Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Keith Floyd

I'm sad about the death of Keith Floyd. Not that it was particularly unexpected - it was easy to see that he'd been in a slow unravelling process for years - but because he was one of the great iconoclasts of British cookery. I grew into cooking watching his programmes with my culinary mentor, my aunt Clare Jeffery, in the late 1980s. His chaotic, passionate approach (which, despite the buffonery, was always underpinned by a rigorous attention to detail in ingredients and processes) opened up a world of possibilities. Gastronomy didn't have to be stuffy, and it didn't have to be difficult; Floyd made it popular and fun.

After Floyd, television cookery could never be the same again. The collaboration with producer and cameraman created an almost Brechtian approach which meant that all the joins, snips and tricks of the trade were laid bare. Floyd artfully and wittily mocked the pretentions and conventions of food TV. The tributes from his successors make it pretty clear that he built the foundations - the informality, the documentary approach, getting out of the studio and into the open air and 'ordinary' kitchens - on which their own towering careers rest. And he worked fast - bashing together the dishes with ebullience and humour, his confidence inspiring the same risk-taking extravagance in others. In that sense perhaps he also embodied the 'live now, pay later' ethic (if it can be called that) that has come somewhat unstuck over the last couple of years. He was flawed, he was rude and difficult, but he was also a brilliant, inspiring cook: a culinary artist.

In the '80s, food taste was changing fast, fuelled by the ever-widening availability of ingredients from across the globe, rising affluence, and the consumerism that Mrs Thatcher unleashed on UK society. Floyd stood for decent ingredients, the pleasure of cooking and good company. He changed the way food was talked about on television, and he played the bon viveur in a way that secretly perhaps many wanted to emulate, despite the destruction that it caused in his life away from the cameras. His shows and his story contain all the seeds of the media forms that have come to dominate the next two decades - he became the apotheosis of the celebrity chef, with books, personal appearances, and all the other paraphenalia of fame - without Floyd there would be no Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Gordon Ramsay and the rest. And to his shows he brought a postmodern wit that appealed directly to the viewer, inviting the audience to help to unpick the processes of documenting how to cook, even as it celebrated them.

Here he is, cooking with a family in France, in a clip which captures all that was great about his approach. The Keith Meets Keith documentary is pretty compulsive viewing too but I guess this is how most people will prefer to remember him.