Celebrity chefs have had a huge impact on the way we cook and what we choose to eat. From Jamie's food crusades to Nigella's gastroporn, how have TV chefs re-defined food?
We undeniably live in a celebrity culture. How our TV stars and pop culture icons live has become a model for our own lifestyles – and what better example than the TV chef?
We’ve come a long way from mild-mannered, middling Delia and her cosy cookbook – now Jamie Oliver rubs shoulders with the PM and Gordon Ramsey graces the covers of gossip magazines. From ‘Celebrity Masterchef’ to the reality catfights of ‘Come Dine With Me’, our appetite for TV cooking is insatiable.
Yet the high visibility and popularity of TV and ad campaigns by chefs has also had a powerful public effect. Outraged at the pointless slaughter and discarding of over million tonnes of fish every year, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall used his Channel 4 Big Fish Fight as a platform to decry such senselessness.
And the fight ended in triumph. Lobbying parliament to change EU laws, Hugh’s well-publicised media campaign raised awareness of sustainable fishing and encouraged the nation to adopt more ethical eating habits.
So who says celebrity has to be shallow? Here’s how some of the biggest TV food celebrities have changed the way we eat:
The Delia Effect
‘The Delia Effect’ was one of the first indicators of mainstream celebrity chef appeal. Delia Smith, with her mumsy wholesomeness and ever-practical cookery tips (‘how to boil an egg’), cooked up a storm with her best-selling cookbooks and earned her a place as a hob-bothering national saint.
Delia’s popularity also translated commercially: products featured on her shows, such as frozen mash, and utensils, such as an omelette pan, became overnight mega-sellers. And unlike the mildly terrifying Fanny Cradock before her, Delia was no food snob. Her debut bestseller How to Cheat at Cooking (1971) featured time-saving recipes and quick cookery tips – a forward-thinking idea for our own fast-paced times.
This democratisation of good food has continued with Jamie Oliver’s huge impact on the nation’s eating habits. His 2005 ‘Feed me Better’ campaign, encouraging school children to ditch junk food and eat healthily, directly inspired political action.
The British government intervened to shake up the entire school meals system, pledging to serve healthy, inexpensive meals that kids enjoyed eating.
Jamie created something of a food revolution, defeating the nasty turkey twizzler and saving the nation’s schoolchildren from obesity and plummeting grades.
Yet Jamie has done more than changed the way we eat. As the public face of Sainsbury’s, he’s also tried to change where we shop. And using his own line of kitchen merchandise, including his badly-rated flavour shaker, Jamie is also trying to influence what we use in the kitchen.
Food as fun
Of course, life in the celeb chef fastlane isn’t all hot water and temper tantrums. Nigella Lawson, an untrained chef, was embraced by the nation with her fun, shamelessly self-indulgent approach to cooking.
She proved that when the heat was too hot, it was still best to stay in the kitchen, re-vamping cooking with a sensuality and passion that had her dubbed the ‘queen of food porn’. Yet her liberal use of double cream and butter has also seen her decried for encouraging unhealthy habits.
As with Delia, there has been a ‘Nigella Effect’: sales of goose fat rocketed after Nigella championed it as the secret to a perfect Christmas roast, and managed a similar feat with not-so-popular semolina – the secret ingredient for perfect roast potatoes.
Brand Nigella, with its homely, can-do approach, has broken the taboo of cooking as a high-pressure Hell’s Kitchen and arguably encouraged more people to don their aprons. With her hugely successful Living Kitchen cookware range and sales of 3 million cookery books worldwide, she’s popularised user-friendly cooking, creating such handy products as a cappuccino saucer complete with biscuit holder. Genius.
Described as a ‘culinary alchemist’, Heston Blumenthal’s exercises in ‘molecular gastronomy’ have divided opinion. Some consider him a maverick pushing taste sensations and conventional cuisine with concoctions such as his infamous bacon and egg ice cream and snail porridge. Critics consider his scientific approach – the kitchen as laboratory – gimmicky and flash.
Yet his flair for originality has helped to reinvent the darkest corners of the food cupboard. Tasteless and boring, the ready meal is unloveable, but his exclusive range of Waitrose meals includes such products as Scottish salmon smoked with Lapsong Souchong tea, coriander and rose salt and vanilla mayonnaise. Heston has encouraged buyers to explore new sensations and stray from the norm.
Last year, he also joined a project at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading to improve NHS meals for elderly patients. Heavily criticised for its blandness, Heston has pledged to update dreary ward menus by enhancing shepherd’s pie and introducing ingredients such as shiitake mushrooms and anchovies. Could the ‘Heston Effect’ revolutionise the hospital meal as Jamie’s did the school dinner?
Amid the worst aspects of celebrity culture, the TV chefs are proving a formidable force for change. Hurrah!
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