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Reliving the Raj

Gordon Ramsay in India

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Chefs who have an absolute sense of self are closed beings.  They have found the cosmic truth to the workings of the kitchen, and no one will convince them otherwise.  To be confronted with something as extraordinary, diverse, if not more so, than what they are accustomed to, shocks them.  They register various reactions.  Some go into traumatic denial.  Others, like the permanently agitated Gordon Ramsay, respond with cultural stereotypes and foul language.

Ramsay  has not doing too well of late.  His restaurant at Claridges, according to the early release of the Michelin guide, has lost its only star.  This has been put down to the departure of his pupil, Mark Sargeant, though one can also put it down to the fact that Ramsay   has himself taken his eye off the cooking scene.  He might have become a stellar chef of the television circuit, opening restaurants globally, but he has become a celebrity of food at the expense of making it.  The viewers are left in no doubt who his programs are meant to promote.  The food is secondary.  Its structure, its creation, is placed to the side in a blur of kitchen activity and verbal abuse.  (What would Ramsay   be without his defensive, overly marketed use of the ‘f’ word?)

For that very reason, his travels to India, featured in the program ‘Gordon’s Great Escape’, have been nothing short of a disaster.  He has followed the traditional formulae developed in previous cooking programs.  But the food content is even more conspicuously absent.  The audience is treated to his anti-vegetarian outlook in much detail, but very little as to the vegetarian diet he so happily assaults.  He bristles at suggestions that his food might be spicier.  He recoils at notions that a carrot might be ‘living’. 

There is minimal discussion about the food served by the feared ‘real’ guru, who calmly cooks food along with a whole army in cool, collective fashion.  The food is no doubt delicious, and Ramsay  has to make the astonishing suggestion that he expected something ‘bland’.  There is no room for hysterics, and Ramsay is left stunned that any kitchen could operate that way.  The guru’s suggestion to Ramsay is simple: eat more vegetables.  They might calm you down.

The stereotypes about India are so larded in this effort it beggars belief that a network would show it.  Christopher Hart, in the Daily Mail (Jan 22), had an analysis.  The British, he argued, ‘have become depressingly inured to the wearisome and repetitive stream of expletives that flows from his mouth.  After all, swearing at the top of your voice – whether on the bus, in the pub or on TV – is, I’m afraid, now a daily staple of British life.’ 

Hart’s point is more on swearing that anything else.  The good Briton surely should behave better in other countries.  Courtesy is the famed attribute, even when hypocritically exercised.  But there is a far more fundamental point here, and one that goes to the very approach undertaken by this ‘renegade’ chef.  Ramsay  , to put it quite simply, is not interested in educating us about food. 

Ramsay, instead of dealing with the food in detail, takes every chance to focus on his own being.  Every opportunity to remove his shirt is taken.  There is one scene where he hunts for fish (a particularly unsuccessful enterprise) in Kerala, another where he is riding on a raft dragged by bulls in muddy water.  Machismo, in such displays, comes first.  He has little to say about the complex interaction of spices and the extraordinary world of food he encounters.  He has nothing to say about the cultural values, which he mocks with boorish intensity.  One scene is particularly jarring.  In a display of childish intensity, he resorts to embracing the meditative ball in a pool.  The other attendants, who never touch it, look on in bemusement.  

‘Gordon’s Great Escape’ is historical nostalgia brought in stormy fashion to a kitchen he cares not to understand, a cultural denial of a country that incarnates him in the category of a coarse, colossally ignorant Briton from the days of the Raj.  In truth, he was simply being a confused savage who did not know better. 

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com