Lemons…the alternative TV seasoning

Last Thursday I ate at one of my favourite restaurants – Racine. The kitchen is led by the gifted chef Henry Harris who I first met maybe 20 years ago when he was a judge on MasterChef. His menu is a monument to the finest French bourgeois cooking you’ll find anywhere – even in France. But I’ll bet all the saffron in my spice rack that for every plate of brains in brown butter with capers he sells 20 fillet steaks.

Henry knows what all great restaurateurs know. You have to cater to the masses to make the bottom line but among those diners are a few, not many, but a few important clients who seek out the more challenging rarities in the culinary canon. Indeed it was my American friend who indulged in the cervelles. The man at the table to my right, the no-doubt adventurous Dhruv Baker, chef and winner of MasterChef 2010, opted like me, for the relatively simple  roast chicken. (Label Anglais with deep-fried artichokes and a serving of pomme puree. Pretty spectacular.)

I thought about this as I read Luke Mackay’s battle cry for the under-served food-loving TV audience that is apparently, waiting, mouths and eyes agog for food programming that matches their expectations and standards. As a food lover, cook and generally well-read and travelled person I have many sympathies, but as a programme maker I have to point out a few sad but true facts.

Just as Henry Harris will not be retiring early if his menu comprised brains and escargots, neither do the television channels only cater to one kind of viewer. Audience figures bear me out on that. Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets, a series I produced for two years, and I hope a programme that had weight as well as entertainment value, rated an average of 1.4million viewers: the Hairy Bikers can command an audience double that.

The reader wishing to explore my menu analogy further, will of course point out that even the steak on Henry’s menu is cooked to perfection. And yes, this is true. But even he will reluctantly cook one well done if that is what the diner wishes.

That’s not to say the standards in many programmes are not lamentable. (I won’t name names as I do hope to continue having a career at some point but I will say an Arbroath Smokie is not the same as a kipper – you know who you are Mr Baker and Ms Pascale, no, you cannot put creme fraiche in hummus.)

For what it’s worth I love the Hairy Bikers and think their programmes are engaging and find what can otherwise be a hard-to-reach audience. But even in Luke Mackay’s article he betrays a certain bias in liking Pro MasterChef but loathing the celebrity version. There is no difference in the production values used in making each or indeed the format. I would suggest it is perhaps that Luke Mackay feels celebrities cooking on this show, somehow demeans the craft which he views as being so rightly precious.

I do feel slightly aggrieved that Luke’s article came down on the utterly negative aspects of food programming. But I suppose that echoes the sadness many chefs must feel at Macdonalds expanding so dramatically as quality shops and cafes close week by week.

There were some lovely highlights in 2012. Yottam Ottolenghi’s series on More4 took us to rarely seen places around the Mediterranean. The recipes were mouth watering and Yottam was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide who I’m sure will be being presented with a gold plated tagine by Divertimenti for all the business he must have done for them.

I spent a fun but gruelling 10 months making 5 hours of The Very Hungry Frenchman for BBC2 which featured the last goatherd making Brousse de Rove in Provence, Gerald Passedat at his 3 star restaurant in Marseille, an interview with Paul Bocuse and an explanation on the important of the flor at the top of a barrel of Chateau Chalon. b01d09ssIn the edit for that series we had long and sometimes heated discussions about ‘jeopardy’, that most hackneyed of television tropes. Would we include it or not? I’m not talking about the fake jeopardy that is crafted into programmes like MasterChef. This was real. Raymond may be one of the world’s greatest chefs, but even he felt the pressure when it came to cooking for the good burghers of Lyon. On balance we decided to take it out. Why? Because we didn’t think anyone would believe that Raymond would be worried about poaching the perfect egg. If I could show you the 60 eggs that ended up in the bin, I think i would convince you otherwise…But so cynical has the audience become and so literate of television technique, these are the sometimes misplaced decisions we feel railroaded into making.

As a programme maker I would love to make the series Luke longs to see. But I fear that even if I did, they still would not satisfy most people. Our problem isn’t that there aren’t enough good programmes, it is that we are facing an audience of very important opinion formers whose default setting is advanced ennui. They’ve seen it all before, they can all do it better if only they were given the chance and mostly they live within the M25.

I’ve no idea how many people read Guardian Word of Mouth Blog. Quite a few I bet. So here’s the deal, you all chip in £10 each and I’ll make the programmes you want to see. Because when it came to recommissioning Very Hungry Frenchman, you know what? Not enough of you watched it to make that happen.