A friend sent a challenge to a Whatsapp group I’m part of the other day that read: ‘top 3 cooking programmes – go.’ Some of us went for Two Fat Ladies and Far Flung Floyd, others Come Dine With Me and The Trip. I felt I had to include Ready Steady Cook… let me explain why.
RSC was pretty ridiculous but oh, I was obsessed. Every afternoon after school in the early ’90’s I’d be curled into my dad’s armchair glued to Fern Britton asking the audience if it would be Green Peppers or Red Tomatoes. The triumphant, trumpeting theme tune would start and I would always have a snack in hand.
For those with hazy memories the show pit two chefs against each other – one in the Green Pepper kitchen and the other the Red Tomato. Two ‘contestants’ would each bring a carrier bag full of ingredients they’d bought adding up to the value of £5 and the chefs would cook several dishes using them – all in 20 minutes. The ‘reveal’ of ingredients produced some great TV moments and would say a lot about contestants. Would they have chosen ingredients that go together? ‘I’ve brought along tofu, iceberg lettuce, jam, chocolate and a carrot, Fern!’ Would they have some odd dietary requirement? Not nearly so much of a ‘thing’ back then when ‘health food’ meant carob and bags of musty sunflower seeds. Mostly, though, they’d just want ‘some new ideas’ which kind of made sense because nobody had Google. In fact, I don’t think we even had the internet at home.
Fern would then have some semi-awkward bants with the contestants before they put their aprons on and proceeded to spend the entire 20 minutes peeling one potato. It was genuinely impressive though, the amount and quality of food the chefs produced. They were fully paid up members of the TV Chef Gang, these men (for they were almost entirely men). There was Ainsley Harriot (who would later present the show); Anthony Worrall Thompson; Brian Turner; James Martin and Nick Nairn, to name a few. There was Phil Vickery, who Fern eventually married and there was Ross Burden, who has since sadly passed away.
There were classic dishes that would come out time and time again: James Martin never stopped spinning sugar and it basically wasn’t an episode unless he was frantically flicking strands over the top of a rolling pin; someone would make a stuffed pepper; there would definitely be a soup; something on toast; herbed couscous; tempura; a dipping sauce. At the end, there would be an audience vote and one of the chefs would win.
The thing is, despite the silliness, the cheesy catchphrases and the ‘Susie Salt and Percy Pepper’ bullshit from Ainsley, I learned a huge amount about cooking from RSC. A huge amount. I was 14 when the show started and had no idea what my first career would be yet let alone this, my second. The show sparked an interest in food that would become my life and my obsession. It was all so innocent. Fern seemed to be genuinely interested in the guests, while the chefs tried to make their best dishes simply to win ‘the show’. It was all round good, clean fun albeit seriously competitive. Its influence should also not be underestimated – here’s Kate Winslet on the show after she’d been in Titanic.
I also can’t underestimate its effect on me and the way my life has turned out, and when I think of it now I feel nothing but warmth. I was being quite the little bitch at that age – bunking off school, bored with academic stuff and doing what I was told, rebelling in many ways. What was always consistent however was RSC. I don’t think I ever missed an episode. And here I am.
For those of you now filled with nostalgia like me, check out these anecdotes from the chefs on the show which include a squid to Fern’s face and Brian Turner calling Anthony Worrall-Thompson a ‘half-sized person.’ There are various articles online suggesting that the show will return with James Martin as presenter but I dunno, these are different times. The show would be more cynical, surely. The contestants would be less innocent and James definitely wouldn’t get away with wearing a bandana. I think it’s best to leave RSC where it is – in the BBC archives and all over Youtube. And with that, I’m off to fall down an RSC-shaped internet-hole.