Simon Cowell is rather like God. Distant, yet omnipresent, and given to moving in mysterious ways. Who would have thought the millionaire re-inventor of the talent show and authority on the perma-tan would choose the Harrogate Flower Show as a venue for his latest incarnation? Furthermore, that his latest fix would be about food? Yet here, at the Great Yorkshire Showground, which is heaving with bedding plants, small trees and thousands of people assessing hydrangeas, the latest Simon Cowell vehicle is being assembled.
Food Glorious Food, which will be presented by Carol Vorderman with a judging line-up including Tom Parker Bowles, Loyd Grossman, Anne Harrison of the WI and MasterChef graduate Stacie Stewart, is about identifying the single most brilliant dish in Britain. The winner will then be mass-produced by Marks & Spencer. It is surreal, but then so is Cowell, a television personality so extraordinary that he might have sprung, fully formed, from the joint dreams of Ant and Dec.
The basic notion behind FGF is that, rather like a novel, every one of us has one amazing dish in us. It not only has to be great, grand (and probably highly calorific), it must be original – something your granny invented, as it were – and it must be Glorious. Blame the late, great Lionel Bart for that detail.
“What is interesting,” says Loyd ‘Never call me a celebrity chef ’ Grossman, “is that it returns to the amateur’s love of food. That was what created the success of the original MasterChef, back in 1990. There were very few food programmes on TV and MasterChef was all about exposing the love of food that inspires amateurs to do great stuff. Since then we have had programmes featuring men in white jackets shouting at people. Cookery shows have become professionalised. This is about amateurs bringing their dishes forward.”
Each heat involves members of the public across the nation bringing pre-prepared dishes to be tasted. If it is judged as Glorious enough, it will get a rosette and go on to the next round.
Anything and everything is up for consideration, from teacakes to fried sea bass by way of sticky toffee pudding. The idea is to give a culinary portrait of Britain today – as well as provide some cracking stories of how the food was invented, created and passed down.
“It’s the Antiques Roadshow of food, not the X Factor of food, you know,” says Parker Bowles, a cookery writer of some distinction and a person with a disarming amount of charisma. “We are not going to make anyone cry. And you do not have to be a chef. You just have to do one thing, perfectly.”
Has he been chosen because he is a certain type of chef ? Posh Chef, perhaps, with Grossman as Yank Chef? Parker Bowles recoils. “No! None of us have been picked to fit a role. “It’s all about the taste. That’s what it boils down to.”
We are sitting beside a large marquee. People in sturdy anoraks and headscarves crowd round as Parker Bowles, with something of Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr about him, enthusiastically tucks into a slice of game pie. “I’m not using a fork,” he chirrups. “I’m using my fingers.”
The pie, a substantial thing surrounded by golden beetroot chutney, has been made by Alan Herron, a 55-year old graphic designer from Clitheroe, who is hovering nervously nearby.
For what seems like a long time, Parker Bowles cannot speak. His mouth is too crammed with game pie, and he was clearly brought up never to speak with his mouth full (he is that Parker Bowles, the son of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall).
Herron, wearing corduroy plus-fours, matching jacket and a game bag (and thus clearly a TV “character”), looks anxious. Then Parker Bowles issues his critique. He shakes his head with seemingly unbearable joy. “Where do I start?”
Herron brightens up. “The pastry! The meat! The jelly!” gushes Parker Bowles. “Yes, well, I got up at 2.30am and 4.30am on Thursday to inject jelly into it,” says Herron, proudly.
What is Parker Bowles looking for? “Food that has to leave you breathless and panting, food that dazzles, across the country,” he says. He reaches under the table and produces a rosette.
“Here!” he says, affixing it to the game pie with some panache. I think giving rosettes at a country show might be a Parker Bowles speciality. Herron looks over-whelmed. The pie is through.
From the evidence of this heat, Food Glorious Food looks great; sweet and wholesome, a show that ticks the public-service boxes about regionalism, diversity and education. But every ITV show has to earn its place and it’s hard to see that there is going to be a real sense of jeopardy here, of tears, despair and viewers shouting at the television. Can you spin a game pie around on a chair? Can you press a huge button and send a roast chicken packing? Can you bite back tears as you reunite a teacake with a sticky toffee pudding?
“I think it is tapping into a changing mood in the country that is less confrontational and more celebratory,” opines Grossman. “It’s a zeitgeist thing.” He’s not going to mention the Olympics, is he? “I don’t think it was caused by the Olympics, but the way the Games were received is symptomatic of our wish to move away from confrontation and towards celebration.”
“We don’t see it as a food show,” says Michael Jochnowitz, head of TV at Cowell’s production company, Syco, which has teamed up with Optomen TV to make the show. “We see it as a soap opera. This is a show that transcends food.”
Does it? I ask the redoubtable Anne Harrison WI stalwart and judge. Strict Chef, if you like. “Food is a life skill,” she pronounces. “There are some people here who have not got the faintest idea.” Has Harrison encountered anything Glorious yet? “I have had a rather good meat and potato pie,” she admits. A former home economics teacher in tweeds and large earrings, she’s like a more substantial, terrifying version of Mary Berry.
“Since home economics was effectively banished from our schools, people do not know how to cook,” she announces. “There are now two generations of people who cannot produce a meal. This show is an educational thing.” She fixes me with a beady eye. “And talent shows are a bit sensational, aren’t they?”
Oh goodness, don’t say that to Simon Cowell. Whose favourite dish, apparently, is Angel Delight. Still, everyone said period drama was dead in the water before ITV did Downton. And BBC2’s The Great British Bake Off has been a real hit, inspiring people to start opening packs of self-raising flour. Maybe Cowell is on to something. Certainly, the prize is a thing of genius. Landing your family recipe on the shelves of M&S is the foodie equivalent of the Royal Variety Performance, is it not?
“I can see my dish on the shelves of M&S,” says John Wilson, a 42-year-old Liverpudlian who has brought along his dad’s scouse (basically a beef and potato hotpot) for consideration. “I mean, what’s not good about it? It’s basic, decent food. Rustic, in a city sense.” He looks lovingly at his creation, which looks very tasty, if a bit congealed.
Baker Stacie Stewart, the fourth judge (Glam Chef?), is in no doubt. “I think it’s a lot more accessible than a talent show,” says Stewart, known as the Beehive Baker, who churns out 1,000 brownies a week. “I mean, everyone has to eat, don’t they? Not everyone has to sing!”
Food Glorious Food is starting tonight at 8:00pm on ITV.