Do cookery shows on TV change the way we look at food?
My guess is that they affect our eating habits far more profoundly than we realize. And restaurateurs who don’t watch TV are doing themselves – and
their businesses – a disservice.
Let’s take two famous examples. The first is Julia Child who has now become globally famous thanks to the success of the movie Julia and Julie. If you’ve seen the picture, you’ll know her story. Child was a tall, large American woman who discovered French food when her husband was posted to France. She wrote a definitive cookbook and went on to become a phenomenon thanks to her TV shows.
Until Child came along, most Americans knew nothing about French food. It was Child and her show that help sophisticate the American palate.
The second example is from nearer home. From the Fifties onwards, Indian food was the most popular ethnic cuisine in England, its popularity far outstripping that of Chinese cuisine. The trouble was that most Indians would have difficulty recognizing the food served in British ‘Indian’ restaurants.
Most of these restaurants (or curry-houses, as they were called) were owned by Bengalis from the Sylhet district of what was then East Pakistan. The people of East Bengal have a perfectly distinguished cuisine of their own but the Sylhetis did not serve it. They served a take–off on the cuisine of West Pakistan which, in any case, they did not understand. Then they adapted this cuisine to a low-cost operation (two or three basic sauces) and British tastes. Next, because ‘Pakistani restaurant’ did not have quite the same ring, they began calling their places ‘Indian restaurants’.
Indian food may have languished in this low-cost slum but for the influence of Madhur Jaffrey. An actress with an interest in food, she knew how to face the camera, travelled all over India and filmed shows that taught Brits what real Indian food was like.
It was only after Jaffrey’s shows become popular in Britain in the Seventies and Eighties (they are still being repeated in Asia on such channels as TLC), that Brits began to look for restaurants that served real Indian food and Indian cuisine rose above the curry-house.
There are other, more recent, examples. One rule of food programming in the old days was that restaurant chefs do not make great presenters. So channels looked for glamorous figures, so-called ‘characters’ or actors to front food shows. Alternatively, they went the ‘comforting figure’ route thinking that housewives (then seen as one primary audience for such shows) wanted to learn from home-cooks not restaurant chefs.
All that changed over a decade ago when the Food Network in the US made stars out of such restaurant chefs as Mario Batali. Even when chefs were not cooking, they were hired to present shows: Anthony Bourdain is probably the best example.
|"When women like a dish, they can turn to the internet and watch a demo on YouTube or simply Google every possible recipe."
In the UK, TV moved beyond plain learn-how-to-cook-demos to more interesting formats such as Masterchef which turned John Torode, a chef, into a star. Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, the ‘F’ Word and other such shows made Gordon Ramsay so popular that he is better known today for his abuses than for his food. (Which is a shame because, when he actually worked in a kitchen, he was a brilliant chef.)
The effect of these shows was to turn chefs into superstars, almost on par with famous fashion designers or movie stars. Once chefs began to have larger-than-life personalities and reputations, the growth of chef-led global chains (i.e. restaurant chains that draw guests on the basis of the chef’s name, rather as Mission Impossible movies draw audiences on the strength of Tom Cruise’s reputation) began.
There have been other consequences too. In India, it was almost an article of faith among restaurateurs that the only cuisines that could sustain restaurants were north Indian and Punjabi-Chinese or Sino-Ludhianvi. But as a new generation watches Nigella Lawson cook on TV or thrills to Masterchef Australia (the only version of the global show that has worked in India), tastes are changing.
There is a growing curiosity about modern Asian food, more and more young people are taking to baking even though an oven used to be a rarity in India home kitchens and the principles of European cuisine are finally being understood by Indians.
So far, at least, the established hotel and restaurant sector has been show to pick up on the change in taste. But stand-alone restaurateurs are quickly opening successful European restaurants such as Chez Nini or Rara Avis in Delhi or The Table or Elipsis in Bombay. It is only a matter of time before the big boys realize that a new generation does not want to eat the same food as its parents.
In a sense, the influence of food shows on TV is an example of globalization. Once upon a time the likes of Julia Child and Madhur Jaffrey were special. Now hundreds of chefs crowd on to our TV screens and their shows are watched from Boston to Bombay to Beijing. When women like a dish, they can turn to the internet and watch a demo on YouTube or simply Google every possible recipe.
These guests will not want to come in to restaurants and eat the same old rubbish dished out by chefs who went to Catering College two decades ago and have no idea how much the world of cuisine has changed.
A food revolution is here. And TV is the medium of revolt.
Only five years ago I would have been stuck with Akasaka in Def Col. or Moti Mahal Deluxe in South Ex. Now I have amazing options to choose from.
In the pursuit of vegetarianism and vegetarian guests lies the future. And great profit.
I think that Indians have less desire to ‘belong’ than Brits do. We don’t need social approval. And this is a good thing.
And ask yourself: have I really been enjoying the taste of vodka all these years or just enjoyed the alcoholic kick it gives my cocktails?
After all, curry is an Asian dish found in many countries east of the sub-continent: Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand.