Friday, 3 September 2010

Celebrity Masterchef

I have been watching rather a lot of food related programmes these days. Indeed I am developing a serious interest in cooking, but more about that some other time.  One of the food-programmes I have taken to watching this year is Masterchef. This is a programme in which amateur chefs compete to win the title of Masterchef. The programme used to be hosted by Lloyd Grossman years ago (when I did not watch it). In recent years two geezers—John Torode and Greg Wallace—are the resident hosts and judges. Torode is an Australian who always wears a slightly spaced out look—as if he is nursing a particularly fierce hangover—and who has an unfortunate penchant for wearing drab-coloured cardigans. He is the real expert; he knows—or is supposed to know—what he is talking about. According to WikiPedia, he owns a chain of restaurants (probably specializing in burgers) around London and is a trained chef. Greg Wallace is an Englishman, with a slightly lop-sided face, as if someone took the individual parts  of his face apart—or maybe he had an accident in his childhood (a horse stepped on his face, perhaps) and put them back together ever so slightly out of kilter. I don’t think he has boiled an egg in his life. He used to be—probably still is—a greengrocer. Quite how and why this man, who does not seem equipped to fathom the more intricate aspects of cooking, came to be a judge on a cookery programme is unfathomable to me. Mind you, he looks a jolly enough fellow bordering on clinical obesity, and is moderately efficient in describing the food he is eating. But that is not saying much. Seeing as the guy brings no special culinary skills to the programme and is not exactly an oil painting (his physiognomy suggests he weighs a stone for every year of his life) you would have expected him to at least bring some linguistic brilliance to the programme. He is adequate, but that is about it. I guess it is difficult to describe the pleasures of eating a pan-fried breast of chicken using language that would have Martin Amis nodding with approval; and ‘crispy on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside’ (which is what Greg Wallace says nine out of ten times) is about as good as it is going to get. It is just a chicken breast, after all, not a Vermeer.  John Torode passes what seem like more technical comments. He is also better than Greg at ferreting out deficiencies or mistakes the contestants might have tried to camouflage. ‘The skin on this turbot is burned,’ he will announce, dislodging with his fork the mountain of grilled vegetables the contestant has arranged around and above said portion of the fish. ‘And the sauce is too thick; you have reduced it too much,’ he will add, just to make sure that the contestant is properly deflated. The consistency of the sauce is never right for Torode; it is either too thick or too watery. The same goes for seasoning: it is either too much or not enough. Still, he does not end every sentence with ‘mate’. However, they both spout the most hackneyed clichés at the beginning and the end of each episode with the air that they are revealing the Da Vinchi code. For example, John Torode might say, ‘We know all these people love cooking, but (with a significant pause and narrowing of eyes) can they cook?’, his expression and demeanour suggesting that he has been here before only to be let down and is expecting nothing to change. Greg Wallace will declare, with the air of a man whose ship has come in, ‘Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!’ John Torode will nod and smile like a wise sage, before weighing in with his over-the-top banality such as ‘Only the best will survive!’ I would have thought that that was the point of all competitions. I have yet to come across any competition (except perhaps the rigged cricket matches in the Indian subcontinent) in which the mediocre survive. Interestingly, when they speak, neither looks directly at the camera (and the viewers). Both Torrode and Wallace are filmed in profile as they make their bombastic pronouncements, as if they are talking with the other guy. Except that the other bloke is not in the frame. So, when fat Greg is shouting that cooking does not get tougher ‘than this’, he is shouting at someone, presumably John Torode. Then the camera focuses on John Torode’s face (showing the ravages of decades of alcoholism) as he tries to arrange his facial muscles into a resemblance of appreciation and satisfaction. The two are never in the same frame unless they are speaking to the contestants. There are rumours that they do not get along and that they are filmed separately. However, I believe the real reason must be that it is impossible to be in Wallace’s vicinity as he unleashes a torrent of clichés at deafness-inducing volumes for more than five minutes without your mind escaping into outer stratosphere.

