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Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 12:30 UK

How celebrity chefs change the way we eat

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Delia Smith promoting her TV show in 1973
Delia baked the cake on the cover of the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed

It is 40 years since Delia Smith published her first recipe and in that time the British public's diet has changed radically under the auspices of a wave of celebrity chefs.

In 2001, the phrase "Delia effect" was included in a mainstream British dictionary.

It described the phenomenon by which supermarket shelves were suddenly emptied of particular items featured on Delia Smith's TV programmes.

Whether it was cranberries, vegetable bouillon powder or pestles and mortars, the phenomenon suggested that celebrity chefs could have a powerful influence on our eating habits. It was not just restricted to Smith.

Jamie Oliver managed to create a surge in demand for goose fat after he used it to get crispy roast potatoes. So too did Nigella Lawson, advocating it as a Christmas essential.

Marguerite Patten, left, with a viewer in 1950
Marguerite Patten, left, in 1950

Marguerite Patten, 93, having done radio programmes on food during World War II and her first television cookery programme in 1947, has a unique perspective on how we are persuaded to try new food.

Travelling around the UK, outside the big cities, she is amazed at the diversity of what we eat when we are out.

"I've always been fascinated that when you travel through the smallest towns and villages you can eat Thai, Japanese and French."

And at home, the changes in our eating habits are illustrated by what is considered a "staple" dish to cook at home. Thai green and red curries and stir fries are considered utterly unremarkable. And this is at least in part due to celebrity chefs.

Marguerite Patten with Gary Rhodes
... and with Gary Rhodes

"Chinese and Indian meals had been around since the 1960s but people tended to go out for those.

"It wasn't until we had shows with Ken Hom and Madhur Jaffrey [in the 1980s] that people realised what they had been eating wasn't the genuine thing at all."

There have been TV chefs almost as long as there was television. As well as Patten's debut in 1947, a year after the post-war return of television, there was also Philip Harben, showing people how to make chips or flip pancakes in the 1940s.

And of course, Fanny Cradock with her notions of continental sophistication, and Elizabeth David, who introduced French and Italian cooking into the national culinary consciousness.

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Delia has tried to teach us - so can you boil the pefect egg?

But the 1980s saw a new wave of celebrity chefs. One of the benchmarks was a 1985 BBC Food and Drink special called Anton Goes to Sheffield.

Swiss-born Anton Mosimann first came to prominence as chef de cuisine at London's Dorchester Hotel in 1975. The idea of sending him to an "ordinary" family living in a council house - to help make Sunday lunch for under £10 - sounds rather similar to Jamie Oliver's current modus operandi.

Anton Mosimann
Lamb went in the oven at five o'clock in the morning - by the evening it was an unhappy-looking lamb
Anton Mosimann

In the years since his first public appearance, Mosimann has sensed a radical shift in the way the British eat.

"The turnaround has been fantastic over the past 20 years. London is now one of the best places to eat [in the world]."

The rapid increase in leisure air travel has meant "people travelling to Europe and the Far East demanding better food", says Mosimann.

And what the modern gourmand may fail to understand is that if you go back to the 1970s, to the early years of Delia, even the standard of meals outside the home could be very limited.

In Jonathan Coe's nostalgic novel, The Rotters' Club, there is a delightful scene where a meeting between shop steward and car plant manager takes place in what is viewed as the nearly insane luxury and sophistication of a Berni Inn.

Prepared much earlier

And the limitations in cuisine could go all the way to the top. When Mosimann took over at the Dorchester, not all was well.

The late Clement Freud - a noted food writer - in his kitchen, 1973
The late Clement Freud - a noted food writer - cooking at home

"Food was often cooked the day before. It was reheated. Lamb went in the oven at five o'clock in the morning. By the evening it was an unhappy-looking lamb."

He had to retrain the 130 chefs that worked there, and eventually came to see educating a new generation as part of his mission.

"I trained over 1,000 chefs. They were all my children."

Of course this was the rarefied world of haute cuisine. Trends in the more mundane world of what we eat at home can be harder to ascertain, says Colin Spencer, author of British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History.

"The diet is changing all the time and quite often it's difficult to detect what is changing now because one is on top of it.

"It started in the 1960s with the cheapness of package tours. It brought to their attention Italian food and good provincial French food and Spanish food."

And in the early days of the celebrity chef, there was the influence on the intellectual classes of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden, Spencer says.

Goose is cooked

And there are still larger factors at work.

