7. Apr, 2016

Men in the TV kitchen Part 1: The Pioneers

In today’s world, glamour is no longer the preserve of attractive women. Far from it. Several male chefs are just as much in vogue as Padma Lakshmi or Giada de Laurentiis. In the 24/7 wireless access, instant media culture we live in, celebrity chefs are big and lucrative business. But with so many celebrity chefs in the business today - many of whom haven’t even spent a semester in formal cooking schools - how can you tell who’s the Real McCoy and who’s a pretender? The way I see it, a true chef leaves a legacy behind, whereas a mere entertainer will fade from the public memory once something new comes along.

The top professionals can exert strong influences: they can popularise previously little-known ethnic cuisines or boost sales of foodstuffs by endorsing them. A famous example was when Delia Smith caused the sale of white eggs in the UK to increase by 10% in what has since been termed the "Delia effect". Endorsements are common, such as Ken Hom’s range of bestselling woks, but can be controversial, such as Marco Pierre white’s association with Knorr’s ready-made sauces, or Darren Simpson endorsement of the ultimate junk food: KFC.

The Pioneers

The first men to make their mark on TV cookery shows were generally already accomplished chefs before becoming media celebrities. With some notable exceptions, the emphasis of their shows was mostly on cooking. Here are brief resumes of some of the early icons:

James Beard, an actor who couldn’t make it into the big time, would instead go on to become what the New York Times described as the “Dean of American cookery” in 1954. He was a pioneer foodie, host of the first food program on the fledgling medium of television in 1946, the first to argue that America possessed a home-grown cuisine of its own, and an early champion of local products and markets. Beard would go on to nurture a generation of American chefs and cookbook authors, changing the way Americans think about food.

He was born in Portland, Oregon in 1903. His mother ran a boarding house and his father worked at Portland’s Customs House. The family spent summers at the beach at Gearhart, Oregon, fishing, gathering shellfish and wild berries, and cooking meals with whatever was caught. In 1923 Beard joined a travelling theatrical troupe. He lived abroad for several years studying voice and theater, but returned to the United States in 1927. Although he kept trying to break into the theater and movies, by 1935 he needed to supplement what was a very non-lucrative career and began a catering business. After successfully opening of a small food shop called Hors d’Oeuvre in 1937, Beard finally realised that his future lay in the world of food and cooking.

In 1940, Beard penned what was then the first major cookbook devoted exclusively to cocktail food, Hors d’Oeuvre & Canapés. In 1942 he followed it up with Cook It Outdoors, the first serious work on outdoor cooking. Beard spent the war years in the United Seamen’s Service, setting up sailors’ canteens in Puerto Rico, Rio de Janeiro, Marseilles, and Panama.

After settling in New York in 1945, Beard became totally immersed in the culinary community. Between 1945 and 1955 he wrote several seminal cookbooks. He appeared in his own segment on television’s first cooking show on NBC in 1946, and then on many other spots on television and radio. He contributed articles and columns to Woman’s Day, Gourmet, and House & Garden, served as a consultant to many restaurateurs and food producers, and ran his own restaurant on Nantucket. He became the focal point of the entire American food world.

In 1955, Beard established the James Beard Cooking School. He continued to teach cooking to men and women for the next 30 years, both at his own schools (in New York City and Seaside, Oregon), and around the country at women’s clubs, other cooking schools, and civic groups. He was a tireless traveller, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage. Beard also continued to write cookbooks, most of which became classics and many of which are still in print. When he died at 81 in 1985, he left a legacy of culinary excellence and integrity to generations of home cooks and professional chefs. His name remains synonymous with American food.

The much-travelled Graham Kerr has hosted numerous cooking shows that enjoyed popularity in both the U.K. and America, as well as in Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada (in all of which he lived at some stage). His emphasis on low-fat cuisine made him a long-standing favourite among health-conscious cooks.

The son of prosperous English hoteliers, Kerr developed a love for the culinary arts at an early age. At 15, he began formal training at the renowned Roebuck Hotel in East Sussex. He went on to attend Brighton College and North Devon Technical College, before enlisting in the British Army’s Catering Corps in 1952. After six years of service as a catering advisor, Kerr returned to London, where he briefly worked as the manager of the Royal Ascot Hotel. He then moved overseas; first (briefly) to Australia and then to New Zealand.

