On a deep dive into golden-age food TV, chef Alex Rushmer asks: when did cooking shows stop being about the food?
It’s been an impossible year to dine out – let alone experience new cuisines abroad. Yet, I’ve found solace in the wealth of food television across streaming platforms I’m still to cancel (despite being several years past the month-long free trials). There is an element of escapism to these programmes, particularly the shows that are essentially travel documentaries with a foodie core.
Last summer, I raced through (for the third, possibly fourth time) the entirety of Anthony Bourdain’s first series, A Cook’s Tour, which originally aired more than 20 years ago. From there, it was a natural progression to work chronologically through his follow-up series, which came to a tragic end with his death in 2018. This is a substantial body of work – Bourdain spent around 200 days a year travelling or filming – but I am still rationing myself to a couple of episodes a week, knowing that once the credits roll on the final farewell of Parts Unknown, there really won’t be any more.
Secondary to the sheer enjoyment of watching footage from places we can’t currently visit is watching the gradual evolution of Bourdain’s on-screen persona. And the extent to which he grows into the role that he defined for himself. The shy, awkward and slightly gawky journeyman chef, who, much to his own amazement, finds himself fronting a food-leaning travel show, morphs into a confident, learned and interested traveller. One who understands that being in another country (and eating another culture’s food) not only necessitates a level of respect, but also offers endless opportunities to explore issues far bigger than the ingredients in a recipe.
I’ve found solace in the wealth of food television available
I’ve also been struck by the significant changes in UK-based food television over the past 20 years. A few weeks ago, my wife and I began trawling through the archives on Channel 4’s on-demand service and started watching Real Food, Nigel Slater’s first series from 1998. Although some of the cooking hasn’t quite stood the test of time (his Thai green curry recipe looks as if it was mistranslated from a copy of a fax of a telegram), there is a wonderful integrity and honesty to the recipes. The series appears to have been filmed with minimal rehearsal in an actual home kitchen, as opposed to a finely tuned studio, dressed to look like an aspirational cooking space. What’s more, there are a number of recurring guest chefs, including Rowley Leigh, Alastair Little, Nigella Lawson and Peter Gordon, who are a joy to watch (I particularly enjoyed the gentle jostling between Leigh and Little).
Most enjoyable has been the discovery of another Channel 4 offering from the same year as Slater’s debut: The Italian Kitchen, presented by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, of River Cafe fame. The show has a simple premise: the two presenters care deeply about food, and know more about making it taste good than the viewer does. The recipes are timeless, and each half-hour show is an education into one, small aspect of Italian cuisine.
It is a programme about how to cook better, rather than a show about creating a polished version of an unobtainable fiction (a narrative much contemporary food television insists on peddling). It is food television in the purest sense, and not lifestyle programming hidden inside a food-themed wrapper. It is as wholesome and warming as a bowl of Tuscan ribollita and – as has been necessary during this longest of winters – offers glimpses of the warmth and joys that are, we all hope, just around the corner.