Chickens feeding
Chicken meat has become a staple

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, one of the most dramatic changes in the British diet in the past 50 years has been the rise of poultry, particularly chicken. In the austerity years after WWII, poultry was a luxury, usually cooked on special occasions and at Christmas.

In 1950 British people bought 10g of poultry a person a week. That quintupled by 1960 to 50g. And by 2000, it had quintupled again to 253g.

The most obvious explanation is the dramatically decreasing price of chicken due to intensive farming. But you might also credit a general desire to seek out a lower fat diet.

And, as Patten suggests, it's clear that social change leads to dietary change. In the years after WWII, cooked breakfasts did not reassert their earlier ubiquity as meat once again became widely available. Instead cereal dominated.

And the sit-down lunch, Patten says, gave way to the sandwich at least in part because more women were in the workplace.

In the 1970s, with further changes in work-life balance, the TV dinner - or ready meal - crossed the Atlantic. Patten regrets writing a whole column at the time about the phenomenon.

"Television has a lot to answer for. The family stopped sitting around the dining room table."

Spice of life

Where celebrity chefs have an influence, such as Jamie Oliver's drive to get people eating healthier home-cooked food, they need to have already fertile ground, says Spencer.

Gastopub serves up monkfish, freshly caught in Cornwall
The way we eat out now

"For them to exist society has to be receptive. Society is currently more health conscious."

Mosimann tried to introduce a new type of cooking in the mid-80s. Cuisine naturelle eschewed the use of cream, cheese and fat, and replaced overuse of salt with a subtle choice of herbs. Now revisiting the idea with his book Mosimann's Fresh, he concludes he may have been too far ahead of the curve.

And in the Britain of the chicken tikka, the stereotypical view that our tastes have undergone a complete change is not necessarily historically accurate.

Spencer identifies a love of spicy food that goes all the way back to the era of the Crusades.

"Historically we have always had a love of exotic spices and foods which aren't indigenous to the country itself. Because of Anglo-Indian business interests, we have curry recipes that go back to 1680."

Ken Hom, a longtime exponent of Asian cooking
Got a wok? This is the man to thank

And even Elizabeth David's assertion in the 1950s that olive oil could only be found in pharmacies might be a bit of an exaggeration. "I can remember having it ever since I was 20 [in the 50s]," says Spencer.

There has always been a distinction between chefs effectively preaching to those with money to spend on entertaining, and those who set out to convert a more "ordinary" audience. Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith fall into the latter category.

"Delia Smith was very important in her day. Still is very important," says Patten.

Spencer suggests Oliver has had a similar influence, in really relating to people.

They may not be able to claim credit for major dietary shifts, but the next time you eat in a gastropub, or attempt a stir fry at home, the celebrity chef may deserve a little thanks.


Here is a selection of your comments.

I too am eternally grateful to Delia. As a child the height of sophistication in our house was Vesta Chow Mein. Delia's Cookery Course taught me everything I needed to know and more! And now Jamie - brilliant. I can't be doing with the 'Gordon Ramsay' style of cooking though - not enough time, money or patience!
Anna, Brentwood

If celebrity chefs have so much influence, why don't they use it wisely? The amount of butter, cream and salt they casually pour into their cooking is outrageous. Chefs shouldn't be allowed on TV unless they cook healthy food, without the copious amounts of salt and fat. A really good chef would surely enjoy the challenge of making food taste great without these things. And if they can show us how to do it in the little amount of time we all have these days, even better.
Sue, Cornwall

It doesn't matter how you dress it up or try to convince the rest of the world; the greater British population still can't cook a nutritious meal and have no concept of healthy eating habits. Having just spent 10 days with a 16 year old who had no idea how to cook even the most basic of meals - because she's been so used to opening a jar, a packet or shrink-wrapped 'food' stuffed with preservatives - it doesn't surprise me when I see the evidence of rising obesity in the UK & the appalling toll it takes on society. It's not just the economic impact. Where is Britain's pride? It sure as eggs isn't in the kitchen.
Claire , Singapore

I came from a typical roast beef and two veg environment in Devon. Moving to Bristol at the age of sixteen did cause an expansion in food of variety, including the Berni Inns faire. It was only after my move to South Africa that I really began to experience continental cuisine, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese etc. This diversity caused me to enter the kitchen and experiment with considerable success, and flops. Watching the occasional TV chef certainly makes one realise the food is about presentation, colour and creativity and leads one to experiment further. If the celebrity chef has caused the British public to open up and change their staid dietary habits then Marguerite Patten, Fanny Cradock and Delia Smith et al have all done a fine job.
Richard, South Africa

