Thursday, 14 August 2014

Celebrity Chefs and the Street Food Revolution

When I wrote The Takeway Secret and More Takeaway Secrets, much of their success lay in the fact that the recipes included in the books reflected everyday food.  Doner kebabs, chicken pakora, chicken tikka - the kind of everyday food that many people eat on a daily basis.  I have no problem with those who are perhaps well off financially enjoying the supposed 'finer things in life' (whatever gets you through the night and all that), but it's really not my world.  Fine dining, truffles, dessert wines, it's all lost on me and, being something I didn't grow up with, is certainly something I don't particularly have any real appreciation or desire for.

Being interested in food in general, I've always had a keen eye on television food programmes and have enjoyed many of them through the years.  I'm certainly not going to be joining the complaints about the sheer number of food programmes on television nowadays, regardless of the content or the people involved, if it's a food programme I'll more than likely be reasonably happy to watch.  I have noticed a very definite change in atmosphere over the years where food programming is concerned however.  Of course, fine dining and the upper classes were always fairly well represented on television, the original Master Chef series perhaps being a good example.  On the whole however, in my much younger days I always found food programming to be very much aimed at the majority, designed to capture a wide audience of everyday people.  Shows such as Ready Steady Cook and Can't Cook, Won't Cook seemed to me to be very down to earth, easily accessible programmes which removed the fear factor which apparently gripped some of us when it came to the idea of cooking for ourselves.

As the years went by, that down to earth approach to food on television seemed to be replaced by a series of chefs and programmes who assumed that their viewers should be aiming higher.  Aspirational television has had it's influence on all programming but particularly so in the world of food.  For a while, it became seemingly impossible to watch a food programme that didn't involve very high end cooking, presented by very well dressed chefs who couldn't wait to help you cook your way to your first Michelin star.  Whilst many of these programmes made for decent viewing, the food aspect seemed almost secondary in comparison to the lifestyle they tried so hard to portray and to encourage on to the masses.  Ultimately, they became much more about television than food and I often found myself wondering just how many people, if any, would actually genuinely purchase ingredients and attempt cooking any of the dishes on the programme I'd just watched.  In the worst cases, it seemed clear that the producer's ambition was more focused on selling a line of expensive kitchen equipment than genuinely encouraging people to get into their kitchen and just have a go, using whatever knives, pots and pans they already happened to have in the cupboard.

Fast-forward to more very recent times and it seems that there's been a noticeable shift in direction, provoked not by the television food industry but by ordinary people themselves.  The recent huge explosion of popular street-food stalls, pop-up events and, dare I say it, everyday recipe books such as The Takeaway Secret seems to reflect an enthusiasm about food which is becoming more and more dominated by real people with a desire to eat tasty food without the airs and graces which used to automatically accompany it.  In short, it feels very much like there's a 'revolution' of sorts under way in which everyday people are expressing a desire for the pretentiousness to be removed from food and, in turn, from food programming.

With this in mind, there have been some some visible shifts in food programming, some positive and welcome and some downright hilarious.  Watching celebrity chefs such as Michel Roux Jr. attempt to include more 'street food' segments in their programmes makes for fantastic viewing, for all the wrong reasons.  You'll watch through your fingers as the presenter, through gritted teeth, talks with feigned enthusiasm about the recent rise in street stalls and the casual approach many people now have towards food.  The BBC's 'Food & Drink' series recently included an episode focused on street food in which viewers were shown how to prepare and cook a 'Duck Burger'.  Another popular programme hosted by the ever present Jamie Oliver and his farmyard friend Jimmy Doherty, trying hard to capture the street-food market, demonstrated how to cook a kebab by purchasing an oil drum, converting it into an outdoor spit and cooking a giant spinning mass of organic meat, enough to feed 30-40 people at a time.  Whilst presenting this laborious process to the viewer, they also kindly (and incorrectly) informed the watching world that 'a kebab isn't the kind of thing you can make in your own kitchen'.

Street food, real food, is ultimately about nothing more than that.  Food.  The rise in popularity of these stalls, carts, festivals, recipe books, websites and blogs is very much connected to how down to earth and lacking in pomposity they are.  James Vs Burger, and the superbly named 'Oh Ma Cod' are all blogs which show clearly how popular the down to earth approach is with people.  It's refreshing to be able to enjoy tasty, delicious food without being spoken down to for making the wrong wine choice or, heaven forbid, ignoring the wine altogether in favour of a bottle of beer or a glass of irn-bru.  Whilst it's interesting to witness the scrambled panic of certain celebrity chefs as they desperately try to hold on to an industry which used to belong entirely to them, it's embarrassingly clear that the mixture just doesn't work.  Street food fans want real food and this doesn't mean putting a duck breast in a burger bun.

It should be said that there are many celebrity chefs whose approach is perfectly suited to the recent street food boom.  Rick Stein, Ken Hom and the excellent Ching-He Huang all do an excellent job of presenting delicious recipes in a down to earth manner.  Witnessing the popularity of this cooking culture appears to have led other TV chefs to attempt to participate however and in many cases it leads to confusion and, sadly, embarrassment.  It's perfectly acceptable to enjoy fine wine and high end cooking, but if that's your thing, that's your thing.  There's a big food world out there and some celebrity chefs might do well to accept that variety is the spice of life and leave room for the real street food experts out there.  That's you by the way.

Happy cooking!

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