carrier bag with ingredients, then 30 minutes to turn them into sumptuous dishes under the watchful gaze of television presenter Fern Britton or celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott.
The resulting concoctions included the likes of ready-salted crisp cookies, banana syllabub and rice with everything.
This was Ready Steady Cook, the cooking show staple which ran from 1994 to 2010 and which is set for a comeback later this year.
But the world it returns to is light years away from the one that it left.
In the intervening decade, food TV has gone from the quaintly homespun to reaching an apex of ridiculousness.
Where once there was fresh-faced chef Jamie Oliver extolling the virtues of mixing salad with your hands and making this thing called “ravioli” or wine-soaked celebrity chef Keith Floyd slow-cooking beef in red wine, chicken in white wine or just drinking wine, now cooking shows have been edged out of the home kitchen and into the Michelin-starred world of molecular gastronomy.
Recipes have stopped being practical and delicious and, instead, food is either an opportunity to shame – like Oliver’s classist comments on “eating well” being only a preserve of the middle classes – or an unattainable food-porn fantasy streamed in ultra highdefinition on shows such as Chef’s Table.
Take Britain’s favourite treat: The Great British Bake Off.
Initially a charming display of amateur talent in which the most challenging prospect would be constructing a tower of macaroons, 10 seasons in, the technical challenges have become a litany of Joycean names (Care for a dampfnudel? Or aebleskiver? Maybe a simple spanische windtorte?).
Running out of variations on sponge, the producers appear to be rooting around in obscure, dusty recipe books in their quest for difficulty over entertainment.
The trend for impossible foodie TV was perhaps kick-started by the self-appointed king of micro gastronomy, Heston Blumenthal.
Forever dressed in chef’s whites and wielding his powerful glasses like a technician’s microscope, Blumenthal made his name in the early 2000s with fiendishly complex cooking shows that applied his Michelin-starred mentality to everyday recipes such as roast chicken and porridge.
For Blumenthal, food is escapism – an all-encompassing experience that should explode all the senses and be a Promethean task to complete. Tasty and functional it is not.
His latest offering, Crazy Delicious, takes place on an edible set where three contestants “forage” ingredients to cook for their “food gods” Blumenthal, American chef Carla Hall and Swedish restaurateur Niklas Ekstedt.
The idea is for the amateur cooks to transform everyday ingredients into new “culinary experiences”. Discoveries so far have included strawberry cheesecake hot wings, hot dog profiteroles and banana tacos.
It is certainly a somewhat sickening spectacle, but the Crazy Delicious recipes are so far removed from real life, they seem to serve no other purpose than to make viewers gawp aimlessly.
That is without factoring in the surely gargantuan amount of food waste a programme with an edible set must produce.
Instead, shows such as Crazy Delicious help to cultivate the snobbish attitudes that lead to a backlash against practical, easy food viewers may wish to make and eat.
Food like that of Bake Off (2015) winner Nadiya Hussain, who used canned spaghetti, tinned potatoes and instant noodles in her show Time To Eat, or Jack Monroe’s books for meals on a budget.
Hussain and Monroe’s recipes have been born of necessity – the effects of austerity – and Hussain has even urged viewers to be “less pretentious”, defending her use of cheaper alternatives.
Even former queen of the Bake Off tent Mary Berry has recently said she has never eaten a takeaway, while Oliver – whose next show will teach takeaway fans to cook their favourite dishes from scratch – is on such a health crusade that he seems to have forgotten the value of no-frills thriftiness that first made him so popular as the Naked Chef.
Let one hope, then, that the return of Ready Steady Cook is also a return to the simple, feasible and fun reality of food TV.
No more atomised veloute or Icelandic laufabrau. All is needed is a bag with £5 (S$9) worth of fresh ingredients, a nervous guest cooking live on air and a winning team – red tomatoes or green peppers.
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