Big Chef takes on Little Chef

Newcomer to TV-chef royalty, Heston Blumenthal, kicked off Channel 4’s Great British Food Fight season last week, and he started in style. The once-great ‘British Institution’ Little Chef is to receive a much needed culinary colonic irrigation from the master of molecular gastronomy. Yet for all the bombast that this suggests, the three-part series left me feeling slightly uncomfortable.

First, though, let’s look at the positives. In Heston you have an undeniably talented chef with an amiable and dignified screen presence, voted ‘World’s Best Chef’ two years in a row for his work at the £125-a-head Fat Duck in Bray. In brilliant contrast to this was his nemesis, Chief Executive Ian Pegler. Pegler’s endless stream of management-guru-speak and motivational clichés provided the most entertaining moments. Seeing him tell Heston The-World’s-Best-Chef Blumenthal that his lapsang souchong-infused scrambled egg with salmon didn’t really have much taste, or that his efforts didn’t provide the “wow-factor” or the “taste sensation” that he asked for was priceless television. But frequently Pegler’s completely self-assured approach to everything was so cringeworthy that it was almost unwatchable. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when he claimed that “I just had that instant chemistry, I hope [Heston] feels the same”. He seemed blissfully unaware of his own ridiculousness, at one point asking Heston to take all his inventive thinking and “funnel it down” into a core product that would appeal to the Little Chef faithful, only to turn around and ask him to “take the Little Chef core product and explode it” out into something undeniably Blumenthal. Yet the victims of the collision of Pegler’s consumerist driven economics and Blumenthal’s culinary artisanship were the workers at Little Chef. They were placed in an impossible position, having to give customers who couldn’t read Heston’s menus, which described the use of vine-ripened tomatoes and various smoked meats.

The tangible class divide that the show’s premise was obviously designed to illuminate nearly ruined the program. However, as Blumenthal became more aware of his employees’ differences and the customers’ expectations, the distasteful elitism that bubbled under the surface was somewhat diffused. The Guardian’s claims that Blumenthal was “selling out” by making this attempt at a populist reworking of his brand of cuisine are misplaced. The idea that a chef who already drives a top-range BMW and successfully trades super-commodities in the Home Counties could ‘sell-out’ by making a TV show fighting the fast food culture is ridiculous. What undercuts this show (and quite possibly Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s assault on Tesco) is the fact that brands and corporate factions have crept into the very structure of television shows. I get the feeling that despite the personal faults of Pegler and others, Little Chef has a win-win situation on its hands. Despite Blumenthal’s protestations, the words ‘publicity’ and ‘stunt’ hang over the whole project like an indefinable smell which sits in your throat, never quite revealing itself, refusing to go away.

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