Tonight I’ll be watching the new series of Great British Menu, which is perhaps unusual for someone who’s not overly interested in cooking per se. If you’re unfamiliar with the programme, it sees leading British professional chefs competing to have their dishes selected for a unique banquet (last year’s was a celebration of the London Olympics; this year’s is to mark thirty years of Comic Relief). Each week, three chefs from a particular region have their menus (one course per day) tasted and scored by another chef acting as mentor. The lowest-scoring chef is eliminated on Thursday; on the Friday episode, the entire menus of the two remaining chefs are judged blindly by a panel of food critics.
I got into watching Great British Menu last year, when I realised that it was treating cookery as a form of art – and therefore was a kind of art competition. Now, this programme goes out five nights a week on prime-time BBC Two, goes into the minutiae of cooking, and sees professional critics judging their subject at a high level in a way that’s meaningful to an interested general viewer. Imagine a TV programme doing something like this for just about any other creative art. Film programmes in the UK are nowhere near, and book programmes are even further behind.
I can see where Great British Menu is coming from, because I can understand that push for excellence in books. Actually, when I look at the other food programmes I like most, I can see parallels with what I like in books. A few years ago, I started watching River Cottage, and went on to read a book of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s food writing. I came away with a clear sense that he cared about what he was doing, had a broad interest in his subject but always with a focus on quality – and I found his style of writing and presenting very engaging. This (analogously) is a lot of what I look for in the books I read.
But if there’s one figure from food television who most sums up what I like in books, it’s Heston Blumenthal. I find the enthusiasm he shows in his TV programmes infectious; but, above all, I love his capacity to have an idea and just go with it, however outlandish it might seem to the viewer – to say, ‘why not?’ before others have even said, ‘why?. I see this kind of attitude in the works of writers like Helen Oyeyemi and Nick Harkaway; in books like The Quiddity of Will Self, or Nod, or the one I’m reading now, Communion Town. I love to come across the unusual and distinctive in books – and, when those books are reaching for and achieving excellence, I could scarcely be a happier reader.