Shakespeare and the F word

Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen NightmaresSimmering liquids, temperamental chefs, grim-faced judges looking silly trying to frown while they chew, and other devilled, curried, basted, larded, whipped, whisked, casseroled, sautéed and scalloped oddities are collectively a 21st century television phenomenon. From a few amiable, skillet-wielding artists of bygone kitchens the genre has spawned, as its interim piéce de résistance, the hilarious bathos of Iron Chef America.

Imagine if Shakespeare had dabbled in cuisine as a sideline. Dishes such as 'eye of newt', 'fillet of fenny snake', 'toe of frog' would have been a sensation. He could have embellished a lurid gastronomic reputation with his TV show — had technology permitted — called The G Word: G for Gadzooks which, like 'zounds' and 'sblood', was a particularly offensive reference to the crucifixion, though of course, Shakespeare-chef could have claimed it as standing simply for garlic, then as now a potent ingredient.

'I had rather live/With cheese and garlic in a windmill,' says his Henry IV, announcing a derisive preference, while Bottom, instructing his rude mechanicals in A Midsummer's Night's Dream, entreats: 'And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath,' and Lucio, in Measure for Measure, ambiguously commends the Duke as one who 'would eat mutton on Fridays ... and ... mouth with a beggar, though she smelt of brown bread and garlic'.

For all Shakespeare's polymathic capacities, his prodigious range of reference, his oeuvre is not big on food in the way that it is replete with just about every other reference you can imagine. Food, however, preoccupied the minds and fancies of many of his contemporaries — pervasively and powerfully. One chronicler noted that 'beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, pork, cony, capon [and] pig' adorned the tables of the nobility and that their kitchens were presided over by 'cooks [who] are for the most part musical-headed Frenchmen'.

If Shakespeare, on the strength of this shamefully thin evidence, might be seen as the first 'foody' to emerge from the obscurity of Stratford-upon-Avon, then it is fascinating to look to his successor, who was much more celebrated, immediately more notorious and infinitely less gentle. Enter: Gordon Ramsay — born in Scotland, like Macbeth, but brought up from the age of five in Stratford.

In London the 35-year-old Shakespeare built a theatre in 1599. Barely 400 years later, Ramsay, aged 31, established his first London restaurant. The Globe theatre on Bankside was a stunning success while Ramsay's restaurant in Chelsea was soon anointed by some musical-headed, Michelin-star-gazing Frenchmen.

Ramsay, in so many ways 'British to the boot straps' — his first career was as a very promising soccer player till injury cut him down — sets out to reinstate French cuisine as a model and to refresh and revolutionise traditional British dishes. In both these campaigns he is working against some sturdy Francophobia that is threaded through his island's story. Take the influential figure of George Orwell.

Orwell, whose tobacco-prejudiced, take-it-or-leave-it attitude to cuisine would have appalled Ramsay and reduced him to profanity — though that reduction typically would happen at ten times the speed of a bubbling roux — saw the French culinary world up close as a lowly Parisian plongeur and, characteristically, was not impressed by any of it.

In the kitchen of the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, on the morning of its grand opening, Orwell sees 'two large rats sitting on the kitchen table, eating from a ham that stood there'. 'It seemed a bad omen ...' he adds with stiff-upper-lip understatement.

His catastrophic and scarifying stint at the Auberge had one rewarding compensation. The experience, he says, 'destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that Frenchmen know good food when they see it. Or perhaps we were a fairly good restaurant by Paris standards; in which case the bad ones must be past imagining.'

Ramsay swears his way through a succession of 'past imagining restaurants' — Kitchen Nightmares — in which, metaphoric scalpel in one hand, figurative mallet in the other, he tries to shock some of the slackest, dumbest or least imaginative culinary characters in Britain out of their kitchen trances and into his world of frenetic hyperactivity, fierce commitment and unshakeable passion.

I'm all for Ramsay. His confronting vernacular doesn't bother me: on the contrary, he is as often affectionate and compassionate as he is lurid and bruising. He has an ironic awareness of how basically ludicrous it is to be serious about cooking on television, yet he mitigates this irony through his uncompromising engagement with his craft and his brilliant gifts.

Nowhere is this delicate balance so evident as on his show The F Word — a marvellous, often zany mix of genuine cuisine, mad missions, noble campaigns, hopeful amateurs, satiric attacks on the food industry's more egregious excesses, and great scatological wit.

The F stands for Food, by the way.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road, and Manning Clark — A Life.


Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Gordon Ramsay, Shakespeare, George Orwell, iron chef america, masterchef



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