We food writers have it much easier than our counterparts on television. We can conjure up images of childhood treats or aspirational exotica with words; those guys use reality, or their version of it. Writers and poets can relegate food to the status of ambrosia or to an irritating drudgery (“the smell of steak in the passageways”). Food presenters on television have but one trick up their sleeve, which they use with wince-inducing frequency: that of rolling their eyes heavenwards while consuming something they want to indicate as delicious.
Floyd, in his heyday, used to whip up some dish standing at a rickety table on the side of the road in the country whose cuisine he was show-casing. His knowledge of food was limited to put it politely: he seriously thought that coconut milk was coconut water, and would use copious quantities of it in his shows on South East Asia. Yet, when he’d offer morsels of food prepared by him to passers-by, they’d dutifully roll their eyeballs and pronounce it perfect. It never failed to set my teeth on edge.
I was anticipating having to grit my teeth when I watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations on Discovery Travel and Living. What I found instead, was a riveting show that was composed of Bourdain’s politically incorrect take on his host country, travel and food, in that order. As an anchor, Bourdain is not obsessive about getting into every frame, he’s quite happy to share the limelight. He takes the viewer around the tried and tested tourist route, but so light-hearted is his approach that you don’t realize how clichéd it is.
It’s the food bit that is the best thought out. Despite being a chef, Bourdain never cooks on television: he leaves that to others. Neither does he feel the need to praise the food or roll his eyes. On occasion, he delivers a stinging indictment: “this is the worst dish in hell.” The food itself runs the entire gamut of fine dining, street food and what is usually called ‘adventurous tastes.’ So, if you’re squeamish, you may have to reach for the remote control when he’s making reindeer sausages in a tent in the tundra region of Sweden.
Bourdain admitted to me during a recent telephone conversation, that he could divide his life into two: before Kitchen Confidential and after. “Never did I think, while I was writing the book, that it was going to change my life and be read by so many people all over the world.” You don’t need to be a brilliant cook to metamorphose into a successful writer and television show host. Bourdain may not have won plaudits for his food, but all his books have become best sellers and No Reservations has a huge fan following.
My point is, does it require rocket science to put together a similar show in this country? Why are there so few food shows on television, and why are they all so static? Is an irreverent Indian an oxymoron?
Caption: Kylie Kwong and Asha Gill are two Travel and Living show hosts. They aren’t stiff, don’t change their clothes forty times during their show, and aren’t compulsive frame grabbers.