TV cooking jumps out of the frying pan, into the stereotypes
The Final Table, with its misplaced bombast and jingoism, quickly becomes hilarious
The Final Table: the third World War is a food fight
When did chefs go from being teatime distractions usually to be found cooking up fairly recognisable dinners before the soaps started, to their now, almost quasi-religious status on our screens? Chefs and culinary wannabes are drizzling their jus all over the telly schedules, from primetime to Saturday mornings, with a grave seriousness usually reserved for the latest serial-killer drama, making you pine for the simplistic days when Loyd Grossman’s disembodied head floated around the old Masterchef studios as he prodded at some raw chicken.
Food and the judging thereof now have all the reverence of war reportage. On shows such as Masterchef, The Great British Menu, Top Chef and Netflix’s The Final Table, contestants eye each other up over spider-burners and faff around with twill in a manner more intense than the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter. The Final Table is the newest addition to telly’s already bursting recipe book. It pits teams of elite chefs against each other as they “deconstruct” or create their own versions of classic dishes from nine different countries, judged by a panel from each country, and then finally assessed whether they can continue in the competition by an established chef from that nation.
It’s culinary Eurovision or a trip to a particularly snooty food court, although what could be an entertaining premise is so suffused with misplaced bombast and jingoism it becomes unintentionally hilarious.
The studio, with its enormous wrap-around screens displaying a God’s-eye view of the Earth, makes the setting look like a Nasa space station or a Death Star kitchen designed by Nancy Meyers. With its booming Hans Zimmer-sounding score and the chilling visuals of the chosen country’s flag blazing across the jumbo screens, it’s taken food-worship to Nuremberg levels of vanity. The Final Table is the food show for the new world order. At times it feels like the rabid studio audience are witnessing an entirely different programme, as they dementedly clap and hysterically whoop, acting as though they are at a WWE match or a Republican rally, not watching two bespectacled lads from Spain blanch some carrots.
This madness is presided over by presenter Andrew Knowlton, former editor of Bon Appetit magazine, who leans in to the cultural cliches, offering up such witticisms on the UK-themed episode as “Brits love beer, football and beer” before introducing an incongruous judging panel made up of Cat Deeley, Gary Lineker and Jay Rayner. The trio blink into the Klieg lights and look as bemused as the viewers feel. It’s as if the producers nabbed them from the BA business lounge before thrusting them on to the electronic balcony (just to complete the totalitarian theme) that rises above the contestants so the judges can survey their work and sing Don’t Cry for Me Argentina if the mood takes them.
The ridiculousness of Walkers crisp mascot Gary Lineker criticising an actual award-winning chef’s food for being “too salty” encapsulates the unique absurdity of the show. Meanwhile the only British contestant, Scottish chef Graham Campbell, is forced to have subtitles to make himself comprehensible to the American audience, while Canadian Darren McClean worries aloud about his “sausage of doom” without a trace of irony.
Iconic ‘fry up’
The judges request that the contestants make the iconic “fry-up”, as apparently not only is it the most English of meals but one of the most important meals in English history. With such demented hyperbole about a pile of greased-up meat-stuffs, there comes a moment when you half expect a cavalcade of giant sausages and boiled eggs to burst into the studio to re-enact the D-Day landings.
Although the most truly surreal moment is saved for the end of the episode, when the professional chef appears to judge the remaining contestants and chooses a base ingredient associated with their country for the duos to cook a dish with. This announcement sees the crowd and contestants cheering wildly with rapturous applause as the spotlight focuses on a huge bowl of peas. Standing to attention, Michelin-star chef Clare Smyth gazes at them with patriotic pride as if they are just about to make a career-defining speech.
The Final Table is the apex of food shows, a competition that has elevated chefs to a level of importance akin to world leaders, but perhaps they’re on to something. Maybe if we just gave peas a chance, things could turn around with Brexit? Lord knows a packet of Birds Eye finest contains more life and compassion than Jacob Rees-Mogg. The Final Table, with its pretension and preciousness, cries out for some artisan anarchy. Hopefully it won’t be long before the proles revolt and feast on Findus Crispy Pancakes.