The Shame of ‘The Restaurant’: An Everyday Tale of Post-Blair Britain
December 18th 2009
I have over the years watched many ‘reality TV’ programmes (at least in their first series) such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘’Strictly’, ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Restaurant’. However, there is intrinsically – and increasingly – something in the format which leads it to debase itself from its original premises, and which prevents it from sustaining its often captivating first idea.
The Beeb like to think they do these things with more style and subtlety. This brings us to the final of ‘The Restaurant’ screened last night. First, from the outset of this series something had clearly gone wrong with the concept. The programme’s in-depth interrogation of the couples cooking and business skills was less intense than previously, curtailed and cursory.
The people chosen to take part were a bizarre mix, containing several who could hardly put beans on toast. Given the prize is opening a Raymond Blanc restaurant with the great man and his side-kicks, it revealed about the selection criterion that in the opening programme one couple were summarily dismissed for not being able to safely open a tin!
To the final. This was won by two pseudo-posh boys, J.J. and James. J.J. was supposed to cook, James do front of house, their ‘concept’ restaurant, ‘Summer House’, their passion – cocktails (apparently ‘award-winning’ cocktail makers as the show incessantly told us!).
J.J. could not cook to save himself, and week after week produced culinary disasters, while getting his other chefs to cook much to Blanc’s displeasure. Week after week he was told off, but somehow the twosome got through, as people much more skilled (everyone apart from the couple stuck opening the tin!) fell by the wayside!
Last week we were reduced to three couples with one being eliminated before the final. The couple who were eliminated, Stephen and Rebecca, were certainly rough diamonds to use a phrase and lacked a bit of self-confidence, but he was by far the best cook in the show, and they had an eagerness and proven ability to learn.
Particularly moving and revealing for those of us who have learned about confidence in life, rather than be gifted it from parents or education, was Stephen being absolutely terrified with fear about a public presentation, and being talked round by Raymond, and triumphing. He and his partner were evicted.
I know it is ‘only a game show’ to quote Jade and her pal but the whole series and final tells us some insightful things about the rottenness of Blair’s Britain.
Firstly, class and status still matters. Toffness and poshness, which as ‘The Economist’ said the other week is very different from being rich, is still one of the defining lines in society. The English in particular are still hung about all this; I am not exempting the Scots here it is just different north of the border.
There was an element with J.J. and James of playing a game, a caricature of what they thought an English gentlemen’s game would be, and their effortless confidence, hard neck and sheer blaggeredness and bullshit-quotient, got them out of many tight corners.
Secondly, the final showed that what people think are ‘the rules’ often aren’t, with unwritten codes and secret agendas proving more important. ‘The Restaurant’ until last night was about food. J.J. then presided over various courses of disaster at the Countess of Arran’s stately home, saw his dessert bite the dust, and so, returning to what they do best, blagging and cocktails, produced a cocktail!
The two other contestants, Chris and Nathan, followed the rules and produced a decent and impressive six courses including picking fresh vegetables from the copious kitchen garden – a clear instruction from the Countess – whilst J.J. phoned an order to a local shop.
In the midst of all this, J.J, cocky as always in the midst of carnage, stated confidently, ‘of course it isn’t about food, its about being a restaurateur’.
This was the moment when the veil was lifted. Here was me thinking a Raymond Blanc restaurant was about food and exquisite quality, but no it isn’t so. Apparently what counts now is something much more elusive and important – style, experience, winging it and seemingly harking back to a modern version of ‘Brideshead Revisited’.
The whole thing is an apt allegory for the state and condition of Britain. I feel cheated about ‘The Restaurant’ and this feels like it has some connection to what has happened to our country and society these last few decades. Yes, ‘the rules’ aren’t the real rules; those with status and insider-knowledge don’t operate on the same criterion of the rest of us.
Was the show a fix, with some of the producers frequenting J.J. and James cocktail bar and setting them up to win? It is a revealing story of the diluted quality of out-sourced broadcasting, of young, eager, liberal-minded production teams presiding over a grotesque reduction in standards and programmes across all our channels.
As for Raymond Blanc, well I won’t be eating in one of his restaurants given they are all experience and fluff and not food!