Sandwiched between Homes Under The Hammer and Watchdog Test House, a small piece of broadcasting history will be made on BBC One on Monday (17.03.14).
The second series of Rip Off Food, a spin-off from Rip Off Britain, gets underway at 11am. And I’m on it. Daytime TV may never be the same again.
Rip Off Food, presented by Anglea Rippon, Gloria Hunniford and Julia Somerville, has previously looked at the tricks of the trade used by food manufacturers and supermarkets to maximise profits. This time round, the show is putting the hospitality trade under the spotlight.
The producers needed a food “expert” who was measured in their opinions and could put both sides of the story, informing both the public while putting the case for the defence i.e restaurants, cafes, bars and all-you-can-eat buffets.
So they asked me.
It’s my first foray into TV and I can confirm it is a whole new ball game compared with scribbling words, which I have been doing professionally, for better or worse, for 25 years. I learned a lot. First, don’t wear a white shirt for filming. It makes things really hard for the cameraman apparently. The light bounces off everywhere.
There is other important stuff too, about scripts (the writing of, rehearsing, but not over-rehearsing) and being natural and not swearing.
Filming took place “on location” in central London and Manchester. Clearly, it’s quite tricky convincing a maitre d’ that it would be a good idea to let you use their dining room to make a film about how the trade rips off consumers, flogging hapless punters focaccia they don’t want, fizzy water they don’t want and generally food they don’t want.
Quite often it is food the chef hasn’t even cooked. I am talking mainly about chain restaurants but independents aren’t immune to the temptations. Pre-prepared dishes, knocked together in units off the M25, arrive at the backdoors of kitchens. Some suppliers reassure restaurants they use unmarked vans for optimum discretion. Customers, they say, won’t be any the wiser about the “home-style” slow-cooked lamb shank with redcurrant jus, or the Death by Chocolate Trifle.
But can that really be possible? Do customers think kitchens are capable of preparing more than 100 combinations of starters and main courses from scratch?
And what about those all-you-can-scoff buffets? With all the shows on the telly, and all the newspaper, magazine and websites dedicated to food, you would think customers would appreciate that an invitation to eat as much curry/Tex-Mex/pasta/noodles etc as you can eat, for £8, is going to require a compromise somewhere on the cost, quality and preparation of the produce.
The ambitions and goals of good food and fill-your-gut buffets would appear to be mutually exclusive. Or is that just food snobbery?
I was in Chinatown in London last week and saw a number of all-you-can-masticate outlets. They have probably been there for years but I have never noticed them here before. Maybe my work for Rip Off Food has made me more alert to the dining options available. Whatever the reason, I found it a singularly depressing sight. There were trays of food in congealed sauces dying slow, heat-lamp assisted deaths. It was like Dignitas for chow mein.
The places were busy at 4pm while neighbouring restaurants, serving fresh dim sum and barbecued meats, did a modest trade. The clientele was predominantly white; I saw very few Asian or Asian heritage customers. Why is this? Do white British consumers feel more comfortable in surroundings where they can see the “foreign” food and select it themselves? Are they scared of making a fool of themselves when a waiter asks for their order?
Such diner anxieties are perfectly understandable. Unless you get paid to do it for a living – and have your food and drinks expenses reimbursed by a media group – eating out is a devilishly expensive business. It is, by and large, a pursuit for economically advantaged individuals.
Similarly, most people do not want to look like an idiot in the face unfamiliar styles of cooking and presentation, particularly if they are trying to woo a lover or a business client.
Fortunately, I don’t mind looking an idiot. On unfamiliar food territory, I often find an opening statement along the lines of “I haven’t got a clue what I am doing. Could you help me out here, suggest a plan of attack and get me a large one?” works wonders with a waiter. If they get sniffy, just walk. Their loss.
Which brings us back to the buffet. Now it might be simple anxiety driving increasing numbers of people into these eating houses. Or maybe there is something else at play.
Could it be that white Britons prefer to spend their cash on inferior cooking as long as they end up feeling “stuffed” – because feeling “stuffed” is a cultural measure of having eaten well?
The question would make a good starting point for an academic study but it is an issue that my involvement with Rip Off Food has sought to shed some light on.
Catch me while you can. I have no idea how much, or rather how little, airtime I have been edited down to, but there are allegedly snippets of soon-to-be-hailed classic McComb in three of the 45 minutes BBC One shows: on March 17, 20 and 28.
Set your videos, have a look at iPlayer (I expect it will be on there) or do what my wife is going to do: hide behind the settee.
- The first show is repeated on Tuesday at 7:35am on BBC Two – perfect for breakfast.