TV Celebrity chefs in Britain have skyrocketed to fame and even made the much maligned British cuisine trendy. But your average Brit still feels distinctly uncomfortable in the kitchen.
Has Britain's Tony Blair found a new culinary awareness?
The old joke says that a European’s idea of heaven is to have an English policeman, a French chef, a German administrator and an Italian lover.
Hell, on the other hand, is an Italian administrator, a German lover, a French policeman and an English chef.
British food doesn’t exactly enjoy a sterling reputation. The French are especially fond of casting derision on the culinary habits of their neighbours across the Channel. In the 18th century, the French started calling the British "les rosbifs," looking down their noses at what they saw as Britain’s unsophisticated culture of plain roast beef.
The island dwellers have never really escaped the stereotype. And it stands to reason if you think about it. For years the standard British meal was a portion of meat and two overcooked vegetables. Blandness was almost institutionalised.
Cool Culinary Britannia
But in the 90’s that all began to change. A whole spate of chefs started taking to the airwaves and championing British food.
Star cooks like Gary Rhodes, Antony Worrall Thompson or Marco Pierre White came to the defence of the traditional dishes like Yorkshire pudding, spotted dick and shepherd’s pie. They embraced Britain’s unfashionable culinary heritage in dishes like "bangers and mash" and made it cool—it became "bangers and rocket mash with onion gravy."
Britain’s most famous TV chef is Jamie Oliver, better known as the "Naked Chef." His unostentatious style, working-class accent and relatively uncomplicated recipes have raised a new cooking awareness among the British masses. At the same time, the renewed interest in a long-ignored topic has made him a multimillionaire.
Britain’s most popular-if not trendiest-cook, Delia Smith, has even taken sweet revenge on Britain’s staunchest culinary critics. Her latest cookbook has just been published in France—a British invasion of the home of "haute cuisine". If reports by the BBC are to be believed, young French women are breathing a sigh of relief that Delia Smith’s "back to basics" philosophy is finally answering questions they never would have dared ask a French chef for fear of ridicule.
Deep-seated Cooking Phobia?
So has Britain made a nation-wide switch from meat and potatoes to nouvelle cuisine?
Not according to Jonathan Meades, restaurant critic of The Times newspaper. He says the perception that British cuisine has improved is overblown.
"It’s the product of a lot of hype," he told the BBC. "There might be a greater range of foods on the shelves and more food magazines and TV chefs, but the general quality of British food is worse than it was 30 years ago."
According to a government survey, the British spend less on food these days than they did three decades ago. Today’s households spent 17% of the weekly budget on groceries. In 1969 they spent 26%. Obesity rates are rising. And ready-made meals for the microwave are more popular than ever.
And the popularity of the nation’s star chefs doesn’t mean more Brits are sautéing and flambéing than they did in the past. In fact, the opposite is true. Some say fewer people are cooking these days because they fear appearing inadequate in comparison with the cooking celebrities.
In a survey, sixty-one percent of those asked in Britain said they found inviting people over for a home-cooked meal more frightening than going in for a job interview.
Cooking on TV is the rage, cooking in one’s own kitchen--that’s another story.
Meades is pessimistic that British culinary attitudes will fundamentally change, or that the country’s cuisine will achieve world class status anytime soon. There is only one solution, he says, for those Brits who want to eat well--emigrate.