The best telly chefs get the gastric juices gurgling, and they tend to be handy with a whisk and a cleaver. But there’s more to a great telly chef than the ability to dice celery or balance a basil leaf on a goat kebab. The best telly chefs love, and are inspired by, luscious ingredients, communicating what you can do with them, and have a generous dollop of personality to make standing in front of a hot pan seem like fun.
Telly chefs are not only about cooking but so much more. There’s something very soothing about watching flour and eggs becoming cake without anxieties about a soggy middle. It’s indulgence – minus guilt, clogged arteries or effort. Watching food preparation is aspiration without confrontation, a sure thing in a world of uncertainty.
We all love transformation, especially if someone else is doing the work. The best telly chefs make food preparation seem like something we can all have a go at and possibly even enjoy. If they can toss back a glass of wine while chatting away to the beat of haphazard stirring, then this is culinary finesse within everyone’s reach.
Televisual food is comfort viewed.
The original domestic goddess, Nigella is the queen of sensual fare and could make a bucket of pancake batter look seductive. Knowing the beatific power of happy taste buds, she produces crowd-pleasing dishes with a gourmet flourish, including a chocolate sundae for which she expects “tears of gratitude”. Her books are best-sellers, and she has glamorously licked spoons throughout a number of series including Nigella Bites, Nigella’s Christmas, and Nigellissima.
Enthusiasm for wine, a relaxed approach to following recipes and an extravagant sense of rakish fun has made Floyd an enduring presence on television, though he passed away in 2009. In 1985, when he unleashed his dishevelled charm on the world, most chefs remained in the studio. But Floyd and his bow tie ventured out to Norwegian mountaintops, frozen lakes, and kitchens ruled by argumentative French women unimpressed by his methods, char-grilling the way for travelogue cooking and chefs such as Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver.
Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson
Perhaps better known as the Two Fat Ladies, their show of the same name produced four seasons of stomach-rumbling programmes dedicated to the joys of riding around Britain on a Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle and preparing enormous meals laced with clotted cream, lard, and butter with extra butter. They delighted in venerating fatty meats, and were “aggressively unfashionable”, though the popularity of their calorific adventures on food networks globally might indicate otherwise.
Awarded 17 Michelin stars for his restaurants, Ramsay presents energetic, insult-marinated cooking with a side dish of outrage in shows such as The F Word – where where ‘F’ stands for Food – Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen. Ramsay can whip up an herb-crusted rack of lamb in less time than it takes most people to choose an apron, and anyone wielding a skillet in his presence risks a tongue-basting for lukewarm efforts. If you commit crimes, such as putting carrots in a Caesar salad, then prepare for Ramsay’s wrath. “My gran could do better!” he screams at a lettuce abuser. “And she’s dead!”
Author of the influential Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child had a huge effect on American eating habits and was a pioneer of TV cuisine. Her programme, The French Chef, was one of the first cooking shows in the US, and lasted for 10 series. Fond of wine and a staunch advocate of butter and cream, Child made appearances in many other cooking programmes, was parodied extensively, and is memorably portrayed by Meryl Streep in the interesting half of Julie & Julia (2009).
Calling scallops “sweeties from the sea”, Stein is known for his love of eating anything that can be dragged out of water. Operating a number of restaurants and cafes in the Cornish seaside town of Padstein, sorry Padstow, Stein is a successful author and a fixture on cooking shows for decades. His telly potential was discovered via appearances in Keith Floyd’s early work, which led to some rivalry between the pair and a feud that lasted for 10 years. His most recent programmes focused on Cornwall and its local produce.
From the cheeky “pukka” Naked Chef to healthy school lunch campaigner, no one will ever forget Oliver’s battles in 2005 to save children from the horrors of Turkey Twizzlers. The UK’s best-selling author, behind J. K. Rowling, Oliver has appeared in multiple TV series emphasising fresh ingredients and minimal fuss, from making 15-minute meals to cooking on the road in Italy. Responding to rising food prices, he recently tackled austerity cooking in Jamie’s £1 Wonders.
Not only treasured for shows such as Ready, Steady Cook!, Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook and Ainsley’s Barbecue Bible, ever-cheerful Harriott has also sold more than 2 million recipe books. In addition to his kitchen-oriented talents, Harriott has skills in singing and comedy. As a member of The Calypso Twins he performed on TV and radio, and even released a record.
She might not win the prize for most flamboyant food presenter, but Delia is a safe bet for calm reassurance when your white sauce is full of lumps. Her sensible approach has inspired countless cooks and the “Delia effect” is what happens when she recommends something and viewers in their droves stampede to procure it.
Known as the Galloping Gourmet thanks to the Emmy-nominated Canadian series that established him internationally, Kerr’s signature studio entrance included leaping over small items of furniture brandishing a goblet of wine. Born in London, he moved to New Zealand in his 20s where he began broadcasting. An early dedication to turbo-butter cooking later shifted to a low-fat approach featuring more fruit and vegetables. A self-admittedly “emotional man” on the eating front, he enjoys a theatrical gesture and sharing personal details, such as how he’d hold his wife’s foot when she was unhappy.
Are there any other TV chefs you love, who haven’t been listed here? Let us and your fellow members know in the comments below.
A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.