Recently the BBC finished showing ‘Celebrity Masterchef’. The format remains the same, but the participants are supposed to be celebrities as opposed to members of public. Except that no real celebrity has the time for it. So, what you get instead is a motley collection of has-beens (usually some sport personality—in the loose sense of the term—who represented the UK in some non-event such as rowing or yachting or 400 meter hurdles, and missed the bronze by hundredth of a second), or someone who once went out with the best mate of a Premiership footballer (who is in and out of rehab or mental institutions these days) and believes she is a model, or someone who presents a day-time television programme no one (save the geriatrics and the unemployed and the benefit-fraudsters) watches (or is even aware of), or someone who is just an obnoxious loudmouth and is considered a celebrity for these attributes. One of the celebrities in 2010 ‘Celebrity Masterchef’ who would come in the last category (obnoxious loudmouth) was Christine Hamilton. Why is this woman considered a celebrity? She is the wife of Neil Hamilton, a thoroughly corrupt Tory politician, who unsuccessfully tried to sue the ‘Guardian’ in the 1990s for libel after it published an article claiming that he accepted thousands of pounds from Mohammad Al-Fayed (who, I accept, is not exactly a paragon of virtue and may be mentally deranged into the bargain), and, as a result, went bankrupt. After his political career came to a deservingly disgraceful end, Hamilton, together with his wife, Christine (whose expertise until then consisted in its entirety of working as her husband’s secretary and accompanying him to evening dinners), reinvented himself as a media celebrity, and participated in chat shows and reality television shows. Last year Christine Hamilton changed her name by deed poll to ‘British Battleaxe’ thereby proving that there is no turpitude that is low enough for this woman so long as she gets her few inches of column-space on page 23 of the tabloids. The Daily Mail commented that with more women like Christine Britain would never have lost her empire (I rest my case). Christine Hamilton is a case in point that in Britain you can become a celebrity if you are (a) notorious, (b) shameless, and (c) White. For 2010 Celebrity Masterchef Hamilton was joined by other faux-celebrities that included, among others, Lisa Faulkner, a painfully thin actress with bad teeth who used to be in some long-defunct soap and paraded her fatless carcass in bikinis. Another ‘celebrity’ was Dick Strawbridge. He is supposed to be a television presenter and has more hair on his upper lip than Greg Wallace has on his head. Out of curiosity I googled Strawbridge and discovered that he has a website. This guy actually believes that his moustache is an asset; his website mentions that he is the owner of the most spectacular moustache in showbiz. This is like Jeremy Clarkson announcing that his face is his biggest asset. Quite why growing a moustache you can sweep the floor with qualifies someone to become a celebrity is beyond me. Strawbridge’s website also informs that you can sample the delights of Strawbridge’s cuisine for astronomical prices. (Going by the dishes he prepared on the Celebrity Masterchef, 2010—kidney and celeriac in cream, and something ghastly made from the innards of a pig—I would urge you to think very carefully before you decide to travel to whichever mud-hole in Devon colonel Strawbridge—he used to be in the army, apparently—is holing out, and part with your cash.) There was another television actor (I can’t remember his name) who probably harboured the delusion that a three-day stubble made him look cool (when in fact it made him look like a tramp who needs a bath), and an effeminate ex-athlete who was renowned for breaking down on the eve of major tournaments. Finally, there was Neil Stuke, who used to be in a popular sitcom fifteen years ago and would appear to have done nothing since other than cultivating a paunch and a no-fixed-abode look.

One of the tests the celebrity contestants have to pass is the so called invention test. They are asked to, say, fillet a fish or chop a chicken and then fry (or pan-fry) the ingredients. Torrode shows the audience how it is done, as Greg watches on, a dense network of frowns crisscrossing his broad forehead (that triumphantly extends all the way to the crown of his head). Torrode affects a demeanour of cool nonchalance as he carries out the procedure at a brisk pace, probably to show off his skills and expertise. But honestly, how much skill is required to remove a breast from a dead bird or to hack off half of a dead fish? All the expertise you would need is not to chop off your fingers. Still, it is a relief that Torrode does not pretend that he is performing skull-base surgery, which would have ticked me off. Greg Wallace then makes profound comments such as ‘This is not easy’ or ‘This requires real skills’. Anyway, I am convinced that the contestants are told in advance what the invention test is going to be. Who fillets a fish or a chicken these days? Nobody. We have got fish-mongers and supermarkets for that. It’s a bit of a con, if you ask me.

