We scoured this week’s TV guide (which lists 86 channels) and totted up which chef appears on our screens the most. Nigella appeared four times
One night last week, I collapsed on the sofa and switched on the TV in search of some pre-dinner entertainment.
On one channel was Nadiya Hussain, winner of The Great British Bake Off, catching crabs from a fishing boat off the coast of Norfolk. On another, Jamie Oliver was waxing lyrical about cuts of British beef.
There was Nigella, loitering by the fridge in a skimpy dressing gown; Gregg Wallace and John Torode on the umpteenth series of MasterChef; and a room full of chefs whipping up puddings on the competitive cooking show Great British Menu.
Food was impossible to avoid.
An hour passed, during which I munched my way through two packets of crisps, three chocolate digestives and a bag of salted popcorn. At 9pm, I decided to call my local takeaway and order a pizza.
Judge me on my slovenly habits if you will, but I’m far from alone.
Cooking, in Britain, is fast becoming a spectator sport — and the more of it they show on TV, the less we’re doing at home. Think about it: the average adult spends five hours a week consuming food-related media, including watching TV shows about it, and just four hours in the kitchen.
Last week, the BBC announced the arrival of its latest cookery show, Britain’s Best Cook, which will be judged by Bake Off doyenne Mary Berry and will feature ten contestants battling over cooking the best version of classic dishes such as roast potatoes and chicken curry.
It comes just days after they trailed The Big Family Cooking Showdown, yet another culinary competition — this one featuring 16 families from across the UK.
And all this ahead of the much-anticipated return of The Great British Bake Off, which is back on our screens in the autumn — this time on Channel 4, which bought the popular format last year for £75 million.
The Queen of Cakes is everywhere, with her own show, Mary Berry Cooks, on demand on BBC One, and repeats of The Great British Bake Off
A trawl through the TV guide reveals an astonishing 450-plus hours of food-based programmes on our screens (including those on Sky and repeats) every single week.
So what’s the harm? Surely feasting our eyes on food is better than gorging on it in real life? And aren’t programme makers simply feeding a nation that’s already hooked on cooking?
Actually, no. The amount of time Brits spend in the kitchen has halved since the Eighties, with one in ten of us — that’s 5 million adults — unable to even boil an egg. We’re far more likely to tuck into a ready meal: 1.6 billion of them are eaten in this country every single year.
When The Great British Bake Off launched in 2010, producers hoped it would ‘inspire a nation of home bakers’. Yet, seven years later, we can barely be bothered to stick a shop-bought lasagne in the oven, let alone go to the effort of baking a cake.
Why? Because today’s cookery shows should not be classed as cookery shows at all. Gone are the days of a bona fide expert standing at a worktop and reeling off step-by-step instructions for homely, appetising dishes.
Today’s offerings are actually over-hyped reality shows which pit contestants against one another in a series of artificial and often ridiculous challenges designed to entertain viewers, rather than inform.
Take The Big Family Cooking Showdown, for example. It will see competitors vying to create the best meal for under a tenner, and racing against the clock to make dinner for the judges in 90 minutes.
On MasterChef, cooks face the ‘invention test’. This involves making a dish from a combination of random ingredients inside a sealed box. Another task is a culinary relay, with each contestant making separate parts of a meal without speaking to each other in between. How much of this sounds like a normal evening in your house?
The likeable Bake Off winner has taken a leaf out of Mary Berry’s book and got a presenting job of her own, fronting Nadiya’s British Food Adventure
TV cookery never used to be so infuriatingly over-the-top. Back in the Fifties, when the genre was born, Fanny Cradock built her reputation on teaching post-War housewives how to make fluffy omelettes and perfect pickled eggs.
After her came Julia Child, Delia Smith and the gloriously eccentric Keith Floyd, all following the same, gently educational model.
As a child, I remember my mother sitting down to watch Delia in the evening, pen in hand, as she meticulously jotted down the ingredients of the dishes she fancied. Yes, cookery shows were actually designed to teach people to cook. Today they are something we ‘ingest’ as entertainment.
The stars of these shows no longer narrate what they’re doing: they strut, flounce and prance around as if on stage. None of them bears any resemblance to the average home cook, who simply wants some inspiration for dinner.
The ubiquitous cook famed for his speedy suppers tops the charts with frequent re-runs of Jamie At Home, Jamie’s Great Britain and Jamie’s American Road Trip
The formats have changed beyond recognition. MasterChef — originally presented by Loyd Grossman — was the first to bring us competition in the kitchen in 1990 (although in those days, it was three amateur chefs making a three-course meal). Ready Steady Cook followed in 1994.
As these programmes evolved, they became ever-more complicated — and increasingly divorced from what actually happens in an ordinary British kitchen.
