Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Did Little Chef Change Heston?

 In the run-up to tomorrow’s Did Heston Change Little Chef? on Channel 4,  Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones decide to reverse the question, exploring how Big Chef Tales on Little Chef, broadcast earlier this year, reworked elements of Heston Blumenthal’s brand image.

The culinary documentary Big Chef Takes on Little Chef (BCTOLC) marked Heston Blumenthal’s move from BBC2 to Channel 4. His previous series for the BBC saw him In Search of Perfection, combining a didactic approach to culinary skills with segments of travelogue as he deconstructed and then reconstructed classic meals in order to produce the ‘perfect’ version. BCTOLC marked a significant departure from this format. Focusing was on the reconstruction of a failing chain of British roadside diners Little Chef, the series employed many of the features of earlier culinary documentaries produced by the channel (associated with Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Gordon Ramsay) which revolved around a standard ‘problem-solving’ structure. Indeed, BCTOLC was aired within a two-week season of food-related programming –  the Great British Food Fight – which worked to brand Blumenthal within the star chefs of the Channel 4 stable.

The series followed Blumenthal’s attempts to transform both the menu and the ambiance of a single Little Chef restaurant prior, he assumed, to rolling out a larger programme of change across the chain. However, the narrative is driven by a structuring conflict between the chef and the CEO of Little Chef, Ian Pegler. While Blumenthal seeks to make a deep transformation of Little Chef, conflict is provoked by Pegler’s assumptions that the ‘magic’ and ‘alchemy’ that had become central ingredients of Heston’s culinary image could be applied to the chain as a superficial marketing gimmick. In some ways this involves a reversal of the viewer’s assumptions about the chef: rather than engaging in the avant-garde culinary experimentation that was the hallmark of Perfection (and the later Feasts), Blumenthal’s recreation of Little Chef is based on ‘great ingredients’, a respect for both Little Chef’s own heritage and a wider British culinary heritage, and offering greater ‘value’ to the consumer. Paradoxically therefore Blumenthal never accepts Pegler’s sycophantic praise of his cuisine since it is based on a misrecognition of the chef’s value. Indeed, Pegler frequently appears to use Blumenthal as a ‘trophy chef’ whose celebrity adds value to the brand while the chef himself is shown to be engaged in the more serious work of breathing life into the ‘most iconic roadside restaurant chain in Britain’.

The opposition here isn’t simply one between art and commerce – indeed, Heston is frequently shown to be deeply concerned about such commercial imperatives as costings and staff training – but about the role of integrity in the conduct of business and management. The failure of Pegler as a good leader is frequently demonstrated though his clichéd use of management jargon such as ‘blue skies thinking’, ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘when the rubber hits the road’, phrases familiar to many viewers from The Apprentice, The Armstrongs and The Office. Blumenthal’s own critical position in relation to such forms of discourse is literally built into the redesigned Little Chef which delivers Pegler his ‘blue skies’ in the form of a mural in the ceiling. This works to reaffirm Blumethal’s brand image, built around integrity and playfulness, within a show which is essentially a rebranding exercise for Little Chef.

While BCTOLC was therefore a departure from Blumenthal’s earlier television projects – and also not indicative of his future trajectory - the series deployed some important continuities. The chef’s willingness to resuscitate Little Chef is based on nostalgic memories of the brand’s centrality in the 1970s Britain he grew up in. His project was therefore to articulate this memory of place, and of the Little Chef brand, with people’s wider nostalgic memories of favourite meals (which had been a feature of Perfection). An important component of this nostalgia is its link to national identity: Little Chef is ‘part of the national fabric’ and ‘just sings British. I feel… [this] is about reinventing British classics for the Twenty First century’. This is reinforced in the first episode by Blumenthal’s road trip to Little Chefs  scattered around England in an act of imaginative mapping. In this way, Blumenthal’s project of re-enchantment relates to other examples of ‘retro-futurism’ such as Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards (1999) with their shots of early motorway service stations (Moran 2005: 124).

