Keith Floyd courtesy BBC Food on YouTube
I love watching cooking programmes. Something what disappoints me is how they typically belittle how tricky cooking can be by the tricks of the TV trade. I say this having overcooked the steak I bought for New Year’s Eve Dinner. Imagine – I had all the time in the world to prepare, I really wanted it to be fabulous, and there were no mechanical failures. I’ve cooked steak within an acceptable range many times so how could this happen when the TV world is so full of stunning culinary success?
Part of the problem is that everyone seems to work in immaculately clean kitchens with matching sets of small bowls to hold all the ingredients. The cook invariably is immaculately turned out and remains so throughout.TV is typically impatient for something new, and apparently impatient for everything these days, by making a virtue of turning them into a time trial or combat. It can only be a matter of time before Jamie cooks a three course meal in less than sixty seconds while fighting off muggers!
I watched some old Keith Floyd the other day and caught myself dismissing it as tired and outdated. Actually it is a miracle that he turned anything out of any quality while cooking on a couple of temperamental gas rings. I find it charming that occasionally he made mistakes and started again on a couple of occasions. In hindsight he is the nearest thing to the everyday experience of cooks.
There is something similar in watching Rick Stein sweating buckets watching cooks at work in tropical kitchens before attempting versions of them at home – putting in the hours to try and improve his craft. And then there is Masterchef and Great British Bakeoff. There is a certain schadenfreude about watching someone collapse under the pressure, be confronted with a completely new ingredient to prepare, forget to put in a key ingredient or overcook the star attraction. There is a joy because they represent reality. Today’s production teams are skilled in the art of creating the story they want through editing. Reality TV needs its villains and heroes, fools and flirts and they need to manufactured in the editing room because all the production team have to play with is a cast of boringly real humans. When Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood produce the “one I made earlier” to show how the delicately crispy millefeuille should look; all the snippets of non-setting custard and soggy layers are left on the cutting room floor. I’d love to know what the par success rate is for cooks at different levels – how much Michelin-starred food gets rejected for example (albeit against a very high bar).
The reason that even experienced cooks on TV make seemingly basic errors is that they haven’t the luxury of privacy or the time to put it right – nothing more. In your average home you apologise and the family happily eat what you can salvage or the bin is filled with charred remnants. I loved the Kitchn feature about the most common mistake made by amateur chefs – fiddling with things which were supposed to be browning in a frying pan. It reflects the real anxiety and fear of failure which haunts anyone trying to get become great at anything – whether cooking, golf or writing. You are merely showing that you care!
So how did that steak go awry on New Year’s Eve? Part of the answer may be that in my eternal optimism I quickly forget the bodged attempts and only remember the golden triumphs of yesteryear. More practically, it could be that I went for a slightly thicker cut steak than I normally would, that I had a little more time to get it out of the fridge before cooking, that I put the griddle over a different set of hob burners than usual, that I tried to cook three different sizes of steak simultaneously, or that I left it cooking while we had our prawn cocktail starter. It’s that uncertainty and variability that keeps me hooked to get it right next time.