Chefs began to spend time gallivanting off to far-flung destinations: take Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escapes, Gino’s Italian Escape. What happens on screen is so heavily edited, sped up and set to dramatic music that it’s impossible to follow what they’re doing when they cook, let alone remember the ingredients.
Then there’s the food itself. Who actually keeps any of these ingredients in their fridge or larder? Hemp (a variety of the cannabis plant), goldenberries (a Peruvian fruit) and mastic (tree sap) have all featured on the Bake Off.
Even Jamie Oliver, once king of kitchen simplicity, has taken to using seaweed, truffles and canola oil with alarming regularity.
On a recent series, MasterChef contestants drew criticism for bandying around pretentious, cheffy terms for everyday basics: blackberries became ‘brambles’, soup was ‘veloute’ and ‘jus’ (gravy to you and me) was dribbled on every dish.
Media psychologist Emma Kenny thinks this is what is behind the fact that fewer viewers than ever are actually cooking any of the offerings. ‘By using ingredients most of us can’t afford to make meals we’ve never heard of, there’s a disconnect between what they do and what we do,’ she says. ‘It’s like we’re not invited to the party.
The foul-mouthed chef continues to terrorise restaurant staff in interminable episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA
‘We watch TV cooks and think, “I don’t have the skills to make those things, so why bother trying?” That quickly turns into: “Why bother cooking at all?” ’
The time producers put these shows on TV — around 8pm — is crucial to their negative impact, too. Not only is it far too late to give us dinner ideas, but it makes us feel hungry… again.
A recent study showed that two-thirds of viewers gorge on unhealthy snacks while watching food on telly. Shocking, yes — but I’m glad to hear I’m not alone.
So not only are they putting real women off cooking, but they’re making us fat. Which begs the question: why are there so many — and why are they still making more?
The answer, of course, is in the cold, hard cash behind this type of TV. They may not be helping us feed our families, but TV cookery shows are serving up millions of pounds into the bank accounts of their producers, judges and presenters.
Jamie, who’s churned out an astonishing 30 series since 1999, is the richest chef in the world, with a net worth of more than £240 million. The Bake Off earned Paul Hollywood a tidy £10 million, seafood guru Rick Stein has £30 million to his name, and dear old Mary Berry is reportedly sitting on a fortune of £15 million — not bad for an 82-year-old.
His first cookery show, Floyd On Fish, debuted in 1984 — but more than 30 years later, eight years after his death, the flamboyant chef is back on screen
Today’s surfeit of cookery shows is, ultimately, not benefiting us at all. And as a nation’s culinary skills go from dire to disastrous, and we forgo family dinners for ready meals and takeaways, you can bet that TV executives are already putting their heads together — no doubt in a swanky, Michelin-starred restaurant — to dream up the next big thing.
THE CELEBRITY CHEFS EATING UP OUR AIRTIME
We scoured this week’s TV guide (which lists 86 channels) and totted up which chef appears on our screens the most, including current series, repeats and re-runs of old series, as well as how many hours they’re being broadcast each week. The results are astonishing…
27 times — 22 hours 30 mins
The ubiquitous cook famed for his speedy suppers tops the charts with frequent re-runs of Jamie At Home, Jamie’s Great Britain and Jamie’s American Road Trip on the Good Food Channel and the Food Network. Devotees can also watch old episodes, including Jamie’s Christmas specials, on Channel 4.
26 times — 23 hours 30 mins
The Queen of Cakes is everywhere, with her own show, Mary Berry Cooks, on demand on BBC One, and repeats of The Great British Bake Off and the kids’ version, Junior Bake Off, being shown on the Good Food Channel.
20 times — 9 hours 30 mins
His first cookery show, Floyd On Fish, debuted in 1984 — but more than 30 years later, eight years after his death, the flamboyant chef is back on screen. Floyd On Food and Floyd On France are aired daily on the Good Food Channel.
15 times — 12 hours 30 mins
The foul-mouthed chef continues to terrorise restaurant staff in interminable episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA, shown back-to-back on Channel 4 and digital channels More4 and 4seven. Series 13, 14 and 15 of Hell’s Kitchen, which starts its 17th series next month, is also available on ITV.
11 times — 4 hours 55 mins
The likeable Bake Off winner has taken a leaf out of Mary Berry’s book and got a presenting job of her own, fronting Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, which has a primetime Monday night slot on BBC Two. It is repeated on Saturdays on BBC One and on Thursdays on BBC Two. You’ll also find her judging Junior Bake Off on CBBC.
4 times — 2 hours
Her seductive style may have lost its charm, but Nigella Bites, which once drew two million viewers an episode on Channel 4, is still being churned out on daytime TV on the Good Food Channel.