TV producers invite us all to dream about cooking for the upper class.
By Phil Hall
How many top restaurants have I been to in London? None at all. Although it fascinates us, there is something disempowering and classist about programmes like MasterChef. How many of us go to expensive London restaurants? How many of us feel comfortable in them? Do you really have to dress up to have tea at the Ritz? I don’t know. I’ve never bothered. That’s the case for most of us. Who actually goes to these restaurants? You? Are you in the business? Do you provide ‘service’? That doesn’t count.
Do you really have to dress up to have tea at the Ritz?
It must be that I come from a sort of servant class. After all, my name is ‘Hall’ which means my forbears were servants of the hall. Perhaps some of your forbears were too.
Having said that, like everyone from the middle middle, I have eaten out many times at all sorts of restaurants, though I have never been willing to pay hundreds of pounds for a single meal. Ever.
What happened to the vast British servant class? A lot of them probably opened small hotels, or they went into the restaurant business. After 1948, no one wanted to serve. People like Downton Abbey, but are they fantasising about sitting at table upstairs or working in the galley downstairs like their great grandparents?
As if pleasuring the wealthy were something we should all aspire to.
I think that the expensive restaurants of London are like its clubs. They are like private schools, Oxford and Cambridge, country houses, like rugby, the Proms, the officer class and investment banking. Top restaurants are part of the parallel, almost invisible world of the British establishment. Neither you nor I are a part of that. Perhaps expensive restaurants are actually just knock offs of the dining rooms of the very wealthy. Their menus simper and ingratiate.
Top restaurants are part of the parallel, almost invisible world of the British establishment
All this cooking on the TV, and the perspective we are presented with is always from the kitchen. Men and women with working class and regional accents, a few with French accents, all providing a service to the invisible college of eaters – they are overjoyed when someone important likes their rich and interesting pudding. As if hoi polloi in the kitchen were receiving some benediction. As if pleasuring the wealthy were something we should all aspire to.
And even the professional food critics are not the real consumers of this food. They are like majordomos tasting the food to ensure the quality, making meal suggestions to lord and lady muck and delighting in their lordships approval and praise. Good doggy. Good Jay Rayner. Good Grace Dent.
Good doggy. Good Jay Rayner. Good Grace Dent.
There is always the discomfort and the humiliation: the scholarship children at the posh school, the ‘oiks’ at Oxford, the man who doesn’t clap at the right place in Handel’s Messiah, the great unwashed, the non – U. ‘It’s not for the likes of us, guv’nor.’
In the last semi-final of Masterchef, the most talented cook, Alexina, prepares jerk chicken with a habanero salsa. Marcus Waring’s face creases up. He says something like ‘The power of the Chili blows the rest of the taste away.’ Masterchef is not a competition where people are preparing food for each other; it is a competition where people compete to feed the wealthy. Apparently the wealthy can’t take too much habanero
We are not even invited to dare to imagine that we have joined the college of invisible eaters. Instead, TV producers invite us all to dream about cooking for the upper class.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.