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Keeping it real

Like nearly everyone else, I was saddened to hear of the untimely death of chef Jock Zonfrillo at the young age of just 46.

I don’t watch MasterChef Australia (or any of the other MasterChefs around the world) so I did not feel the personal connect to Zonfrillo that many of his fans did. But the reactions to his passing showed how he had won the hearts of foodies all over the world.


People love the MasterChef judges. I once anchored a series of dinners for Gary Mehigan, who I had never seen on TV, but who turned out to be a good bloke and a very accomplished chef. We were on stage together in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, and though I made a fool of myself at the dinners, he was very charming and forgiving about it. (I called him George thrice on stage, and he laughed and said, “No, I am Gary; George is the other guy”.)


   But I was the only idiot who did not fully appreciate how famous he was. Nearly everyone who came to the dinner was not there to eat the food (which was very good, by the way) but to take selfies with Gary or just to shake his hand.


   In fact, the response that Gary got was equalled only by the adulation accorded to the world’s greatest chefs — men like Heston Blumenthal — by Indian audiences. Not every chef can be a Massimo Bottura (who provoked frenzy when he was in India last month) but food TV presenters often come close.


   I shot a fortnight ago for Somebody Feed Phil, a Netflix show hosted by Phil Rosenthal. Phil was an accomplished comedy writer. He created Everybody Loves Raymond. Food TV started out as a side-line (the first season of his food show was on America’s publicly funded broadcaster PBS) before Netflix picked it up and it became an international rage.


   You would think that the host of an English language show on a streaming channel (as distinct from something like Star World, which was a big deal when I hosted the Mehigan dinners) would not be so well-known in India. But Phil is a star. I posted about shooting with him on Instagram and the responses I got dwarfed many of the posts I had done with famous chefs. People wanted to know where he was shooting; how they could meet him; what he was really like.


   There are now many kinds of food programming. There are the chefs who teach you recipes: I imagine that Nigella Lawson is the queen of this genre. There are cooking competitions aimed at the general public, of which MasterChef is probably the most popular. And there are travel shows with a high food content.


   Sometimes, chefs can combine genres. Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection must be one of the best food TV shows ever made: he travelled the world trying to find the best way of cooking classic dishes: fish and chips, steak, chicken tikka masala, etc. David Chang tried the same thing in an edgier sort of way with Ugly Delicious. Jamie Oliver successfully captured the spirit and the food of Italy in the shows he shot there. Padma Lakshmi effortlessly moves from genre to genre: hosting Top Chef, travelling through America to make a show about its food and also shooting recipes that home chefs can make.


   Phil’s show does none of the above. He might have created the genre himself. (Along with his producer brother Richard.) The concept is that a man who loves food, but is not from the food business, travels from city to city checking out the food scene. It works because Phil is brilliant on camera, gentle, thoughtful and always likeable.


"We ate and shot for nearly an hour. At the end, Phil asked the crew to try the food too. Nothing was staged or faked. It was all real."

   He brings a sense of wonder to everything he sees and yet he never comes across as naïve. It is a difficult balance, and while others have tried it they risk coming off as wide-eyed bumpkins or yokels.


   This genre has since been widely copied, with each host adding his own twist to the formula. Stanley Tucci is a well-known actor, and brings a certain world-weary sophistication to In Search of Italy (as though he did not know where Italy was!) on CNN. Eugene Levy tries the elderly-Jewish-gentleman-jolted-out-of-his-comfort-zone for his travel show on AppleTV. But nobody gets it quite as right as Phil.


   When I shot with him, I tried to figure out how he did it. The secret seems to be: he keeps it real.


   If you have some experience of what it’s like behind the scenes on TV, you will know that usually the presenter and guest work out what they are going to chat about much before the cameras roll. There will often be one cringe-worthy scene, where the host and the guest meet, allegedly for the first time on camera. (Ha!) Fortunately Anthony Bourdain dispensed with that scene in his shows. Sadly, most shows still keep that sequence. (Especially in India, where producers believe it is essential.)


   The food will usually be no more than a prop on most shows. It will take a long time to set up each shot, so the food will usually be cold by the time the camera is rolling. The presenter and the guest will nevertheless pretend to enjoy it. (“Oh wow! That is so good”!) The close-ups of the food will be shot later, and often made again only for the cameras.


   They didn’t do any of that on Somebody Feed Phil. I was led to a table where Phil (who I had never met before) was sitting. Richard (who I had also never met before) was overseeing the shoot. Nobody had briefed me or told me how they were shooting the sequence.


   By the time Phil and I had said Hello, I realised that the camera was already rolling. The food came fresh from the kitchen. I ordered an extra dish, which they had not intended to include, and they shot us eating it in real time. They did not reheat the food or make us pause our conversation so they could do close-ups of the food. There were no retakes; no sound person asking us to do it again because his/her microphone had caught the sound of a car honking outside.


   We ate and shot for nearly an hour. At the end, Phil asked the crew to try the food too. Nothing was staged or faked. It was all real.


   This is not how we shoot food shows in India (and in much of the rest of the world) so I was very impressed. Perhaps that is one of the factors that makes the show so successful: no faking.


   The other thing that viewers don’t always realise is that Phil is much more knowledgeable about food then he lets on. He knows all the great chefs well. Rene Redzepi told me he was waiting for Phil to come to Kyoto to try the food at the Noma pop-up. Massimo Bottura is a friend of Phil’s. He is respected by all the New York chefs. (Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka flew in from New York to take Phil to his favourite Mumbai restaurant.) That explains why, despite his Everyman air, Phil manages to find the best food in every city.


   We are a long way from that in India. There are very few good food shows across genres. And even when a show does take off, it is because of the competitive element (like MasterChef) and hardly ever because of the food.


   Perhaps that will change in the years to come. We make world-class serials. Why should we keep making the same mediocre (to rubbishy) food shows?


   We just need to keep it real.




  • Harri 24 May 2023

    Ha! Ankit's comment summed up the article very nicely. We DON'T make world class serials so no where near making world class food shows.

  • Ankit 15 May 2023

    We DON'T make world-class serials.

Posted On: 12 May 2023 11:20 AM
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