Vocabulary

13th December 2013 | Daily Life, Inspirations | 1 comment

The BBC2 series ‘Masterchef‘ has come to an end with Steven Edwards winning the title. One of the competitors’ final tasks was to cook for a roomful of distinguished chefs, well known from Michelin-starred restaurants around the UK.

This is always a fascinating event, partly because of the way these leading chefs talk about food. When asked for their opinion on the dishes before them, they often say straightforward things like ‘well cooked’, ‘bang on’, ‘looks great’, ‘well-flavoured’ and ‘very enjoyable’. These are all people who perform artistry with ingredients on a daily basis. Yet they all seem very reluctant to commit themselves when it comes to describing the food they’ve just eaten. Perhaps they feel shy in front of the others and don’t wish to be teased. Perhaps they don’t feel relaxed in front of a TV camera. Maybe they say ‘it was well cooked’ and then go home and write in their diaries that it made them feel they were walking alongside the Seine on a crisp autumn afternoon with the scent of woodsmoke in the air. Maybe they call their partners and say it was like seeing the poetry of Seamus Heaney come to life on a plate.

I couldn’t help comparing them with a roomful of wine writers at a similar event. Surely the adjectives and metaphors would flow as freely and colourfully as the wine! But then let’s not forget that wine writers are not the ones who actually make the wine.

It’s a useful reminder that people who are very good at ‘doing’ are often not very good at ‘saying’. You see it in all sorts of fields, music included. I suspect some people actually feel it is important not to put things into words. Fair enough. Though in the case of Masterchef Professionals, it feels like a missed opportunity to give us a glimpse of how these eminent chefs actually think about food.

1 Comment

  1. Jon

    A lovely post. I had the dubious pleasure of watching the Masterchef final last night (my partner is a fan – at least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it), but I don’t think I saw the episode you refer to, featuring the rather inarticulate ‘roomful of distinguished chefs’.

    A friend of mine recently trained to be an examiner for one of the examination boards which offers graded exams for student musicians. Perhaps the major challenge to be overcome in this training process is the identification of the many elements of a musical performance which can be objectively assessed; the examination board pride themselves on the notion that their examiners are all working to the same set of assessment criteria, rather than responding subjectively to the performance, and that this determines the scores they give and the comments that they write. Interestingly, during the training process, the chief examiner explicitly likened the work of the examiner to the work of the regular judges on masterchef, who typically proceed by trying to describe quite precisely the experience of the meal, element by element (“there’s a richness to the meat which is complemented by the acidic tang of the feta, and then we get the heat from the spicing” – that sort of thing). But this analytical approach wasn’t so much in evidence last night, and it doesn’t sound as though it was in evidence at all when a roomful of chefs were invited onto the programme.

    Incidentally, for a delightful insight into a historical and personal connection between the language of the critical appreciation of art (or, more specifically, literature), and the language of connoiseurship in wine, I recommend this essay from the LRB a couple of years ago, about George Saintsbury:
    http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/bios/docs/shapin_LRBSaintsbury.pdf
    Saintsbury was Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh a century ago, and his name is still vaguely familiar to students of literature as an editor and literary historian, though all of his works in this field are long out of print and scarcely read these days – critical fashions have moved on and his rather purple, belle-lettristic prose no longer seems analytical enough to be of much interest. But he was also a pioneer in the application of that same purple, belle-lettristic prose style to the description of wines, and in this arena his reputation lives on.

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