Celebrity Chefs be Damned

Published the Times 23rd April 2005

Habemus papam! We have a new pope – a man of mature values ministering to a
large flock who is joyfully feeding the faithful. Having served loyally for a decade
behind the scenes to bring order out of mediocrity he is now stiffening the sinews of
doubters and dissenters with his special mix of timeless excellence. He is certain of
his recipe for the good life. There is a self-deprecating pledge to the world that his
philosophy will never be diluted by the rewards of supreme office. So step forward
Heston Blumenthal, head chef of the Fat Duck at Bray, now the world’s Number One
Cook and leader of 1.086 billion foodies, at least in his PR dreams.

How on earth did our attitudes to food and feeding get into such a pickle of Super
Chef-aggrandisement? Why have we chosen to appoint Mr Blumenthal
as replacement Pontiff with Saints Gary, Gordon and Rick as the Trinity of sidekicks
clutching his cloak? On what basis does the former Glasgow Rangers
goalkeeper, Gordon Ramsey, get an indulgence to swear at us for apostasy, or
for pouring too much oil on the Foccacia? Does it really matter whether camembert
is fried, grilled, flambéed, served naked on a bed of organic dove’s hearts or even
chomped straight from the box? Who cares about the doctrine of the loaves and
fishes –sweet rosemary bread under wind-dried herring? What genius does it
actually take to boil spinach for two minutes and drizzle saffron condiment from a
pipette?

When I was a boy, my mother loved me by producing three hot meals a day with
fresh organic ingredients from scratch. My father cooked the roast on Sundays with
never less than four vegetables from the garden. I learned to make scrambled eggs
to die for by the age of nine because I wanted to make an early start for my paper
round. I have always cooked 50 per cent of the food in my own house.

But as a nation we have lost our faith in family and home-prepared meals. There are
many of my friends and colleagues in London and New York who never cook
anything – and wouldn’t know how to if they tried. Theirs is a total ignorance of the
physics and time-management skills involved. A moment’s reflection suggests that
one of the definitions of adulthood is that you can feed yourself. By this criterion it is
small wonder that we feel infantile in the presence of a Heston Blumenthal and
project our worship and vast rewards onto the small group of professional cooks who
so easily command the skillet and soufflé dish.

The consequence is the increasing ‘privatisation’ of food. We spend £30,000 on a
Poggenpohl kitchen that we never use. We need to eat in order to live but instead
increase our dependency on the Cardinals of knowledge, the ‘Beetonocracy’, by only
ordering in or eating out. Since nutrition comes after nurture in the psychical lexicon
it is inevitable that we literally worship these folk in the hope and hype that they will
love us back. The more we actively elevate them, to keep ourselves alive, the more
in fact we feel diminished and actively encourage them to bully us: “I’m sorry,
Madam, I couldn’t possibly let you eat in this restaurant until you feel sufficiently
inferior”. We pay a high tithe for our laziness.

The natural order of things is that we are breast-fed until we can self-feed. The
unnatural order of modern gastronomy is that we are ending up bottle-fed for life by
an increasingly arrogant clergy of cooks. We need to reclaim our culinary freedom
before they take it away forever.

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