I did an interview this week with BigHospitality, an online news and information service. Hospitality is itself, of course, a sub-set of the tourism business and, as such, a source of great interest to me as the minister responsible.
Anyway, it all passed off very well. The hospitality business (another one of those rather self-contradicting expressions like ‘leisure industry’, but you know what I mean, I’m sure) is something we’re very good at these days, and it’s good to get the chance to give them a public pat on the back. The reporter’s last question, however, came as something of a surprise. ‘What’ she asked me ‘did I feel about our prospects in the Bocuse d’Or next month?’.
I like to think I managed to prevent my mouth doing the salmon-on-a-slab routine that very often adorns the face of the unwary politician, when confronted with a question that might just as well have been asked in Flemish for all the chances of one finding an appropriate answer to it. And neither, fortunately, did my press officer have to pretend to faint and send the crockery flying in order to create a distraction. Thankfully, the interviewer herself came to my rescue.
Foghorns, cowbells, cheering and yelling
And the Bocuse d’Or, it turns out, is an international competition for chefs. The cooking equivalent of the Olympic Games, apparently. Staged every two years, teams from 24 countries come together in a ‘culinary theatre’ and are given 335 minutes to prepare a meat dish and a fish dish, in front of a 24-strong judging panel and – best of all – a thousand or so spectators. And these spectators do not sit quietly in studied contemplation, by all accounts. Indeed in 1997, according to Wikipedia, the Mexican team had support from ‘a mariachi band, foghorns, cowbells, cheering and yelling from the stands’. Wiki does not record the title of the dish that the Mexicans were working on at the time, but I can only hope it was something more challenging than a spicy beef tortilla, plain rice and a side order of refried beans, but then again who knows?
Anyway, the point of all this (and I commend the Wiki entry on the Bocuse d’Or as a mine of hilarious and frankly improbable detail about it, including a table of winners which, unsurprisingly, is dominated by the French) is that hardly anyone in this country, myself included, has ever heard of it. And this strikes me as rather odd. Because in Britain it is no exaggeration to say that we are obsessed with cooking and the mysteries of food preparation. Peak time TV schedules groan with programmes about chefs and food, along with any number of cookery competitions from Masterchef and all its variants through to Come Dine with Me and something called The Hairy Bikers’ Cook Off, to name but two from today’s tea time TV listings.
Good food and cooking – our secret tourism weapon
On top of this we are as a nation genuinely very good at food and cooking, with a record number of Michelin stars and thousands of mid-price bistros and gastro-pubs that are as good as any equivalent thing you might find over the channel. The foreign stereotype of poor British cuisine is simply that – a dusty throwback to a former era when the only place you could buy olive oil was a chemist, and salad cream outsold mayonnaise in our supermarkets.
So why, I wonder, will the news media not be getting behind our team next month in the same way they follow our progress in competitions involving, dare I say it, rather less ‘popular’ activities? Well, perhaps they will. And if the support of BigHospitality, not to mention the Minister for Tourism and Heritage, makes that more likely, then that is all to the good.
Simon Hulstone – our not-remotely-secret weapon
Our team in Lyons next month will be led by Simon Hulstone, by the way. He’s from the Michelin-starred Elephant Restaurant in Torquay, an establishment that I’m sure bears absolutely no resemblance to Torquay’s possibly more famous, albeit fictional (mercifully) dining room at Fawlty Towers, even on Basil’s ‘Gourmet Night’.
Another good thing about the Bocuse d’Or, incidentally, is that there appears to be no possibility at all of the French letting any other country host it. That means we are spared the thrills and spills of preparing and presenting a bid to stage it. So no novelty single in support of our bid: ‘Chip pan’s coming home…’ has a queasily post-modern ring to it. And no national anguish as hopes are raised sky-high, only to be shot down in flames as the organising Chairman opens the envelope on the fateful decision day.
No, this is one competition that we can take part in without distraction and in which, with a fair wind, we stand a really good chance of doing well. It seems to me that the world-wide success and popularity of Jamie, Marco, Heston and Gordon to name but four – and with first names only, a sure sign of fame – 2011 could be our breakthrough year. So let’s support Simon Hulstone, and wish him all the very best for January, in the hope that he can bring home the bacon. Or the ‘Roasted halibut with lobster royale, celeriac turnovers and lemongrass cream’ (a Hulstone speciality, I believe), if he prefers.