We’re told, by the endless streams of celebrity chefs that grace our televisions, that cooking is an art. It’s the new rock and roll. The orthodoxy goes that the artists who produce these culinary masterpieces are aesthetic geniuses and we should honour and reward them handsomely. Perhaps so. Without good, wholesome, flavoursome nourishment, starving artists would never enjoy a great meal. Perhaps celebrity chefs are the one kind of artist destined to never starve.
Now for the reality. Today, my birthday, we went out for a family lunch. There happens to be a branch of the “Maison Blanc” chain in our nearest market town, endorsed by the luminary, legendary, master chef Raymond Blanc, no less. The prices are spectacular, but the promise is of simple, French, country cooking, using superb ingredients, prepared with skill, care and passion and presented to the highest standards possible. Sounds like a fair deal. They take a lot of my money, but in return I get the finest lunch I can imagine. As an aesthete, such an eating experience, as a birthday treat, sounds ideal.
The menu advertised such delights as all-day French breakfast, Quiche Lorraine, Mediterranean Tarte, Croissant topped with molten Emmental cheese and the finest ham. Delightful! My daughter, who has simple tastes, decided that a boiled egg, as advertised on the menu, would be the very thing for her. I fancied the quiche. Our mouths watered, despite the noisy, cramped conditions, the minuscule tables, the worn, dirty floor and creut sets with missing salt shakers. We looked forward to our lunch.
Some time after taking our order, a young waitress with a French accent (nice touch) sheepishly informed us that the boiled eggs were not available and asked what else my daughter would like to order instead. Reluctantly, a croque monsieur (i.e. toasted cheese and ham sandwich) was substituted. My daughter was not best pleased, but she’s a lovely girl and didn’t want to spoil the birthday festivities. Some substantial time later, the waitress returned to inform me that the last slice of quiche had been sold and to take my order for a substitute. I noticed that the couple next to us, who had arrived some time after we did and ordered after we ordered, were enjoying a Mediterranean Tarte. The very thing. “I’ll have one of those”, I said to the waitress. “I will have to check”, she retorted. “What would you like if that is not available?”
Oh. Hmmm. Well, in the unlikely event that wasn’t available, all I could remember from the menu was the croissant with ham and cheese. I indicated that to the waitress.
After some further waiting around, the orders finally arrived. I was presented with a tiny, sad, misshapen, dessicated croissant covered in what can only be described as burnt grated cheese, a cursory salad consisting of three slices of cucumber, a cherry tomato cut in half and some wilted leaves of rocket, with a little jug of ordinary looking (and tasting) olive oil as optional dressing. But it was on a grand, white, rectangular plate!
It was while eating this horror that I began to think things through. OK, I had no expectation that Raymond Blanc himself would be toiling in the kitchens of this obscure market town to prepare my lunch in person, but the marketing and all of the materials presented to me, in the form of the menu and it’s lavish descriptions of the dishes on offer, the colourful table information obelisk, the décor, the television shows by Raymond Blanc, the faux French accents (or policy of hiring people who might be only minimum wage students with said accents) all indicated to me that I should expect that somebody on the premises cared about the food they prepared and were passionate about serving up a meal that was of the highest standard, for maximum eating pleasure. But the ugly truth was in front of my very eyes, in the form of an inedible breakfast bread.
Why would a restaurant or cafe, whichever thing they wanted to market themselves as, backed by celebrity chef Raymond Blanc, not have the capacity to boil an egg? Perhaps they were out of eggs. Perhaps, but there was a Waitrose supermarket selling superb examples of the free range kind, just yards away. Even if the kitchen’s food ordering had been messed up and they had inexplicably and inadvertently underestimated today’s demand for unfertilized chicken ova, a passionate, top flight chef like the ones on TV, with a bit of initiative, could easily improvise, just for today and find an egg to boil. For that matter, any trainee Raymond Blanc apprentice worth his salt could whip up a decent quiche in the time it took to burn my croissant. But none of these things happened. Why?
It’s because the celebrity chef endorsement is a charade. It’s as if it disguises a reality of an untrained staff that take deliveries from a truck in the early morning, of food prepared in central kitchens located somewhere on some industrial estate (where the rents are cheap). The staff at the cafe demonstrated only the skill to warm these leftovers and place them on grand, white, rectangular ceramics. It’s a ruse to take more money from you, in the promise of decent food, using quality ingredients, prepared with love, while delivering reheated garbage in reality.
There is no guarantee that Raymond, or any of his trained acolytes, actually prepared the food, selected the ingredients or even contributed the recipe. There may be ranks of minimum wage refugees making the food the night before, on an industrial production line, for all I know. Maison Blanc is just a brand. Perhaps he takes his royalty and extends his integrity and credibility to the enterprise, run by who knows who. Ultimately, though, both he and/or the real owners of the establishment (if not him) get rich by the simple wheeze of fraudulently promising one thing and delivering another.
A real culinary artist would not do this. A man who valued his integrity would not permit such subterfuge and chicanery to be carried out in his name. He would not preside over a kitchen incapable of boiling an egg. Artists that value their own art have higher aesthetic standards. What this demonstrates is that Raymond Blanc, as an artist, has evidently sold out.
The same ignominious fate befell Gordon Ramsay, even while he was making television programmes to berate the failures of his culinary brethren, using colourful and abusive language as his schtick. People realised what was really going on in his restaurants and gastro-pubs, took another look at the bill and his restaurant empire crumbled as a consequence. Jamie Oliver, who exhorts us to eat healthy food, packs so much sugar into his name brand pasta sauces that my liver heaves just passing them in the supermarket aisle. As more and more people buy into the dream that celebrity chefs peddle, of healthier food, made with quality ingredients, prepared with care, to nourish the body and the senses and provide heightened, optimum, experiential pleasure, they are not going to suffer revelations to the contrary very kindly.
For the record, I paid for the meal in full, decided not to stay for the patisserie selection, informed the manager and was given a birthday cake in compensation (a good deal for the cafe, since the cost price of the ingredients and labour involved in making the cake were far lower than the cost of my crappy meal). But at least it was a gesture.
It was a gesture, all right.