Food, Professionalism, and The Cook and the Chef

Posted Friday June 27, 2008 by John Gunders in |

I’ve just discovered a thread over at Sarsparilla on one of my favourite television shows: The Cook and the Chef. I came to the discussion a bit late, unfortunately, but I found it interesting because I’ve just finished writing an article that explores many of the problematics that the blog posting raises. The post focuses on the relationship between Simon and Maggie in terms of the amateur/professional dichotomy set up by the show itself. As the post says:

The premise could easily be a source of dramatic tension if handled differently: the ‘domesticated’ cosmopolitan chef spoon-fed great dollops of a cook’s homemade wisdom, perhaps. What interests me about the exchange – given that there is precisely none of this sort of tension – is firstly the way in which it combines these two categories to gently put to rest an agonistic image of gendered division, through shared enthusiasm, and demonstrated skills and knowledge. But at the same time it also preserves those divisions at a representational level, emphasising them in order to create a sense of dialogue, and to render the on-screen identities of Beer and Bryant.

When I first started analysing it I was also taken by the way in which the show privileges the amateur (Maggie) over the professional (Simon). This, I argue, is evident in Maggie’s simple, wholesome dishes which are contrasted with Simon’ rather more “cheffy” (his word) ones, and the fact that it is Maggie’s kitchen that is shown, decorated to look like the kitchen of some Tuscan villa. Actually, the kitchen shown in the program is a purpose-built demonstration kitchen that is part of Maggie and her husband Colin’s Pheasant Farm complex. But the point remains: it is Maggie’s kitchen, and it is contrasted with the impersonal commercial kitchen that is (occasionally) shown as Simon’s kitchen (that is, the kitchen of the Adelaide Hilton).

What I have found that is really interesting however, is that this valorisation of the amateur is actually ubiquitous within the genre of television cooking shows: Nigella Lawson frequently denies that she has any training; the two fat ladies were famously not professional chefs; and even that most prominent of television chefs—Jamie Oliver—deliberately down-plays his professionalism. Again, it is Jamie’s home kitchen that helps to separate his professional identity from his “just having some mates over for some grub” television persona. Yes, it is different in Jamie’s School Dinners, but like the various Gordon Ramsay shows that are currently being telecast, I would argue that these are not cooking shows, they are makeover programmes, and thus operate under a different set of codes.

So while The Cook and the Chef may look like a slightly subversive text, where the local, amateur, and female is privileged over the cosmopolitan, professional, male, this is actually completely de rigour for the genre.

But the Sarsparilla post is quite right: there is no tension between the roles. The dichotomy set up in the show’s title is mediate by what seems a genuine affection between the two presenters, and a shared love of food and cooking.

I could say more, but you’ll just have to wait until the article is published.

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