Educating the masses

Janice Kirkpatrick admires Delia Smith and her mission to bring the rudiments of cookery to the public. If only someone would do the same for design, she says.

Who could have predicted the media furore over Delia Smith’s new TV series and book, How to Cook?

The ensuing yards of column inches expressed chef Gary Rhodes’ outrage that a celebrity chef would dare condescend to teach the British public “how to boil eggs”.

Only after reflection did Rhodes feel it prudent to eat his words. Canny Delia, the British housewife’s favourite chef, had pulled a spectacular flanker.

Delia is the telly chef the others love to hate – she doesn’t have a restaurant and probably makes more money than all of them. She recognised that, while the superchefs basked in their celebrity, would-be chefs hadn’t mastered the basic skills and were struggling to keep face with the unreasonable expectations of their dinner guests. She also reached a younger generation, raised on pre-prepared meals, who had never been taught to cook but who wanted to learn.

Delia has achieved one stunningly simple thing. She recognised the big gap between the aspiration and the ability of aspirant chefs.

Delia knew that would-be cooks (we’re all potential candidates) bought mouth-watering, coffee table books full of images of unachievably scrumptious food because they wanted to be seen as part of a culinary-aware social set.

We desire the food we see in Vogue, but we can’t afford to eat in restaurants run by celebrity chefs. If we could all afford to eat at the table of Marco and Novelli, or cook like them, Tesco and Marks & Spencer wouldn’t make a fortune out of pre-prepared meals. We’d expect more from our pubs and cafés and our tourist industry would boom…

Good old Delia, the chef who never throws tantrums, has caused a rumpus in better restaurants the length and breadth of Britain. She alone dared to suggest that the popularity of celebrity chefs had less to do with people emulating their works, but was more of a public appeal for help.

Fed-up with chefs living in ivory towers, the British public now wanted a slice of the culinary action displayed around them in bookshops, posh restaurants, men’s magazines and the Sunday supplements.

It seems that our appetite for food has caught up with our passion for fashion. For years we consumed magazines and books filled with glossy and impossible fashions. Print and pictures were affordable and obtainable. But our only way of emulating Hartnell’s dresses in Snowdon’s pictures was through the Singer sewing machine and the local fabric shop. Nobody bothered explaining why a line or a tuck came about. The designers didn’t have to – they existed in a social strata inhabited by the seriously rich while we wandered about in some seriously bad copies of post-war designer gear.

Now this has changed. There are fashion magazines covering every social group from the catwalk to the street. We debate the meaning of our “threads”. The place of the celebrity fashion designer has changed. We no longer make bad copies of good clothes because we understand the industry and the motivation of the designer.

We’re increasingly conscious and in control of what we wear and why. We understand “quality” and are secure in our own choices. Thanks to Delia, we’re now getting there with food. If only it were so in the world of interior and product design, and architecture…

Sadly, we live for architectural monographs and exist in tudor-style homes. M&S peddles late-Victorian-style furniture. We watch Changing Rooms on TV. Compared with fashion and food, we’ve got it all wrong. We’re simultaneously tempting and confusing people who want the things we show them but don’t know why they like them or how to get them.

We’re content to watch insecure shoppers buy Wallpaper and coffee table tomes on Philippe Starck and Richard Rogers. The signals are there – the public want to know how to live in a contemporary home with contemporary products, but who’ll teach them how? Where are our Delia Smiths?

When you place the public understanding of product and interior design and architecture alongside that of food and fashion, we appear aloof and uncommunicative. If celebrity chefs and fashion designers have condescended to speak with the public why not product and interior designers and architects?

It intrigues me that Terence Conran, some time ago, began to promote an understanding of food and product design alongside one another. I wonder if there wasn’t more than a little mission in business. I think we too can learn from Delia and do ourselves, and the public, some good along the way.

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