HESTON, Gordon, Matt, Marco, Raymond, Michel, Jamie…the concept of the TV celebrity chef lifting the curtain and revealing the mysteries of their craft is relatively new.
But there’s a pattern here, with a few exceptions, including the brilliant Angela Hartnett and Emily Watkins, they are virtually all men.
Lest we forget though, historically it has been women at the vanguard of cooking. The first major author to influence the cooking of the nation was the original ‘domestic goddess’ Isabella Beeton. Her book, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, was first published in 1861.
An instant bestseller, the 76 chapter volume was a compendium of household tips and duties for the staff with a substantial cookery section. She exalted the merits of cooking seasonal and local food, a message that resonates today and particularly is a mantra for me and my business Room Forty. Incredibly, 150 odd years later, the book remains in print.
Fast forward 60 years and although ‘king of chefs’, Auguste Escoffier was undoubtedly a culinary genius, King Edward VII, preferred the ‘queen of cooks’, Rosa Lewis. The brilliant Rosa cooked in the French style. Lighter and less stodgy fayre than the Victorian cooking of Isabella Beeton. She was appointed as Edward’s personal chef, a role she looked after for 20 years. Rosa was formerly the chef to the Churchill family and a favourite of Kaiser Wilhelm II too.
1939 saw the start of the Second World War and the necessity for frugality. Marguerite Patten was appointed by the Ministry of Food to guide the nation through rationing. She wrote recipes and hosted a radio broadcast called The Kitchen Front designed to make the most of what was available. By 1947 she had become Britain’s first TV cook. Still revered by contemporary chefs, it was Marguerite to whom Jamie Oliver turned for advice when working on his school dinner campaign as to how to make meals on a budget. In her remarkable 99 year lifetime she wrote 170 cookery books.
The slightly bonkers Fanny Cradock hit British TV screens in 1955. The advent of colour TV in the late 1960s brought technicolour to her odd make up and bizarre culinary creations such as garishly colour dyed piped mashed potato and odd things suspended in bowls of yellow aspic. While she may have reigned on TV and been of huge entertainment value her legacy has not stood the test of time.
Meanwhile Elizabeth David was as enthralled and excited as she was by the Mediterranean diet she was as equally appalled with the bland, grey, boring British diet that greeted her on her return to live in austerity London in 1946.
Her Book of Mediterranean Food, published in 1950, was transformational. It introduced austerity Britain to the vibrancy and colour of the Med diet: garlic, pasta, lemons, fresh herbs, brie, cous cous, peppers, olive oil.
Her friend and contemporary was fellow journalist Jane Grigson who also wrote classics about British and French food. An early critic of battery farming, she cared passionately about such things as provenance too.
About this time Nigella Lawson’s mentor Anna Del Conte was making her mark. Having moved to the UK from Italy after the war she too found the British diet dull and wrote the classics like The Gastronomy of Italy. In 1960, the amazing Prue Leith moved to London from South Africa, attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School and soon set up Leith’s Good Food, a party and event catering business.
In 1969, she opened Leith’s Restaurant which won her a Michelin star. By 1975, she had founded Leith’s School of Food and Wine which became the UK equivalent of the Cordon Bleu, training professional chefs and amateur cooks. In 1993 she sold the school which by then had grown to have a turnover of £15 million. As a business woman and cook Pru is incredible.
The fabulous Mary Berry mustn’t be left out of this list. She has published more than 70 since 1970 and is an inspiration to millions with her foolproof recipe’s with clear instructions and a regular on TV.
The names Delia and Nigella have become ‘mononymous’ – Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson have both become so successful that you don’t even need to mention their second name.
Delia’s recipes are to this day, delicious, failsafe classics. Delia was omnipresent in magazines, through her books and on our TV screens from the late 70s up until her last book in 2009. And the ‘Delia Effect’ was so powerful that when her BBC How to Cook programme was first aired in 1998, supermarkets recorded an increase in sales of 1.3 million eggs the next day.
Nigella took over Delia’s culinary mantle, first appearing on TV in 1998. Her vampish profile belies her phenomenal, achievable recipes and she currently still reigns supreme. Think the vogue for spiced baked cauliflower is new? Check out Nigella Bites, she was championing it back in 1991. In this celebratory, centenary year of women having won the right to vote I would argue that rather than being enslaved by the kitchen it has been a forum in which women have for more than 160 years, shown themselves to lead, enlighten, inspire and excel.
Ask most male chefs who was their cooking inspiration and, certainly in the case of Raymond Blanc, James Martin and Marco Pierre White, it was their mother or grandmother. For me, I am delighted to say it was my mum as she always cooked amazing food and taught me the basics to build from. Who feeds your inspiration?
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Article source: http://www.warringtonguardian.co.uk/leisure/interviews/16031956.Food_for_thought__In_a_year_celebrating_the_centenary_of_women_getting_the_vote_columnist_Jen_Perry_looks_at_the_female_cooks_who_broke_the_mould/