Does food TV make us better cooks?

Do food programmes just appeal to our inner hedonist or are they actually the route to an education in amateur cookery?

No less than 26 different cooking programmes appeared on 2012’s TV schedule platter – likely to be more if I hadn’t started to lose count. We all know the daily task of digestion has evolved into a pastime beyond the kitchen, our couches becoming front-row seats to our gastronomic fantasies. But will any amount of sitting on our arses cooing over Nigella’s soft focus fairy lights and ice cream cake get us into the kitchen to cook our best-ever dishes?

The wooden worktops, exposed brick and pan porn that predominantly features in some of these shows is a technique, one might argue, to draw us in to a make-believe feast of potential. We can whazz it up and reduce it down just as good as those guys – look how easy they make it look! But the reality has been known to be different. Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals, the fastest selling non-fiction of all time, came off the back of its simplicity on the box, but was repeatedly lambasted for its extensive list of ingredients, the unrealistic time frame and even for the fact there were dishes to wash at the end of it all.

On the flip side, cookery programmes can and do sneak in some helpful education. The Great British Bake Off did just that, hooking up with historians to delve in to the evolution of food, that handy voiceover mentioning how to avoid a catastrophe of a rum baba, and all sugaring the cookie with the crème-de-la-femme that is Mel and Sue. If viewers are going to learn anything about cooking through the medium of TV, then technicalities as simple as keeping salt and yeast separate before mixing could truly alter the way a cook approaches their next loaf.

Tim Anderson, winner of MasterChef 2011 thinks food programming is best for inspiration, not replication: “I do think that food programs make viewers better cooks, but I also think it’s false to assume that many people are actually cooking the recipes verbatim from the shows. What I think food shows are good for are inspiration and ideas. They are a great medium for introducing people to new ingredients, dishes, and techniques.

“But I do wish that cooking shows would be a little more ambitious. There’s too much of an emphasis on ease and speed, and too much of a reliance on familiar ingredients. Instead of 15 minute meals, how about 15 hour meals? Food that takes time and effort is more rewarding and usually more delicious,” says Tim.

In 2008, Delia Smith, one of the less glittering celebrity chefs, was reported to have criticised the rest for favouring “fussy” recipes and arrogance over simplistic cooking. At the time she said: “I think it is great to have lots of cooking on TV, enabling people to learn about different food and ingredients. But what I do not like is amateurs being made to feel like they are being ridiculed.”

Delia was a housewife favourite in the late 70s with Family Fare all because of her basic approach. But food culture has changed in so many ways since the era of blue eyeshadow and brown kitchens, and we’re no longer treated to the Keith Floyd-esque delivery of a pinot in one hand, a casserole in the other (though it may be a more realistic reflection of us all.)

Of course, it’s all getting very exciting, but is it just show business sake for show business sake, or are we really being turned into an army of aspirational cooks? Several studies have begged to differ, with one 2008 paper suggesting food shows brand cookery as an “achievable lifestyle practice, offering the promise of self-transformation and improvement”, but with little implementation from the viewer. But there is some thanks to be given for cookery TV’s saturation, as Tim suggests food programmes have the power to give viewers access to ingredients they’ve never heard of, perpetuating the notion that shows do get the creative juices flowing: “There was a time when chorizo and spaghetti bolognese were exotic, but thanks partly to TV chefs, they’ve gone mainstream,” he says.

And it’s not only this, but TV has turned male and female culture on its head, according to food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye. She says male celebrity chefs have turned cooking cool. “We are experiencing a large rise in men shopping and cooking food for themselves due to more men living alone than ever before. Male celebrity chefs have done great things for making cooking ‘cool’ for men. Now, men cook.”

She agrees with Tim that we can take a lot from food TV, but the reality is different. “The majority of Britain learn new cooking tips from cookery shows and are inspired to be more creative by the various food programmes, but in reality our daily meals at home have not changed into a gastronomic feast.”

And most interesting of all, she suggests that we only perform the ‘every day’ cooking as labelled by these chefs at the most special of occasions: “Ever aspirational, we show off our culinary prowess when hosting or offering ‘something we made ourselves’. It is then we amass the tricks we learned from the TV. We drool over some brilliant, and oh-so-effortless TV food porn; realise that there are three ingredients we have never heard of and then make cheese on toast instead… unless of course, we have guests or we are a rare and real foodie.”

So, has a TV schedule peppered with food porn turned you into the “rare and real foodie”, or is it merely a procrastination tool of indulgence that leaves you hungry and reaching for the cheese?

Comments (1)

  • Jo Little

    I completely agree with what Tim Anderson says, food shows definitely inspire me rather than make me think I should cook their recipes.
    Recently, I was watching a Nigel Slater episode and he created a lovely dish using lentils and I thought ‘I never use lentils’ so the next day I went out and bought lentils- then looked online for recipes.


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