Another test is a palate test. Torrode prepares a dish. He will demonstrate to the audience and the frowning Greg Wallace (how much does this guy frown! Some mornings he must be getting up with a headache—with all that frowning and contraction of the forehead muscles—wondering who boxed him in the nuts). Invariably Torrode adds to the dish anything and everything he can lay his hands on, such as a dozen herbs and a couple of dozen spices, a few hundred salad leaves, several hundred cans of noodles or meat (or both), and incinerates the concoction at high heat. Greg then passes his expert opinion which goes something like ‘This is going to be interesting’ or ‘Let’s get them in’. Not infrequently he randomly selects one of the five thousand ingredients Torrode has thrown in the dish (which, by the time he is done with it, looks about as appetising as the boiled hide of an alligator) and declares that he would be ‘really interested’ to see if the contestants can identify it correctly. Sometimes the contestants identify the major ingredients wrong; for example, they might wrongly identify beef as lamb, which is a cue for Torrode to stare back at them as if they were grave robbers, and Greg to ask a subtle question like, ‘Do you eat a lot of beef?’ (if the contestant has wrongly identified beef as lamb or rabbit).

This year’s finalists were: Strawbridge—the fat ex-army man with a disgusting moustache—, Christine Hamilton—the shameless publicity-monger, who when she is not behaving like a bear with a raging headache, is acting like a camel in a filthy mood—, and Lisa-oh-I-am-so-cute-I-am-really-so-talented-but-I-don’t-have-confidence-Faulkner.

These three were asked to cook dinners in a variety of situations. They served up dinner for the guests on the Orient Express (I don’t know how much these chaps pay to travel on the Orient Express, but if I ever were to afford the trip, I would be mightily cheesed off if I were served a bizarre medley of various parts of rabbit with a stinking puree of oysters), for stern looking women from the Women’s Institute (who sternly told the camera that they expected nothing less than perfection, that they would have no hesitation in sending the dish back if it was not up to scratch, and then polished off three course meals with as much discretion as that of a pig working its way through a pail of garbage), for a bunch of athletes including Sebastian Coe and Kelly Holmes (non-sportpersons who used to compete in non-sport; why is running even considered a sport?) whom Christine Hamilton a.k.a. the British Battleaxe served practically raw flesh of a dead cow, and some very fussy Michelin star chefs (who nattered like old women on the presentation of food). I particularly liked the episode where the finalists prepared a three course meal for the headmaster of Harrow school and three of his sycophantic staff (who excitedly whispered to the camera what a great honour it was to have been invited by the headmaster and how finicky the headmaster was about food and what a great connoisseur of food the headmaster was). The headmaster leaned back in his chair like a Roman emperor and deigned ever now and then to make comments such as ‘This is perfectly adequate’, or ‘This is perfectly serviceable’.  He was hilarious.

At each stage of the competition John and Greg accompanied the contestants (all of whom told the camera how the competition had taken over their lives, how it has changed their lives, how it was scary and terrifying, and brilliant, and how much they would like to win it) and, when not wasting the contestants' time with their irritating, unhelpful comments, made their presence felt by wondering (to the camera) how on earth Lisa Faulkner (who excelled at giving a good impression of a rabbit caught in headlights) was going to get her pork medallions in creamy mustard sauce in time, or wondering whether Strawbridge’s combination of sheeps’s eyeballs in vinegar with the accompaniment of figs in wine sauce on which was sprinkled chilli reflected a sound judgment (or a sane mind, if you ask me), or tut-tuting that the British Battleaxe had once again put too many ingredients to her duck’s breast (it looked inedible).

At the end of it all Lisa Faulkner was declared the winner of the Celebrity Masterchef 2010. It was all good fun. I can’t wait for the Professional Masterchef to begin in autumn.

