Lydia Slater assesses the small screen's current crop of superstar chefs. Julia Child's TV career began by accident. Promoting Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, she whipped up an omelette for a Boston station. Viewers were so impressed she was offered her own cookery show in 1963. The French Chef ran for a decade and is credited with changing the way Americans thought about food. Her appeal didn't travel, however: the BBC is said to have dropped The French Chef because viewers complained she seemed either drunk or demented. And she was accident prone. The show was taped live and broadcasted unedited, but she turned the inevitable disasters into triumphs. One time, she tried to flip a potato pancake, only to have it splat on to the stovetop. She just picked it up and squished it back together. "If you're alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?"
By the time Child died, aged 91, in 2004, she had written 17 books and appeared on dozens of television shows. Her kitchen remains one of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian. If she were alive today, however, it is unlikely she would get near a TV camera. Food programming is no longer about providing instruction, but cheap entertainment. Today's TV chefs are millionaire celebrities but do they inspire anybody to get off the sofa and into the kitchen, as Julia Child did?
30 Minute Meals, Rachel Ray's Tasty Travels Julia Child factor: 4/10 This is unambitious ingredient assembly but Ray does persuade people to cook (a bit). She looks like a cheerleader and contrasts sharply to Child's unashamed elitism by playing up her ordinariness. Her folksy recipes are aimed at time-pressed housewives, with an emphasis on simplicity and speed. Her catch-phrases include "yum-o", "delish", and "Evoo" (extra virgin olive oil), an acronym that has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.
But the down-home veneer hides an ambitious woman. In 2001, a Food Network executive heard her on radio; a week later, she'd been signed to a US$360,000 (Dh1.3million) contract. She now has 16 cookbooks, four TV shows and a magazine.
The Naked Chef, Jamie's Kitchen, Jamie's School Dinners, Jamie's Ministry Of Food
Julia factor: 3/10: Jamie's never been into complicated cuisine. Now the recipes take a back seat to the social commentary. Like Ray, Oliver is cute, slapdash and annoys some with his vocabulary: pukka tucker, bish-bosh, luvly jubbly, slosh on the olive oil. He first hit British TV screens in 1999. A dyslexic who found fame and fortune through the power of cooking, he is determined to give others a similar chance. He started Fifteen, the charity and restaurant that turns underprivileged youngsters into high-class chefs, and is launching a simliar venture in the US.
Hell's Kitchen, The F Word, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares
Julia Factor: 5/10: Ramsay cooks the classic cuisine of which Child would approve but his books lack charm and his TV shows are culinary cage-fights. A serious chef boasting a galaxy of Michelin stars, Ramsay is better known to the public as Mr Nasty. However, with his restaurants struggling in the downturn, there are signs he may be tiring of combat and returning to cooking. His next show for America, Cookalong Live, is more in the Child mode, with recipes prepared in real time for viewers to copy.
Nigella Bites, Nigella Feasts, Nigella Express
Julia Factor: 7/10: Nigella's enthusiasm for delicious ingredients is rather Child-like, and like her, she cooks for her own enjoyment. But sultry appeal was never Child's style. Nigella's breathily seductive patter, delivered in upper-class British tones, has been parodied relentlessly, and the Domestic Goddess plays it up to the full, swathing herself in clingy cashmere while the camera lingers lovingly on her hands as she squeezes ripe mangoes. Her recipes are easy, though they tend to be extremely fattening, and while men love all of it, watching her shows engenders a feeling of inferiority in the average female. She is married to the multimillionaire advertising director and art dealer Charles Saatchi, and sales of her books and pastel-coloured cookery implements have made her a multimillionaire in her own right.
Emeril Lagasse, Emeril Live, Essence Of Emeril, Emeril Green Julia Factor: 1/10: Strictly entertainment. The chubby Lagasse champions Cajun and Creole cookery. His exuberant style includes a yell of "Bam!" when he adds some of his signature spices."Kick it up a notch!" he yells, moonwalking behind his stove, waving his arms, drumming on the lid of his casserole dish. With a chain of Emeril-themed restaurants, cookery books and a vast product line including cookware, knives and fresh produce linked to his name, his empire, which Martha Stewart bought a chunk of last year, generates an estimated $150million (Dh550million) annually.