While most good chefs attract a loyal following in their restaurants, few reach television stardom.
It’s a typical week, yet instead of preparing menus and shopping for 200-plus diners, James Reeson is thinking about recording segments for his well-established cooking show Alive and Cooking. And well established it is, with season six currently airing and over 750 shows under his belt.
Stardom, however, is not all glamour. On set, James cleans the induction stove top, polishing it to a glassy finish. He dons a clean shirt, gives his hair a quick brush and spray, and applies his stage make up – just a brush or two of non-shine foundation powder. No make-up stylist, no large production team; just one assistant chef, one producer/director, and one camera operator who doubles as the sound engineer.
The lure of cooking captured Reeson at a young age. He started his chef apprenticeship at 15 and proceeded to gain experience in restaurants around the UK and Europe. Arriving in Australia 20-odd years ago, he found things were different. The seasons were reversed, fish were not the same, and vegetables had other names. So to learn quickly, James hooked up with an agency, gaining work in some really diverse kitchens – hospitals, RSL clubs, Government House, posh restaurants.
Although upon entering television, there was also a degree of un-learning to do. Doing a cooking show in some ways is the complete opposite to how a restaurant would work – continuity, about 30 good, solid recipes, kitchen staff. “Here we do three recipes per show, we don’t repeat things that much, perhaps revisit something, or do it another way. Comparatively, yes this is a lot of fun.”
And while seasonality and local food do play a large part in philosophy and delivery, much of that is lost in the television world where schedules and replays mean we could be watching an asparagus or mango recipe in the middle of winter.
Reeson describes the show’s style as realist. Real food you can cook at home yourself. No exotic ingredients, such as truffles. Just basic ingredients you can get from any supermarket.
Real cooking also means you get what you see. There are no reshoots, very little editing, and the show – all shot with one main camera, and a second close-up camera, is as near to home cooking as you can get. “I want people to get cooking, to try out the recipes and to see it’s as easy as it looks on television,” says James. “And they do – try them. I constantly get people saying, ‘I tried this recipe and it was great’. Or this or that didn’t work. I ask what they changed or added?”
With season six now well into production, and shows airing five days a week with repeats running in the off season, that’s a lot of screen time. And with three recipes per program, that’s a lot of recipes. So it would be fair to say that James Reeson is starting to get noticed. One look at his fan Facebook page would tell you that women in particular seem to have taken to him. He grins, “It’s not my fault” and “quite bizarre really”. With that much screen time under his belt, and a fairly wicked sense of humour, it was bound to happen.
Ideas for the show need to be fresh and ever changing, and tend to happen quite organically. “Sometimes we’ve had something on the weekend that was rubbish, so we think, let’s try our own version. The other morning I woke up with a song in my head, “Summer Breeze”. So that day it was picnic food and picnicking style things.”
On the show, food styling is a strict no-go zone. “We don’t do food styling, we just put it on the plate. I mean we do try and make things look as nice as we can, but we want food to look real, the same as it will look when you make it at home.”
While James Reeson is a bit critical of high-budget television cooking shows, the criticism is more about whether the recipes and the cooking is actually do-able by the average person at home. He may be “just another bloody TV chef” but this one actually does seem to care, to want to get people cooking more at home, and cooking good food.
“Cooking is a real skill, one that more people should have. They should teach cooking more at school, although there is a flipside for chefs. There may not be as many restaurants then.” Or maybe there still will be. We all need to have someone else cook for us sometimes, for a treat, for relief and for inspiration.