Chefs are the psychological beings of the culture world. They have egos large enough to fit their restaurants and personalities as delicate as egg shells. Their recipes are matters of mythology and exaggeration; their controlling techniques over staff and crew the sort that would make the secret police of some states cringe.
Melbourne is excited by its latest addition to the culinary bonanza. Heston Blumenthal, god of molecular cuisine (a term he, incidentally, dislikes), is relocating his Fat Duck to the city. Residents are in a tizz – there is excitement on the horizon, though as with much in the world of celebrity cooking, the chef comes before the meal, being both poseur and designer.
The world of the television chef has become so crowded, so cluttered, and in the end, so ridiculous, attempts at innovation have peaked in absurdity. Cable television features Jamie Oliver on a loop; sombre Dutch cooks such as Rudolph van Veen promote baking; and the stormy, irreverent New Yorker Anthony Bourdain, who is refreshing largely because he eats more than cooks, maintains prime viewing slots.
Chefs can move into dominions of hot air, riding the horses of change in the belief that relevance and pompous assertions of food making somehow change societies. How could they possibly believe that stirring a saucepan and dicing meat could lead to a revolution? It would be more fitting to argue that a lack of food might cause far more change than its presence. British food writer Jay Rayner was deeply unmoved by the efforts of the G9 chef’s meeting in Lima in which he saw the group’s mission statement – the Lima Declaration – as “an act of … such ludicrous self-regard you’d need an oxygen tank to get your breath back.”
The manifesto, released in September 2011 by, among others, the likes of Yukkio Hattori, Massimo Bottura, Michel Bras and René Redzepi, was strikingly pompous. “Cooking is a powerful, transformative tool that, through the joint effort of interested parties – whether we be chefs, producers or consumers – can change the way the world nourishes itself.” Well and good, till you see the food these chefs tend to serve as assaults on nutrition in favour of skimpy appearance. Heartiness is unceremoniously banished in favour of the aesthetic.
The Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow speaks of a chef’s work as depending on “nature’s gifts” and speaks of it as environmental in nature. Chefs are the makers of “dialogue” between cultures. They have “the power to affect socio-economic development of others.”
One writer in attendance, Luciana Bianchi, saw the manifesto as an improvement on the idea that chefs were merely “cooks” making, heaven forfend, “dishes, creating recipes, and serving their hungry guests.” Such reasoning demonstrates how the great value of all – making food in order to be fed – has been replaced by the status of the maker.
Blumenthal knows the fundamental nature of the modern ego-manic chef. Be the one with the biggest presence, the person who struts across the stage. But his style is not that of the abusive Gordon Ramsey, who uses the word fuck as a cook would salt. Nor is he homely in the manner of the seafood specialist Rick Stein. Blumenthal, instead, has made a name making food as chemistry and molecular science, a field that converts laboratories into kitchens and chemical sets.
When he is not losing himself in the television puffery of molecular cooking or gargantuan food experiments, Blumenthal can be good value on Britain’s culinary heritage. The latter term is already up for dispute, given such infernal marketing confections such as the ploughman’s lunch. To call that culture would be tantamount, as the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed of the English, as calling soap civilization.
Be that as it may, dragging a recipe from The Cook and Housewife’s Manual Mistress by Meg Dodds is something, even if there is a considerable element of make believe to the exercise. The cook as performer is indispensable to reputation and performance – the dish becomes footnote before the barnstorming sense of occasion provided by the character. Customers, as Rayner explains, go to restaurants to be entertained. It is cinema as food, edible celluloid.
The Melbourne exercise may just be another one of these pieces of culinary exotica and showmanship, what is expected in the world of Michelin cooking and display. One just has to see what else was on the Blumenthal food radar as potential targets – Las Vegas, Geneva, a ski resort, a cruise ship (The Australian, Apr 1).
It certainly doesn’t get much better in the entertainment annals than a six month relocation, supposedly kept secret from one’s own staff till a cheeky liquid gathering revealed all. Blumenthal describes the plotting, the playful deception. There was “champagne, wine and music, but none of them had any idea about what was going on” (Broadsheet, Apr 1). The Fat Duck, otherwise located in Bray, Berkeshire, will be closed. Following the six months, Blumenthal will arrange for a permanent branch of Dinner, taking root in August 2015. Pop-up Fat Duck will become permanent Dinner.
Blumenthal is consummate in showering praise – the modern television cook must be both diplomat and seducer. Mental point: note Melbourne’s good coffee. “I keep telling people, there is a reason why Starbucks never really took off in Melbourne.” Mention the gastronomic powerhouse of a city, and the fresh produce. “Australia has some of the best produce in the world and the restaurant culture here is just about as good and as exciting as any other big, international city and you guys know it, but not in a cocky way.” To the Australian, he is found making the remark that no other country has seen a bigger “food explosion” in the last five years.
The temporary location of the Fat Duck is the final portrayal about what such Michelin food is about, the sort extolled by the G9 Lima manifesto. This is not food to change the world, or how we eat. It is food to change how we think about chefs. That the location should be in the vulgar, central nervous system of the gambling scene in Melbourne says far more about display than it does about nutrition. After all, the underfed are the ones with the dollars.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com