Doctor, gastronomy is disappearing, and with it the last of the old civilisation. Louis XVIII to Corvisart.
Seeing food prepared on screen is an indictment on us all. Tinned food may have provided us with less than healthy hints about a declining civilisation, but when chefs become “telewrestling” monsters juggling with cleaver and clove, the extinction of gastronomy may be richly deserved.
Which bring us to a man who is more cleaver than clove. How has Gordon Ramsay stifled, if not strangled, his opposition into culinary irrelevance? The answer is elementary, dear eater. Ramsay’s success over his competitors (Hell’s Kitchen, the F Word) lies in how he has taken the food out of cooking. The “f” word is the message.
So, to counter the smooth urbane Keith Floyd, the “f” word is conveniently thrust into on-screen conversation, be it with rival, guest or sub-species employee. It is a jolt which is bound to unsettle Floyd’s ubiquitous wine glass, suggesting target practice against bourgeois minders of the art of food. It was they, Floyd sneered, who would look at the program. The East Enders brigade might as well have not bothered. But today, it is precisely that same brigade who buys Ramsay’s books. You too, can cook Michelin-ranked cuisine.
The “f” word also floors another chef. It wakes you up as you doze looking at Delia Smith’s next recipe for apple crumble. Yes, Delia, I was asleep, and the apple now looks crumbled. But not so with Ramsay, who darts back and forth like a whippet, controlling his staff with orders and vitriol, to the tune of Michelin star awards.
One philosopher complained that staying still would kill him. If Ramsay stops, we might actually get a chance to look at, let alone digest, the nature of his culinary material. One doesn’t watch him to get a sense of enjoying food - one watches Ramsay. He attracts the show, not the taste. Hell’s Kitchen is about as gastronomic as a Toyota car assembly.
There is much to suggest that taste is farthest from Ramsay’s mind: watch me, maker of dishes that cannot be made or sampled. It is the image that is consumed, not the meal. So, Barclays, or rather its employees, demonstrated the civic maturity of the banker by expending £44,000 at his restaurant Pétrus some five years ago. The food was not the show - it was free. The wine wasn’t: the tipplers were drinking the Ramsay phenomenon and were thankfully sacked for their indiscretions.
The film speed is no less comforting. He burns a blistering pace on screen, aided and abetted by his camera. You wonder whether he is trying to be the Roger Bannister of the kitchen world aided by a crew with severe attention-deficit disorder. Where did that garlic go, Gordon? Did you allow the onions to caramelise? Of course he did, but we never get a sense of it.
True, the nature of modern television is a latticework of editing and sub-edits, but no editing could have possibly taken away from Delia’s soporific appeal. Disturbed only by revelations that she might be vociferous after a drink at a football fixture, Delia’s method is so laborious she sends her viewers seeking a pillow and warm blanket. Pass the cookies, please. With Floyd, it was the temptation to empty the liquor cabinet and tour Provence with the spirit of that long gone glutton Brillat-Savarin, in that order.
Food should be there to be enjoyed, but Ramsay’s triumph is food’s failure. At least Floyd conveyed the illusion that food had to be mulled over. Even more inviting are the flaws that come with cooking. The perfect meal is inevitably larded with imperfections. We know that the preparations put into cooking shows are time-consuming, hideously expensive and heartbreaking. The weather could come at any moment and blow the ingredients into the sea. Then, Floyd the adventurer, posing as local chef, could botch the local meal. Such is the nature of mouth-watering gastronomy.
But it is perhaps unsurprising that in a world of YouTube, the World Wide Web and 24-hour television one should tolerate Ramsay’s scrambling in front of the camera. The modern everyday life, says Paul Virilio, is one of “mobility, of mobilisation, of forgetting, of habits, of repetition”. To a food purist, Ramsay should be garrotted while being fed a bottle of Chateau Petrus Pomerol 1947. As should his camera crew.