Book of the Month: The Hungry Years (William Leith)

William Leith, his website informs us, is a journalist, who has written about subjects as diverse as cosmetic surgery, Palestine, Hollywood directors, and drugs. He writes regularly for the Guardian, the Observer, and the Daily Telegraph. He is also a man, if his first (and to date only) published book is anything to go by, who has a love-hate relationship with food. (The clue is in the title of the book—The Hungry Years: confessions of A Food Addict.)

The Hungry Years opens with Leith describing how he woke up one day in 2003 to the ‘fattest day’ of his life. He had managed to achieve the weight—having eaten endless quantities of what he would later discover as refined carbohydrates and food with high glycemic indx—which, as a P.G. Wodehouse character might say, would test the perdurability  of most weighing scales. So how much did Leith weigh at that time? The answer: 235 lbs, which, I have calculated, is just over 16 stones. Now I am no nutritionist, but 16 stone does sound like a bit too much even for a man as tall as Leith (he informs us at the beginning that he is just over 6 feet tall).

What follows is a curious, slightly puzzling account—distinguished by mostly mordant (at times slapstick)—humour, and slightly affected solipsism punctuated by ersatz insights—of Leith’s adventures over the years with the Mars bar, so to speak. And not just the Mars bar: as the story unfolds and Leith’s mind (to paraphrase Charlotte Bronte) seems wholly taken up by reminiscences of past frolics and excesses, we learn that alcohol, cocaine, and prescription painkillers have, from time to time, vied for the top place in Leith’s impressive list of addictive substances. In an interview given at the time of the publication of his memoirs, Leith said:

I had been coming to a sort of realization that we as a culture were full of self-loathing; that we have not really acquitted ourselves well as regards the environment, and Africa and so on; that we are surrounded by endless stuff about getting fat and being unhealthy. And it occurred to me that I was not only slightly involved in this. I was fat, greedy, a drunk, a drug-taker, a heavy consumer of everything I could find. I was 42 and I thought that I had messed my life up at every available opportunity. There is a problem in society, I thought, and it's me. Or people like me, those who always take the easy option, who always want more ...

Leith is full of loathing for his fat self. Unsurprisingly, he finds it difficult to muster up adequate sympathy for those who are living rebukes to the tactics of moderation. ‘Fat people and their excuses,’ he snarls at one point. ‘It really makes me angry. They are always whining, the whiney fat pigs. Why don’t they stop whining and do something about it?’ Then—and this happens repeatedly—the anger is turned against self, and Leith concludes with the rhetorical question: ‘why don’t I stop whining and do something about it?’

What Leith decides to do on the fattest day of his life is to fly to New York and interview the controversial diet Guru, Dr. Atkins. He interviews the former cardiologist, who, we learn, himself weighed over 16 stones in the 1960s when he stumbled upon the idea of low starch diet after reading an article published in a medical journal. Over the next few decades Atkins transformed this idea into a multimillion dollars franchise. First published in the 1970s, the Atkins Diet plan—which essentially takes the position that carbohydrates make us hungry and overweight, and advocates curtailing of carbohydrates in your diet, not bothering about calories and fat—sold millions of copies before falling into disrepute in the 1980s and 1990s when low calorie, low fat diet plans became the flavour of the month. It made—as is the nature of such things—a triumphant comeback in the 21st century. At the time of his interview with Leith, Atkins is enjoying an unprecedented uplift to the popularity of his diet—two months later Atkins would slip and fall while walking on an icy road, and die in an intensive care unit after spending nine days in coma, and the backlash against his diet would begin—and Leith becomes a willing convert. He convinces himself that carbohydrate is the problem, decides that the meta-scientific theories supporting Atkins’s claims are gospel, and, upon his return to England, takes to the Atkins diet like an alcoholic to the bottle. He gorges on bacon and eggs and goes into apoplectic fits when presented with risotto, cereals and white bread; he rants hysterically about the evils of carbohydrates to anyone who is brave (or foolish) enough to give him an ear. He stops drinking alcohol. And he shades weight, to the point where he is able to fit into his jeans he had bought fifteen years earlier (even though it does not make him feel good about himself—why, you wonder). When his mother phones him slightly concerned about his father who (presumably overweight like Leith) has started on his own version of the Atkins Diet, and begun feasting on sausages and black pudding, he feels able to blithely reassure her that it was the bread and potatoes that were the culprit all along. He sees food-conspiracies everywhere. The politicians are obviously the puppets of the Food Industry giants and that’s why they do not promote the low carbohydrate diet and continue to watch passively as the erroneous ‘low-fat-diet-is-good-for-you’ message is rammed down the throats of gullible consumers. (Could there be a less sinister explanation? Such as eating excessive fat, as many Atkins fanatics seem to do, clogs up your arteries and makes you more susceptible to suffering strokes and heart attacks—the good doctor himself suffered a severe heart attack a year before he died, although he claimed that it was the result of a chronic infection!) From the vantage point of sobriety, at the time of the writing of the book—we learn that after the Atkins Plan ended in the inevitable breakdown and an orgy fuelled by alcohol and drugs, Leith made a cautious return to the balanced diet and allowed pasta and bread to reenter his diet—Leith is able to look back upon the days of Atkins frenzy with a degree of equanimity; the narration, as a result, has a droll, slightly farcical, tone to it, which accentuates the absurdity of it all.

