Friday, 6 March 2009

Heston's Feasts

How do we make sense of the new TV cookery series Heston's Feasts which started this week on Channel 4? By Joanne Hollows.

Heston Blumenthal is commonly regarded as one of the best chefs in the UK, frequently the best chef. His restaurant, The Fat Duck, has 3 Michelin stars and is regarded as one of the world’s best restaurants. While he has not courted the same level of celebrity as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay (helping to maintain his credibility as a serious chef rather than a media personality), he is relatively well-known for his use of scientific approaches to cookery (associating him with molecular gastronomy) and his challenges to culinary conventions, epitomized by signature dishes such as ‘Snail Porridge’ and ‘Nitro-scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice-cream’.

His first TV series – BBC2’s In Search of Perfection – cemented this image of geekish eccentricity as he went to seemingly inordinate lengths to make the ‘perfect’ version of Britain’s favourite dishes such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Black Forest Gateau. While this was far more about a display of Heston’s culinary wizardry than instruction, there was the invitation to employ some or all of Heston’s techniques in your own kitchen (even if this involved doing strange things with a vacuum cleaner and a liberal supply of liquid nitrogen). However, by the time of a ‘Christmas Special’, the pretence that this might have anything to do with domestic cooking had been well and truly dropped.

This week’s Feasts maintained this focus, representing perhaps the logical outcome of some trends within TV cookery – it had become pure spectacle. As he went about creating a Victorian Feast inspired by Alice in Wonderland that would take his diners ‘down a rabbit hole’, the focus was on Heston’s skill, artistry and taste (combined with some healthy doses of wit, zaniness and erudition). The viewer could enjoy the visual spectacle of an edible garden populated by edible insects (in a nod to the reality show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here) and wildly wobbling absinthe jellies powered by mechanisms stolen from vibrators. We could also vicariously savour the taste of the food by watching the reactions and comments of his six celebrity guests.

Lest the audience had any illusions, the programme opened with a warning from Blumenthal: ‘Don’t try this at home’. Watching the show was clearly a spectator sport. And while the show featured some set pieces in which we followed the chef on his travels ‘in pursuit of perfection’ (including turtle fishing in the US), Feasts appeared to share more with arts programming than the cookery sub-genre Niki Strange has dubbed ‘tour-educative’.

There has been debate within media studies about how much contemporary TV cookery needs to be understood as a form of lifestyle television inviting us to makeover the self. Feasts appeared to decisively break with this format. We are only invited to take part as spectators on his culinary journey, receiving a culinary education rather than learning how to use cooking in a creative display of our lifestyle. While David Bell has argued that most TV chefs attempt the difficult balancing act of democratizing culinary capital while displaying their own distinction, the focus here was squarely on Heston’s distinction. As such it was also a perfect branding exercise, reminding us that we could never get The Fat Duck experience at home (a fortuitously timed exercise given that the restaurant was temporarily closed as the show aired amid concerns that diners had fallen ill after eating there.)
(Photo credit: Sifu Renka. Permissions.)


  1. Heston follows a number of TV chefs who succumb to a contextual shift from the homely BBC to the sexier Channel 4 - does this change represent a sort of shift, not only in the programming content being more 'spectacle-driven' but also in the framing of Blumenthal's television persona?

  2. Absolutely – as my colleague Steve keeps reminding me, the path from BBC to C4 was crucial to the reinvention of Jamie Oliver. In recent years, C4 does seem far more prepared to take risks and innovate in terms of trying new formats. The key person to have made the reverse journey from C4 to BBC is Nigella Lawson – the format of her show changed little in the process (the production company stayed the same) and its now looking a little tired.

  3. Heston's Feasts were fascinating for how explicitly they disassociated from an educational/informational pretense, as you say, unapologetically spectator sports. He sums it up nicely in the medieval show: plague and black death around every corner, so the privileged needed food as an escape. I think that's the function that much food TV has, though rarely does it profess itself as such (and rarely would its consumer admit to such vicariousness). It's ironic that with all the focus on obesity/"health"/economic crisis, Heston goes so against the grain of (Jamie's) do-goodness, and in that way actually underlines the fact that most of our enjoyment of ANY of these shows is fuelled by their distractive qualities (no matter how importantly celebrity chefs position themselves, and no matter how much "good" they may do, their major conceit - helped by massive fan bases of course - is in thinking that we can't get by without them.)

  4. I totally agree - the show is refreshingly what it is rather than pretending it has some kind of higher mission. And even Heston's venture into the more campaigning type of show when he took on Little Chef was interesting because he championed the possibilities of what is usually seen as 'inauthentic' food associated with a roadside chain of restaurants.