Just as Parr’s found postcards simultaneously ask questions abut the recent past and work to reinforce the photographer’s ownership of a pure aesthetic, so Heston’s journey and project are both an intervention into the past and a demonstration of his own aesthetic distance from it. On the one hand, through the mournful memories of Little Chef employees, the series plays with a public memory of a promise of roadside modernity which was never quite achieved in England. On the other hand, the choice of Little Chef is a continuation of Heston’s ability, demonstrated in the Perfection series, to disrupt the opposition between ‘authenticity’ and ‘inauthenticity’, the maintenance of which boundary is widely assumed to be a key legitimating mechanism by which particular social groups make gains in distinction (May, 1999)

By adopting the position of a cultural omnivore who refuses the distinction between authentic and inauthentic foods, Blumenthal’s brand image is kept intact within the seemingly vulgar space of a Little Chef. While contemporary food discourse emphasize the virtues of the local, seasonal and freshly-made, there is little attempt within the show to steer Little Chef towards these values. As in his previous series, Blumenthal is respectful of artisanal ingredients but, unlike shows such as Jamie at Home and River Cottage in which the chef is seen growing or rearing produce, Heston maintains a clear distinction between artisanal and restaurant production. Instead, Heston uses his creativity within the world of industrial and mass-produced food rather than against it. As a route to legitimation this is a rarity within British culinary culture. While raiding the tastes of British and European ‘peasant’ cuisines is a well-worn route to making gains in culinary distinction, this is predicated on the assumption of their authenticity. The industrialized and mass-produced, by contrast, are marked by inauthenticity and consequently unavailable for translation into distinction. It is Heston’s investments in the scientific field that make this unpromising territory available to him (although not all modern technologies are created equal: scrambling eggs in a microwave is rejected in favour of the more cheffy technique of cooking vacuum packed eggs in a water bath.) Yet it is the confidence with which Blumenthal can embrace the inauthentic that marks both his difference and distinction from the contemporary culinary field which festishizes the authentic.

While Heston refuses the legitimation offered by Ian Pegler, the series built towards an event to re-launch the Popham branch of the Little Chef, and to launch Blumenthal as a Channnel 4 chef, attended by celebrities and, more particularly, a group of food writers. While Blumenthal has been active in theorizing his own work and does not simply rely on the validation of the critic for legitimation, the stellar nature of this coterie of food writers (including Fay Maschler and Matthew Fort) is an approximation to the ‘recognition of those [able to] recognise’ identified by Bourdieu. However, the presence of these critics at the relaunch of a Little Chef is not only a testament to Heston’s status within the hierarchy of restaurant chefs but they also operate as a chorus who experience the meal on behalf of the viewer (prefiguring his next series, Heston’s Feasts).  It is also the critics who therefore affirm the success of Heston’s makeover of the Little Chef. However, unlike the makeovers that are associated with lifestyle television, the audience is not offered guidance on how to makeover the self. Indeed, in many ways, the show can be understood as delifestyling project because of the centrality of standardized production and industrial technique, necessitated by the requirements of a mass-market chain.

While BCTOLC established important continuities with Blumenthal’s reputation as a restaurant chef and his persona in his earlier TV output, the documentary format played a key role in further disseminating and nuancing his brand image, promising the audience access to the ‘real’ Heston and his vision as a restauranteur as well as a chef.
(Photo credits: trixie. Permissions.)


  1. I think the most interesting aspect of BCTOLC was the earnestness that Heston brought to the programme. It could be argued that the show was a large-scale version of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, but while the food here might have been inauthentic, it felt throughout that Heston's own involvement was entirely authentic. This marked him, to me, as different from the likes of Gordon Ramsay and leads me to agree entirely with your final paragraph.

  2. I saw the first installment of this earlier in the year but not the follow-up. I found the programme to be very formulaic (like Kitchen Nightmares as you say).

    However, I must also add that I visited the Little Chef near York in August and was very impressed with the results. I only had coffee but noticed that the daily special was something exotic like Pork Cheeks and the toilets smelled lovely: like baking apple crumble!