Opinion: Food Gurus by Stephen Vines

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 9:50am

Best known, perhaps, as a journalist, Stephen Vines also manages a small chain of canteens, coffee shops and bars; is a director of The Pan Handler kitchen equipment shop in Prince's Building; and is an enthusiastic and capable cook.

Given that he is already a published author - on subjects including the Middle East, colonial Hong Kong and investing in stock markets - it is surprising that Food Gurus: 20 People Who Have Changed the Way We Eat and Think About Food is his first published about one of his great passions.

Passion is something those 20 people all have in common, along with grit and determination, but otherwise they are a diverse bunch, ranging from Ray Kroc, the architect of fast-food giant McDonald's, to Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, and "ethical chef" Alice Waters.

"This selection is pretty subjective," Vines admits. "I just got interested in why people are eating the way they are today, and who are the seminal figures in creating the food culture. Everybody in this book is a fanatic. Mostly they are either chefs - who start their working days at 4am and end at midnight and hardly ever sleep - or food writers such as Elizabeth David, who single-handedly set out to introduce Mediterranean food to an austere, grey, depressed England after the second world war."

Three gurus fall outside those categories - Kroc, canned food mogul Henry Heinz and nutritionist Dr Robert Atkins.

Vines dislikes McDonald's hamburgers, seldom opens a can and doesn't believe in the Atkins diet, but he largely keeps those judgments of taste which pepper his conversation out of the book. Many of his subjects are controversial in one way or another, and in each case, he summarises both sides of the argument.

He also argues persuasively that each of his 20 gurus has had a lasting impact on the way we eat, or think about food, starting chronologically with Bartolomeo Platina (1421-81) who, he contends, pioneered the cookbook as we know it today.

"He was a Vatican librarian who was very interested in food. Platina was better known in his lifetime for religious works, some of which were judged to be heretical, and probably wrote the book in prison. Nowadays we all cook from recipes, and that's taken for granted, but it had to start somewhere. This is controversial, and there are other candidates, but I think it starts with him," Vines says.

Catherine de Medici (1519-89), who, he concedes, "probably never raised a frying pan or any other kind of pan in anger", is present because it was under her patronage that the cooking of Renaissance Florence was introduced to the French court of her husband, Henry II, and so the foundations were laid for centuries of the primacy of French cuisine.

The period of that primacy is covered by well-balanced assessments of the achievement and influence of chefs Marie-Antoine "Antonin" Careme (1784-1833), Fernand Point (1897-1955), Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), and Paul Bocuse (aged 86 and still active). Representative recipes from all the chefs are included at the end of their respective chapters.

Arguably the most influential contemporary chef included is Ferran Adria, who Vines says is "fantastic at marketing himself. He takes everything to an outer limit. It's a bit precious for me, but I think he is the prime example of a superb technician, and [compared with Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller et al] the most influential."

Other taste shapers are included more on the grounds of their influence as popularisers, or educators, such as contemporary figures Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.

"I consciously set out to find people who epitomise trends," says Vines, citing Oliver's work in encouraging interest - particularly among schoolchildren - in food which is tasty and nutritious.

He says he chose frustrated footballer Ramsay as the most influential of the television chefs for turning food preparation into a "spectator sport".

"If this was a book of my favourite food people, Rick Stein would have been in there, but I don't think he has had the same impact. If you look at his recipe books, they are far better than the Ramsay ones, but his shows in terms of viewership aren't nearly as popular, and Ramsay has bridged the Atlantic. In the latter part of the 20th century, food and entertainment became so closely intertwined that I needed somebody to epitomise that. For me that was Ramsay," he says.

He admires all the gurus, he says, for their passion and hard work, even if he doesn't always care for the result of it.

"It is one of the themes of the book that some of the great geniuses of the food world are people who understand how to codify and create a context in which people understand how food is produced," Vines says. "A lot of them knew how to create demand, and give people the self-confidence and means to satisfy that demand.

"The fact that you cook well is a great achievement, but it doesn't change the way people eat."

Food Gurus: 20 People Who Have Changed the Way We Eat and Think About Food is available in local bookshops including Dymocks and PageOne for HK$240, or as an e-book from podtribe.com