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The Influence of TV Cooking Shows

Chef Nigella Lawson as part of the Eating What We Watch article montage.

Photo: JP Masclet

Despite all I’ve gained, however, something has been lost as well, something big and hard to describe.

I feel its absence most keenly in the kitchen, where nothing is as brightly lit as I remember it, nor as colorful, and where the level of drudgery required in food preparation feels like it has quadrupled or quintupled since the early 1990’s. When I reach out for an ingredient—some salt, perhaps, a stick of celery, nothing fancy—my fingers these days find only packaging: a can that needs opening, some cellophane that must be torn. To surmount these obstacles, what’s more, is to find one’s workspace, all of a sudden, quite literally strewn with garbage, and while I know in my logical mind that this must always have been the case, nobody else seems to have to deal with it, not on television, anyway.

I’ve no one to talk to either, anymore, when I’m cooking. Oh, there are people there sometimes; a friend, a lover, a family member, and we might exchange some pleasantries, some idle chatter. But the things I want to say to them, I know that I mustn’t. What I want to say, obviously, as I’m tossing handfuls of newly popped spring peas into a pan of rendered pancetta, is that they can probably find these peas at their local farmers’ market or, if they don’t live near a farmers’ market, that frozen peas will do just as well. Because that’s what you do say, when you’re doing that, but I can’t, because usually they were with me at the farmers’ market when I bought the peas in question, and so I bite my tongue.

And then there are restaurants. The arrival of one’s entrée, I recall, was once a happy thing, and a cause for celebration. I suppose it still is, but it comes now with a side salad of anxiety and dissatisfaction at having missed all the action of its preparation. The dish may be delicious, but that’s scant consolation for having been deprived the sight of the chef sprinting through Whole Foods trying desperately to sniff the freshness of scallops through shrink-wrap. I was sheltered, cruelly, from the heart-pounding crisis in the kitchen, when the duck soufflé had to be cajoled back from the brink of collapse with only a snail fork and a soda siphon….I missed the whole show, is how it feels, apart from, yes, the finished-plate-of-food part, and now I’m expected to leave before the judging.

They say you shouldn’t run from your problems, that you should turn and try to face them, and in principle I agree, but I have tried to run from this one, except there’s nowhere left to run to. Australia? They’ve got MasterChef now. France? They’ve got their own Top Chef, if you can believe it. No, there’s nothing for it but to try and numb that sense of loss, and an anesthetic, for better or worse, is close at hand. And so you sink into the upholstery, lower your eyelids to half-mast, your breathing to shallow, and let a professional sauté your cares away, in a brightly lit fake kitchen, on a fake, perpetual afternoon.

Bruno Maddox is a T+L contributing editor.

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