In 1958, while serving as chief catering advisor for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, he was tasked to cook an omelette on television. Following an enthusiastic public response to his light-hearted yet professional performance, Kerr landed his first cooking series called Eggs with Flight Lieutenant Kerr. After moving to Canada in 1969, his next television appearance was in the wildly popular series The Galloping Gourmet. With a decadent cooking style that included recipes saturated with butter, cream, and brandy, the program left an indelible impression on its audience.

In 1971 The Galloping Gourmet ended. Soon thereafter, Kerr and his wife Treena suffered a near-fatal automobile accident. Their physical trauma (Kerr endured temporary paralysis and Treena suffered long-term complications) was compounded by financial problems. Following their challenging rehabilitation, the Kerrs co-founded Creative Lifestyle International, a foundation devoted to improving the lifestyle of those with limited means. In 1975, Kerr temporarily returned to television in Take Kerr, a series of short cooking segments that were designed to save viewers time and money.

In the mid-1980s, Treena suffered from a heart attack and stroke. Her failing health motivated the Kerrs to adopt a lighter cuisine, with emphasis on health consciousness and nutritional value. In order to promote low-fat cuisine, Kerr launched the cooking program Simply Marvellous in 1988, followed by a popular self-titled series. Graham Kerr aired on public television stations throughout America. He has written a number of bestselling cookbooks, including Graham Kerr Swiftly Seasoned and The Gathering Place (both 1997), and has served as an editor-at-large for Cooking Light magazine. In 2002, Kerr’s final series on healthy eating, The Gathering Place, premiered in the U.S.

Kerr has lived in Mount Vernon, near Washington DC for many years. His beloved Treena passed away on 17 September 2015, a few days before what would have been their 60th wedding anniversary. He is still highly regarded in culinary circles; as much for his honesty and humility as for his cooking. In a 1975 interview publicizing Take Kerr, Kerr renounced his hit show The Galloping Gourmet, saying that "What I did wasn't art - it was a crime, given the high rate of obesity then in the United States”. As a born-again Christian, he also apologised for two of his trademarks on that show, his wine drinking and his often risqué double entendres

Jacques Pépin is an internationally recognized French chef, television personality and author who has been living and working in the United States for more than half a century. He is a familiar face on both French and American television, and has written numerous best-selling cookbooks. Pépin has received three of the French government's highest honours: He is a Chevalier of both the Order of Arts and Letters and the Order of Agricultural Merit. In 2004 he received France's premier civilian recognition, the Légion d’Honneur.

He was born in 1935 in Bourg-en-Bresse, in the heart of the French poultry industry, and near Lyon, the country’s gastronomic centre. After WW II, his parents acquired Le Pélican, where Pépin worked and acquired his love for food. He went on to work in Paris, training under Lucien Diat at the Plaza Athénée. From 1956 to 1958, during his military service, Pépin was the personal chef to three French heads of state, including Genl. de Gaulle.

He moved to the United States in 1959 to work at the restaurant Le Pavillon. Eight months later hotelier Howard Johnson, a Le Pavillon regular, hired Pépin to help develop food lines for his chain of restaurants, and allowed him time off to attend Columbia University. Pépin received his Bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1970, and went on to earn a master’s degree in French literature, also at Columbia, in 1972. He decided against life as a restaurateur, and chose instead to teach and write about food.

Pépin spent two decades writing award-winning cookery books and syndicated columns before he embarked on a career in TV. The success of his 1997 book La Technique, used to this day as a textbook for teaching the fundamentals of French cuisine, prompted him to launch a televised version. The result was the acclaimed series, The Complete Pépin. In both the book and the TV series Pépin stressed that the secret to being a successful chef, and not a mere cook, is knowing and using the proper techniques.In 1999, Pépin co-starred in the series Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home with Julia Child. The show was awarded a Daytime Emmy in 2001.

In his subsequent shows Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way and Jacques Pépin: More Fast Food My Way Pépin brings modern touches to some of his favourite recipes from his younger days. In the latter series, Pépin is shown cooking with his daughter, Claudine, wife of Chef Rolland Wesen. He was a guest judge on season five of Top Chef, which aired in 2008, and a guest on the reality show Wahlburgers. His latest television series, Jacques Pépin: Heart and Soul, was released in 2015. It celebrates a man whose lust for life, love of food, family and friends remains undiminished. 

Pépin serves as Dean of Special Programs at the International Culinary Centre in New York City. He teaches an online class on the cuisine and culture of France at Boston University's History department, and writes a quarterly column for Food & Wine. He currently resides with his wife, Gloria, in Madison, Connecticut.