So, how did Leith reach his Shangri-la? Diet did not work, whether fat-free (and carbohydrate-rich) or carbohydrate –free (and fat-rich). What turned things around for him, Leith would have us believe, was therapy—80 hours of it. And what did he discover in his therapy sessions? He discovered a lot about himself: he was a procrastinator, he was a hypochondriac, he was a compulsive, he complained of feeling trapped when he had imposed the traps on himself. And finally—you will be surprised to know this—it was his mother’s fault. He realized that he was all these years repressing his deep seated misery and resentment about not liking the posh boarding school to which his family sent him while his father (ironically, a child psychologist) relocated first to Germany, then to Holland, and finally to Canada. Leith talks and talks in the therapy and, gently nudged on by his therapist, has a further insight: he is really furious with his mother for sending him to the boarding school while his younger brother was allowed to go with them to Germany. He feels angry not about what happened but about what happened when he tried to talk about it with his mother, who responded (quite reasonably, you can’t help feeling) that it was probably not as bad as he was making it out to be. A psychological Catch 22, then: as a child, Leith felt unsettled, displaced; he hoped that his parents did not know how bad he felt, and could not stand the idea that they did not know how bad he felt. How any of this is linked to his becoming a glutton, a problem drinker, and a cocaine-snorter in later years, is not immediately clear to you, but then you are not the posh child of posh parents who was sent to a posh boarding school and suffered horribly, so perhaps you cannot empathize. Leith believes that it is linked, and talking about it to a therapist helped him to get over his gormandizing (at least at the time of the publication of the memoirs).

The Hungry Years is the story of a fat, middle-aged freelance journalist, who is obsessed about eating, who tries various diets, who interviews fat celebrities like Dawn French and Robbie Coltrane, and, above all, who cannot stop talking about himself. Along the way, he pontificates on subjects as varied as changing styles of women’s pubic hair over the past three decades, the pros and cons of wearing flares, the Fat Acceptance movement, and why Robbie Coltrane became fat. It is not a particularly well-researched book, even though there are lists galore, and statistical observations (when they suit Leith’s arguments) appear every few pages; nor a coherent one (at one point he parlays, apropos de rien,  into cosmetic surgery and face uplift). He also, while he is at it, slags off his former girl-friends, who are control-freaks, shopaholics, domineering, mean, nasty, vicious harridans who make his life a misery and (eating problems worse): one insists on woman-on-top position while having sex as his weight balloons; another sighs theatrically every time he helps himself to an energy-rich item of food. One ex-girlfriend invites him to her mother’s place and sadistically does not offer anything to eat when he is clearly suffering from (carbohydrate-induced) hunger pang and would like nothing more than squaring his shoulders and tucking into some cakes and donuts.

The reason why the book works despite all this is partly because it—despite the author’s self-obsession—holds a mirror to how we, at least those in the Western world, are leading our lives in the 21st century, but also because Leith has a wonderful way with words and manages to recount the most banal of incidents, such as eating toasts, entertaining and compulsively readable. What can one not get away with when one has the gift of words?