Tastes of the season

Gordon Ramsay leads U.K. foodie skein exports

LONDON — It’s been 10 years since Blighty’s food-related skeins started making the leap from the backwaters of daytime skeds to primetime, and it has happened in tandem with the rapidly changing way the Brits think about food and eating.

No longer an international joke, Brit cooking has given the world such celeb chefs as Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver, and London was recently recognized as the best restaurant city in the world.

Oliver’s Channel 4 reality series Jamie’s Kitchen is now in development with Michael Kuhn’s Qwerty Films. And in a sign that he’s really arrived, the setting will be tranferred to New York, with the Oliver character turned into an kid from New Jersey, all to make it more palatable to a U.S. aud, it would seem.

In June, Mintel research reported that 60% of adults claim that TV chefs have influenced their cooking, with a further 21% saying they had tried more adventurous food after seeing the likes of Jamie Oliver and others weave their culinary magic on the small screen.

Granada TV and indie TV producer Optomen have also been reinventing the cooking show genre in their own small ways.

Granada’s “Hell’s Kitchen” put acid-tongued, Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay in a restaurant-style kitchen with a coterie of Z-list celebs — it’s part “Celebrity Boot Camp,” part “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here” — and scored a ratings hit.

Indeed, the show is being exported to the U.S. via Fox.Ramsay is the reigning star of the new cookery shows. He hit is big six years ago when LWT tapped him for the series “Boiling Point,” following a stressed-out, high-powered chef trying to win his third Michelin star.

Optomen TV tapped Ramsay for its spring hit “Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.” The ex-footballer’s brief was to parachute into troubled boites and restore order, create great food and hopefully, push the eateries into a better business plan.

His salty, uncensored language, charisma and complete dedication to his craft proved to be a winning recipe for Channel 4. Ramsay will be back, as he’s just signed a three-year deal for “Kitchen Nightmares.”

“Hell’s” over for Ramsay in the U.K., but is just beginning in America. The U.S. version of the reality show for Fox, a co-production with ITV, will shoot in Hollywood in October. Two American chefs will be recruited to run the teams under Ramsay’s overall control. And as far as Ramsay’s forthright language goes, Fox knows what it’s buying and there’s no suggestion ofeditorial control.

Optomen’s creative director Pat Llewellyn has a knack for unusual cooking shows, showcasing top Brit talent.

In the mid-’90s, noticing that TV only used male chefs (Rick Stein, Antonio Carluccio and Gary Rhodes), and cute blondes with no expertise, she came up with “Two Fat Ladies,” featuring Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson. The two large, middle-age and unashamedly posh figures scoured the British countryside on an old motorbike, meeting strangers and cooking meals for them. Even when the series was still at its peak, Llewellyn was looking for something else. She noticed there were no young people cooking on TV. She went talent-spotting in restaurant kitchens and by chance, watching a docu about the River Cafe (an upscale Italo restaurant in London), she saw a baby-faced boy in the background. He was unsmiling, proficient and confident, like he’d been in a kitchen all his life. It was Jamie Oliver.

Soon after, Optomen made “Naked Chef,” which launched Oliver’s career, and Llewellyn’s input was crucial to harnessing the cook’s raw talent. She’s on set but out of shot, talking Oliver through his recipes, editing his rapid-fire delivery and focusing his exuberance for the viewers.

It was groundbreaking TV. By talking about food in an informal way, Oliver empowered men to go into the kitchen. In the process, he made himself a millionaire with high-profile endorsements and massive media coverage. The relationship with Optomen lasted for four years until Oliver started his own production company.

Suddenly, all the networks wanted food skeins, but perhaps they misjudged audience appetites.

Once again, Optomen came up with a program to break the mold: “French Leave.”

Llewellyn found demanding, not particularly likable chef John Burton Race, who sports an impressive reputation and two Michelin stars. She moved him, his wife and six kids to rural France for a year and eight half-hour episodes charted the trip: quarrels, tears and all. It wasn’t just a food show; it was about a family. It was “The Osbournes” with a better menu.

Burton Race has moved back to the U.K., not to a swanky London restaurant, but to a casual place in the heart of the country. Another series is being made for release in February.

There is a development, too, for Angela Hartnett, head chef at the Connaught who played such an important role on “Hell’s Kitchen.” Hartnett is totally unfazed TV natural. She has two half-hour programs on ITV with Trevor MacDonald coming in early September on which she’ll teach children addicted to junk food how to eat healthy.

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