20 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 66

Cooking up a wheeze

Simon Hoggart

rr he cookery programmes are back, though when you settle down in front of them with your takeaway pizza or pot noodle, you'll notice they're changed. They're no longer merely about recipes — they're about lifestyle. We don't just want to cook like these people; we want to be them. Nigella started it, offering for our delight her lovely home and gorgeous children, and the way that she is so composed and so together that she can whizz up a pomegranate soufflé before breakfast.

For male cooks, much of the lifestyle involves swearing. Take that lovable cockney lad, every mum's idea of a favourite son, who can knock up a perfect casserole before racing off with his nephews and nieces for a picnic. These days Jamie Oliver is more likely to say 'fucker' than 'pukka'. Take, for example, this admonition, in Return to Jamie's Kitchen (Channel 4), to one of his juniors, while they were preparing a meal at No. 10 Downing Street: 'Are you completely stupid? They're going to stink of onions, you fucking numb-nut.'

I think it's a Mr Mucho Macho Man thing. Deep down the top chefs are afraid that cookery is a girlie thing to do, so they have to demonstrate how tough and fierce and hairy-legged masculine they are. In the programme about John Burton Race's decision to take his entire family to spend a year in southern France, Gordon Ramsay sent him cheerily on his way thus: 'Hats off! He's got a huge pair of bollocks, and I'm already shitting myself about when he returns.' Is it just me, or would you find that rather off-putting if he was preparing your lunch at the time?

The Burton Race programme is called French Leave (Channel 4). The fascination lies not in what he cooks in France (the family 'quite' likes his onion soup, which annoys him: 'Oh, world-famous chef, and it's "quite nice"; he sniffs) but in the conflict between him and the other seven members of his family, none of whom likes the idea of leaving London and all their friends to settle in the back of beyond, where the nearest school is ten miles away and the children are ignored by their new classmates. 'Nine hours sitting there, and no one talking to you!' says the eldest, and it's hard not to sympathise. Also, being a

guy, and a hairy-legged chef to boot, Mr Burton Race failed to notice that the house he'd bought contained only one bathroom, which for a family of eight, including six females, may not prove enough. Particularly when the camera crew are around.

This is so much not a cookery programme that the camera can hardly bear to linger on food for more than a few seconds. Even while he's sweating the onions, we get shots of the Pickford's van arriving, the kids playing in the garden, Mrs Burton Race making the beds. What we've got is At Home with the Eubanks with the genuine interest that comes from the fact that this family is divided, 7-1, against the father. I shall follow this series, with the guilty hope that things will get worse before they get better.

It may be that the actual cooking is so fragmented because someone has thought it would sell more copies of the book. (I assume there is one. There always is. If it were still on these days, they'd make a book of the Test Card,) Television chefs have different ways of making sure you buy the book. Some, like Delia, treat you as if you were completely thick so you feel you must have it written clown (Tor a cup of tea for two. pour 600 millilitres of water into the kettle — and don't forget to turn it on at the socket!'). Some roar through recipes so fast that you couldn't possibly scribble the details down even if you want

ed to. In Rick Stein's Food Heroes (BBC2), he cunningly left out all measurements. 'You sift flour, baking powder, sugar and salt, then pour lots of damsons into a dish . Or, later, 'You'll need fennel seeds, quite a lot of them, and quite a lot of cumin, and finally a can of coconut milk.' But what size of can? You want to scream. I know that real chefs do everything by instinct, not with measuring spoons, but the rest of us need help.

And Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is back with Tales from River Cottage (Channel 4). The fascination with HFW is seeing what he's going to put in his mouth next. (He's the chef who made pâté out of human placenta, adding a little cognac and seasoning.) This week it was fairly mild stuff: dandelion salad, wild sorrel omelette — just the sort of stuff you or I would wipe off our wellies. But he continues: 'I was on the look-out for some free meat' and at that moment a dog walked into shot. With anyone else, you wouldn't think twice. But with HFW it came as a relief that he was merely going to cull a few of his neighbours' ornamental pigeons and bake them an ornamental pigeon pie.

Again, none of us is ever going to make any of HFW's recipes. What we do is fantasise about living in a remote Dorset cottage, with only a few hens and roots for company. Plus a camera crew, almost round the clock.