Keith Floyd was the first showman chef, the swashbuckling cook who made cooking fun for millions of viewers. “Make a wonderful dish and have a bloody good time in the process” seemed to be his motto. Before succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 65 in 2009, he inspired a generation of men to get into the kitchen. He will always be remembered for his ad lib TV shows, in which the wine destined for the pot was more often than not drunk by the presenter instead. Floyd's performances, on or near the stove, were a refreshing departure from the prissy, controlled style then in vogue at the BBC.

Floyd was brought up in Devon, in a family where hunting, fishing and foraging were pursuits of choice, and was educated at Wellington School in Somerset, where a fellow pupil was Jeffrey Archer. After a brief, unsuccessful flirtation with journalism, he joined the army, gaining a commission in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment in 1963. While his regiment was stationed in Germany he, as a subaltern, was given responsibility for the meals in the officers' mess. On the nights he was on duty the cooks were encouraged to produce stylish French dishes in preference to roast meat and two veg.

His military career, which was not stellar, ended after two years, when he resigned his commission and became a kitchen hand, and later trainee chef, in a number of restaurants in London and France. He returned to the West Country in 1966, and deciding that he had learned enough about cookery to open his own restaurant, launched Floyd's Bistro in Bristol, in the posh Georgian district of Clifton. Floyd was a natural cook of great skill, and a restaurateur and host of effervescent charm. However, he was an appalling businessman who rarely kept hold of his money for long enough to pay the bills that mattered. His first Bristol period ended in the sale of the restaurant in the early 1970s. Floyd took off on his yacht, Flirty, for a sabbatical in the Mediterranean. When money got tight, he would dabble in exporting antiques to France and importing wine to England.

When EU customs regulations became tight, he opened his own small restaurant in the Provençal town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, famous for its 300+ antique shops. It says much for Floyd's bravura that he succeeded where many Englishmen have failed. Success again did not translate into profit, though, and when he did return to Bristol in 1979-80 it was without a penny to his name. He was only able to go back into business, with another restaurant called Floyd's, courtesy of friends who stumped up the capital as advances on meals yet to be cooked.

Extravagance and poor management would have ruined him yet another time, had he not achieved sudden fame via broadcasting. After positive reviews of his debut cookbook called Floyd's Food in1981, he was asked to present 10-minute recipe chats on the Bristol station Radio West. By then something of a local hero, he was tried out on TV, where his first foray culminated in him roasting a guinea fowl (with the giblets still in their plastic bag). More successful was a short film of him cooking made by David Pritchard of BBC Bristol. When Pritchard relocated to Plymouth, he conceptualised a new series on cooking fish. A pilot show was made at the end of 1984, and Floyd On Fish aired in the summer of 1985.

Pritchard's style of direction was exactly suited to that of his presenter. Inspired by chaos, Floyd would address the crew as often as the camera, would get visibly tipsy as programmes wore on, and would indulge in capers like playing rugby with Welshmen, shooting seals and eating puffins. Notwithstanding his antics, Floyd’s cookery content was first class. Success was reinforced, and financed, by popular books to go with each series – Floyd on France (1987), Floyd On Britain and Ireland (1988), Floyd On Oz (1991), Floyd On Spain (1992), Far Flung Floyd (1993) and Floyd On Italy (1994). The Floyd–Pritchard partnership survived almost continual friction until 1994, when their ways finally parted. I rate Floyd on Fish and the more recent Floyd Uncorked as two of my all-time favourite cookery shows.

After parting ways with Pritchard, Floyd carried on in much the same style in series for commercial channels and national tourist offices. His long-term popularity was as great, if not greater, outside the UK. It was said that a Floyd programme was showing on at least two airlines and in a hundred hotel lobbies at any given moment. Despite his punishing media schedule, he still found time to start another restaurant in 1991. This was the Maltsters Arms (subsequently renamed Floyd's Inn) near Dartmouth in Devon. His worsening alcoholism and paranoia led to a number of unsavoury incidents with staff and customers and he soon built up colossal debts. The debts were settled via a distress sale in 1996, and Floyd disappeared to Ireland. This was followed by relocation to Marbella and a return to his old haunts in Provence. His final attempt at making it in the restaurant world was Floyd's Brasserie, launched in 2007 at Burasari resort on the Thai island of Phuket. His death in 2009 prevented us from knowing how this would turn out.

