Today’s celebrity chef doesn’t work alone. Propped up by stylists, publicists, ghost writers, and lawyers, they strive to create the seamless image of the domestic goddess, the bad boy, the exotic, in pursuit of the television series, the restaurant chain, the line of branded cookware. For those who achieve it, the days of working in a kitchen are effectively over. Looking back over his career, the late Keith Floyd, the man who first brought cooking to its celebrity heights, needed another drink, his sloppy silk bowtie knotted to one side, dismayed that it had come this. He lit a cigarette and called them all a bunch of fools.
On camera, Keith Floyd was a terrible cook. He didn’t even seem like a nice guy. He was drunk half the time and annihilated the other half, slopping his wine into the demi-glace while he berated the cameraman for getting the angles wrong. He dressed like a gay David Niven and, like a true primadonna, he had a knack for staying in the spotlight, no matter where he was or who he was talking to. He got on boats, he shot fishing scenes, he smooched old ladies and put the moves on everyone’s wives, going through a few of his own over the years.
Despite his lofty French pretensions, Keith Floyd never seemed to take cooking all that seriously, and as a professional cook that was his genius. He’d scorch through a red mullet and say oops, having a bite of it anyway with another glass of Burgundy. Behind it was a belief in the deeper underpinnings of Continental gastronomy, a Bacchanalian celebration of food and drink he must have picked up on his holidays, starting with great ingredients and listing in the direction of some old recipe. Every so often he would nail it and you could tell by the look on his face how much fun it was.
Floyd was born into an England of wartime scarcity and processed foods, an industry which only worsened as he came of age. Reminiscing about his early days as a chef, he recalled the tins of ravioli that were reheated and plated for unsuspecting guests at an Italian restaurant. His early years as a restauranteur were a fight for standards, a certain level of quality, a struggle he passed on to the subsequent generations. As a cook, his skills weren’t so much in handling the ingredients as acquiring them, getting in with the locals to develop a nose for the good stuff. It was his whole system, sitting outside on a sun-soaked patio with the finest local ingredients, a fantastic smirk across his face, just a drunken splash of olive oil away from eating like a king. Cooking à la Floyd is that simple, knowing that the real work has already been done by the farmers, butchers, and fishermen, who specialize in the raw ingredients.
It was a cunning act, a supposed master cook fumbling through kitchens around the world, giving ordinary people the courage to get the pots and pans out more than any other program of its time. Since then, cooking programs have been about attitude, perhaps too much so, not appreciating the fine balance between genuine spirit and sophistication that Keith Floyd had pioneered. His definitive moment came when he made piperade, a simple scramble of eggs, tomatoes, and peppers, for a French-Basque woman in her own kitchen.
She was having none of it, complaining about everything from his mise-en-place to the way he whipped the eggs. She snarled with disgust in between exasperated sighs and guttural groans in the minute or so that he cooked, before having a bite from his plate and continuing her complaints. Keith translated her grievances for his anglophone audience, amused more than embarrassed, knowing it made for great TV. Besides, after the tape stopped rolling he could always ask her to make it properly and eat that instead. Here was a man ready to print the legend, screen the outtakes, and mug the camera for his closeup, knowing well that it was all vapor, that the real truth and beauty were in the vineyard, the garden, the sea, a perfect feast at the table of some blushing Greek god.