The delightfully delicious history of TV cooks


The BBC’s age-old remit is to inform, educate and entertain, and we think there’s few programme formats that fit the bill quite so well as the TV cookery show. Not that the BBC has any kind of monopoly on TV cooks – they’re a worldwide phenomenon – and, of course, celebrity chefs definitely predate the silver-screen: Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi hit the old-times bestseller lists with his Opera dell’arte del cucinare back in 1570, and 18th century French chef Marie-Antoine Carême was in demand by the likes of Napoleon, George IV and banker James Mayer de Rothschild. Impressive! But it’s television that has really propelled today’s chefs into stratospheric fame. Here’s three we prepared earlier.

The American French Chef

One of the earliest and most successful TV cooks has to be American chef, Julia Child. Her show, The French Chef, aired in 1963 on the back of an omelette demonstration on a popular book review programme on a Boston TV station. The French Chef ran for ten years, won more than one Emmy, was hailed and damned for its liberal use of butter and cream, and, in 1972, became the first show to be captioned for the deaf. Child was praised for her unpatronising, cheerful manner, and the show spawned three books as well as a clutch of further TV shows. Reruns are still showing today.

The legendary Fanny

Across the pond and back to the BBC, where Fanny Cradock was the UK’s first notable TV cooking sensation. Sworn enemy of the dowdy housewife. Cradock wore ball-gowns instead of aprons, and yanked the British public into the realm of exotic foodstuffs: pizza! She invented green-cheese ice-cream, poured brandy on everything, had a penchant for offal, and was generous in her application of vegetable dye. Condemned by many as a snob, she nonetheless kept an eye on her viewers’ purse-strings, advocating, in the tight post-War years, economical recipes and affordable ingredients. Eventually fired for on-air rudeness – she pretended to gag at a dish served by an amateur cook – she still remains an influential figure, with Jamie Oliver, amongst others, crediting her as an inspiration. We think Simon Cowell must owe her a debt, too…

To hell and back

Skipping forward, there’s no better contemporary example of a TV cooking superstar than Gordon Ramsey. Famous on every side of the planet, he’s been awarded over a dozen Michelin stars, and his TV career spans those two most popular of modern genres: the cookery show and the reality contest. Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares and The F-Word, to name just three, all capitalise on the public’s wish to get involved in the world of haute cuisine, as represented by Ramsey himself. Featuring his well-publicised and much-criticised bad language (as deplored by Delia Smith and food critic AA Gill) and irate perfectionism, as well as competitive cook-offs, the British shows have spun-off into US remakes, also starring Ramsey.

The future of TV cookery? The days of one chef, one meal, Child-style, are gone: we’re reckoning on even more audience participation. So: what are you cooks watching?