I owe everything I know in the kitchen to three people: my two grandmothers and Delia Smith. My grannies, being of Lebanese and Italian origin, kept me in touch with my family's traditions (we were eating polenta WAY before it was a fashion), while Delia taught me how to deal with British ingredients and British food. Mixing all these influences, I was able to feed myself (and an entire hall of residence) through university and later on in life - without hardly a frozen meal, which is quite an achievement (better, in some ways, than the 2.1 I got at uni).
Anna, Norwich, UK

I was about 13 when my mum bought me my first Jamie Oliver cook book, and nine years (and many cook books) later I'm fully hooked. Modern cooking techniques are easy to translate and cooking well is relatively straightforward. Cooking is a sociable, therapeutic and cheap hobby, and there's always something else to learn. You're only as good as your last meal.
Leo, London

I love cooking from scratch and have enjoyed watching a number of celebrity chefs. I find that although I may use their recipes as inspiration I usually adapt them slightly myself. Gone are the meals of the 70s, fish fingers, chips and peas followed by arctic roll. Some of the chefs on telly do become overexposed but at least they not only show recipes but do also educate at the same time. Eating as a family around the table is also something which I have always felt was an important part of family life, as is teaching the children how to cook.
Kathy, Merseyside

The secret of good cuisine is inventiveness. Forget the celebrity chefs. Having trained in the George V in Paris, and been sacked for changing one of the master chefs sauces for one of my own that was enjoyed more by regular clients, I have no time for people telling me what to do. Or for writing down everything I do. Not one of the dishes I prepare is ever the same the next time around. Rely on instinct - your cooking will be thousands of times better. And the boredom level will be reduced to zero. So what do I cook? Everything...
Alan Gregg, Cavite, Philippines

I was taught to cook by my mother, who was very good but hated doing it. She relied on a very old copy of Mrs Beaton and I remember reading the household management while learning how to make cakes and stews. I know how many knifes to set out for dinner and which glasses to use for dry Madeira. I learnt that anything is possible via the celebrity chef - even someone like me can cook the most amazing stuff if they put their mind to it. I cook, from scratch, every day and very rarely eat ready meals as I know it is easier cheaper and better if I do it myself. I read somewhere that the average person knows 10 recipes off by heart - that seems far too few to me.
Vanella Mead, Southampton, UK

Vanella mentions knowing 10 recipes by heart. I think this is the wrong way to go about it. Teach someone (I am forever grateful to my mother, my cookery teacher at school and a local restaurant owner and chef) the background stuff, and they can do anything. The number of recipes I know off heart is 0. The number of dishes I can cook is, well, very high... And they're different every time. Not always good, mind you...
Jon, Plymouth

I'm eternally grateful to Delia. Her complete cookery course taught me that good food wasn't hard to create and didn't need to be pretentious. So I'm a middle aged, mildly overweight man but I've enjoyed getting here and friends are always happy to be fed by me. I will continue to explore food in all its wonders but draw the line at Heston Blumethal's ideas. Some things are just too radical.
David Lloyd, Oswaldtwistle, UK

The "ordinary" cooks have only recently changed my attitude to cooking. Until a couple of years ago, I had no interest in TV chefs - watching them was a waste of time because their work was done at their speed, and in their way without any chance for me to work out if I'd missed something. Now, I cook with a laptop on the worksurface - the simple instructions and recipe ideas online are fantastic and the chefs themselves don't get in the way, or make you feel useless or incompetent.
Nic Brough

Celebrity chefs have not influenced me at all. When I need advice I consult a cookery book. Colin Spencer is correct; mediaeval English food was very Arab influenced and highly spiced. However I'm a little surprised by his C17 curry recipe. Did this come via Portugal?
Dectora, London, UK

We eat more chicken than ever? It's not surprising, with the vast range of jars of sauce available. In a week you can eat Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, French, Jamaican and English. Every meal is chicken and none of them is low fat.
Matt C, Liverpool

As I walked around one medium-sized high street supermarket yesterday, pretty much anything of the edible type was wrapped up and stuffed in to lovely little boxes, and presented as a pre-packed pre-cooked ready-meals. No need to think, just microwave. So we either can't cook, or we are slowly being encouraged to forget how to cook.
Dave, London



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