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Culture

Life Beyond Frankfurters?

Young, "hip" TV cooks including and modeled on Britain's Jamie Oliver have developed a significant audience in Germany. It looks like the "cooking is cool" craze has finally taken off here -- or has it?

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Tim Mälzer, top dog among Germany's sassy, young TV chefs


The Germans are notorious for looking to London for new trends, and when it comes to the new lot of TV chefs, it seems they've done it again. The current generation of young, male chefs whipping their creams and flipping their steaks for German viewers can be attributed to no other than English star chef Jamie Oliver. Decked out in jeans and T-shirts in their airy, colorful kitchens, the German chefs, like their English model, do their darndest to show that cooking is cool.

Hamburg chef Tim Mälzer, whose Web site brags that he worked side-by-side with Oliver in London for a time, is currently the most successful of the new lot. On average, over 1.5 million people tune into the 32-year-old's daily show, far surpassing Oliver's German ratings of around 370,000 viewers. Besides Mälzer and Oliver, 34-year-old Ralf Zacherl is currently experimenting with different formats, now demonstrating his skills on kids' show "Planet Cook," and, along with two other cooking colleagues, in a recently launched documentary soap.

Wolfram Siebeck

Wolfram Siebeck, Germany's cookery pope

"I find cooking shows ever more superfluous. They have become entertainment," said Wolfram Siebeck (photo), Germany's most prominent food writer and a one-time TV chef himself. But Siebeck credits Jamie Oliver and his German imitators with a different approach. They come across as being cool and relaxed in their cooking, taking away the intimidating aura that emanated from professional TV chefs of the past. By not putting value on exact measurements or cooking times, the new crew in the studio kitchens gives home cooks the freedom to play.

Withdrawing into the home

It's not just this new laid-back attitude to making food that has resulted in the new crop of German cooking shows. As in Britain, trend researchers trace the enthusiasm to social changes in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Germans, like people elsewhere in the West, have shifted their focus towards the home, which is reflected in the success of the shows.

Jamie Oliver in Berlin

Jamie Oliver

"Jamie Oliver (photo) is a good example of the change in social values: that family is important again, that there's a new form of socializing which is being re-discovered," future consultant Eike Wenzel of Germany's Zukunftsinstitut GmbH said. "The people who embody these new values make up his following."

But opinions differ about whether more people are cooking themselves or merely watching more of it done on TV.

"It's only voyeurism, watching but not doing," Roman Retzbach of Future-Institute International said. Retzbach posited people's withdrawal into their own four walls has them sitting in front of the tube but not buying cookbooks to take a stab at it themselves.

But Eike Wenzel pointed to the undeniably huge demand for organic food as evidence that Germans are indeed interested in cooking. "What the star cooks show is that health and pleasure can go together. People find that in the star cook and in the new organic supermarkets."

Centuries of bad food

ALDI Markt in Gelsenkirchen Lebensmittelmarkt Verbrauchermarkt

Discounter ALDI

But it seems incongruous that in a country where discount supermarkets are experiencing an unprecedented boom, Germans would spend their money on the high quality ingredients that the TV chefs stress. And the fact that they've started buying organically grown food doesn't mean they know what to do with it or that their tastes are becoming more refined.

"We have always eaten badly," explained Wolfram Siebeck. "Since the 30 Years War the Germans were always poor. They have always just taken what is there: potatoes, potatoes, potatoes." Siebeck conceded that Germans' approach to food has changed over the last century, but said it still has a long way to go despite the helping hand from Oliver and company.

Sauerbraten

Sauerbraten, a typical German dish

"It's been 20 years since I wrote the sentence: 'Cooking badly isn't an achievement, but then being proud of it -- only the Germans can do that.' It's still applicable today," Siebeck said.

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