A life that seemed punctuated by bankruptcy and bust-ups (marital as well as professional) was nonetheless full of achievement and hard work: 19 series for television, 25 books, countless public appearances and several restaurants, including his last venture, In 2001 he published Out of the Frying Pan: Scenes from My Life; and another autobiography, Stirred But Not Shaken, was posthumously published in 2010. I believe too much has been made of his madcap antics, and not enough credit given to his culinary skills. Keith Floyd was a highly acclaimed and influential chef who not only changed the way cookery programmes were made, but introduced a nation to the joys of food.

Marco Pierre White has been dubbed “the first celebrity chef” and the “godfather of modern English cooking”. White was, at the time, the youngest chef ever to have been awarded three Michelin stars. He has also trained a number of today’s top chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Curtis Stone and Shannon Bennett. In 2014, White appeared on the South African version of MasterChef where he had a cook-along in the final face-off between Siphokazi and Roxi.

White was the third of four boys born to Leeds chef Frank White and Maria-Rosa Gallina, an Italian who had come to the United Kingdom to learn English. White left school without any qualifications and decided to train as a chef. Aged 16, he went to London with £7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes, and began his classical training as a commis for Albert and Michel Roux at La Gavroche. He later continued his training under Pierre Kofman at La Tante Claire and Le Manoir (under Raymond Blanc, and alongside Heston Blumenthal). He then branched out on his own, working in the kitchen at the Six Bells public house in King’s Road with Mario Batali as his assistant.

In 1987, White opened Harvey’s in Wandsworth Common, where he won his first Michelin star almost immediately, and the second in 1988. He later became chef-patron of Restaurant Marco Pierre White in the dining room at the former Hyde Park Hotel, now Mandarin Oriental (where he won the third Michelin star). At the age of 33, Marco Pierre White had become the first British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars (the three chefs who had previously won three stars while cooking in the UK, the aforementioned Roux brothers and Pierre Koffman, were all French). At 33 he was also one of the youngest chefs to win three stars (the record is currently held by Massimiliano Alajmo, who did so at 28).

During his early career in the kitchen, White was known as the enfant terrible of British cooking. He regularly ejected patrons from his restaurants if he took offence at their comments. When a customer asked if he could have a side order of chips with his lunch, White hand-cut and personally cooked the chips, but charged the customer £25 for his time. A young chef at Harvey’s, who once complained of heat in the kitchen, had the back of his chef's jacket and trousers cut open by White wielding a sharp paring knife.

After 17 punishing years spent on pursuing his ambition, he ultimately decided that his career was taking too big a toll on his personal life. He therefore retired in 1999 and returned his Michelin stars.After his retirement he became a restaurateur. His subsequent ventures include White Star Line Ltd (in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud) and the MPW Steak & Ale house (with his former Maître D’ James Robertson) in the Square Mile in London. They also started the King’s Road Steakhouse & Grill in Chelsea. The two restaurants are now trading as the London Steakhouse Co. He retains a stake in Marco Pierre White - Steakhouse Bar & Grill and Marco's New York Italian by Marco Pierre White; both franchised brands operated by third parties which have outlets in hotels throughout the UK and Ireland.White also used to be a shareholder in The Yew Tree Inn, a 17th-century dining pub in Hampshire. This was the setting for much of Marco's Great British Feast, first screened in 2008.

White has published several books, including the influential cookbook White Heat, an autobiography called White Slave (entitled The Devil in the Kitchen in North America), Wild Food from Land and Sea and Marco Pierre White in Hell's Kitchen (based on his experiences on the eponymoustelevision series. Other TV appearances include hosting the American version of The Chopping Block, being a guest judge on Masterchef Australia and Marco Pierre White's Kitchen Wars.

White has been married three times. His first wife was Alex McArthur, The marriage lasted barely three years. White then met 21-year-old model Lisa Butcher at a London nightclub. They were engaged within three weeks and married within another two months; Butcher sold the photo rights to the wedding to Hello! magazine in a £20,000 deal. When they were divorced after 15 weeks, White started a relationship with Matilde "Mati" Conejero, a bartender and they went on to have two sons: Luciano and Marco Jr., and a daughter, Mirabelle.

Gordon Ramsay turned up at their wedding with a TV crew (who were filming for Ramsay's Beyond Boiling Point) having told neither White nor his bride. White and Ramsay have not spoken since. After many spats and mutual claims of infidelity, White and Conejero finally separated in 2012. Nowadays White spends his leasure time freshwater fishing or deer stalking. He supports the Tories, and is a loyal Manchester City FC fan. He still features regularly in commercials for Knorr instant sauces.