Once upon a time, "serious" chefs were a bit sniffy about appearing on television food shows - unless it was their own foodie series (preferably with travelogue overtones). But that has drastically changed over the past four years.
You could probably date the sea change to around the time when Great British Menu first aired on BBC2 in 2006 and mainstream magazine strands such as Saturday Kitchen (BBC1) and Market Kitchen (Good Food channel) began pulling in top fine-dining boys such as Marcus Wareing, Theo Randall, Jun Tanaka and Michael Caines.
The fact is, we're living in a televisual, iPhone-clutching age and the power of the visual broadcast medium has never been greater. Appearing on television (and subsequent podcast downloads) is a very easy way to market your restaurant around the country - and sometimes even the world if the series is sold to foreign broadcasters (as Great British Menu is).
If you have a small marketing budget or there is a lull in business - say a seasonal dip at the turn of the year or as a consequence of outside economic markets or disasters (the recent Icelandic ash cloud, for example) - then a television appearance can work wonders for your reservations book.
This isn't just pie-in-the-sky supposition, it is fact. Just ask anyone who has appeared on one of the above-mentioned programmes and they'll fling statistics and percentages at you. Aidan Byrne, chef-proprietor of Cheshire's the ChurchGreen pub-restaurant, has taken part in both the 2009 and 2010 Great British Menu and also appeared on BBC1's Saturday Kitchen, the weekend morning show hosted by James Martin.
He first guested on the latter soon after launching himself as a chef-proprietor in November 2008 after previously heading up the kitchen at London's Dorchester Grill. "The Friday before I did Saturday Kitchen we had six customers in the pub and I was thinking I'd made the biggest mistake of my career. When I mentioned Cheshire on the programme, within one-and-a-half hours they'd taken 120 reservations from Cheshire residents," he recalls. Byrne's Great British Menu appearance in May 2009 also had a knock-on effect, as indeed has his participation in this year's series, which is all the more impressive given the fact that Byrne, disappointingly, didn't make it past the judges of his regional round.
"It's difficult to quantify things, because we've only been open for two years, and for those two years I've done the Great British Menu. But I'd say against January, February and March we're now up as much as 70% on our reservations. We're definitely riding on the back of the Great British Menu," he says.
Other chefs who have appeared on the series have similar stories. Nathan Outlaw, who also took part in the 2009 programmes and is still in with a shout in the current series, estimates that business at his then eponymous restaurant in Fowey's Marina Villa hotel (he's now based in Rock on the North Cornish coast at the St Enodoc hotel) was up by 33% after the series was transmitted.
Nigel Haworth of Langho's famous Northcote restaurant and hotel, who participated in the 2008 and 2009 series, says business increased by 15% after his first run on the Great British Menu, and by 20% after getting to the final in last year's competition. "The bookings hit immediately after getting through the heats last year but then intensified as I appeared in the final in June. We were almost completely full for both summers [after I did the show] - and summer is normally our quieter time here," Haworth reveals.
The conclusion, then, has to be that appearing on rock-solid shows such as Great British Menu, Saturday Kitchen or Market Kitchen is a bit of a no-brainer because of the boost it can give to a restaurant's reservations book. However, nothing is risk free. Before stepping in front of the cameras on popular shows such as these, you have to have a safe base to kick-off from. In other words, you have to make sure that your restaurant is geared up for a possible rush on bookings; that it can deliver the food you are showcasing to the nation's sofa-watching foodies when they pay you a visit after being inspired by your turn on a show. And that boils down to having a good kitchen and restaurant team, plus good working structures, in place. If you don't, you will come a cropper.
When Byrne first appeared on Saturday Kitchen he had just taken over at the Church Green as its chef-proprietor. He had been booked to do the show when he was still head chef at the Dorchester Grill, but by the time he came to film it he had made the leap to being his own man. However, he didn't have a team with the full skill level he needed to deliver his style of food consistently at such an early stage in the Church Green's life. "We were totally unprepared for the rush. But because I was in London doing the programme, when the phone started ringing the staff took the bookings. They had no experience on when to put the brakes on - if I'd been around I wouldn't have taken 120 for [the next day's] Sunday lunch. It was a nightmare. We managed to get through by going down to Sainsbury's to buy stuff when we ran out of produce - but I served some shit. In that kind of situation your morals go out of the window. It's terrible."
Luckily, by the time of his 2009 appearance on Great British Menu, Byrne had got the Church Green on course and by the time 2010 came along he was totally geared up for the challenge. Unfortunately, on the back of the earlier TV appearance, he got a visit from one of the national critics: and found his food getting slated. "Matthew Norman [of the Guardian] came in and absolutely slaughtered us - rightly so," he says, admitting that in retrospect it would probably have been better if he'd pulled out of any TV exposure until his restaurant was running smoothly.
"You've got to remember that this industry is very fickle, so you've got to deliver," agrees Sat Bains, chef-proprietor of Nottingham's Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms, who has appeared in three series of Great British Menu between 2007 and 2009, both as a competitor and chef-mentor.
"If you've got a massive influx of guests, you have to see them as regular clients for the future. We prepared in case we did get a big run, but we were also careful not to overstretch ourselves by over-booking and turning the tables." The result was that people were happy to wait for the experience of sampling Bains's cooking and his restaurant had a more sustained knock-on effect in terms of business. "Sat told me he had filled his restaurant for six months solid," says Haworth, readily admitting that this heavily influenced his decision to participate in the third and fourth series of the show.
There is another potential pitfall to appearing in front of the television cameras. If you are serious about your work, rather than only concerned with becoming a celebrity chef, it's essential that you put across the right message about your business. And some shows do this better than others. The key consideration is to pinpoint a programme that allows you to cook the food that appears on your menu. There will always be some limitations because of filming schedules, particularly on live shows which have time limitations that may require you to simplify a recipe a little in order to cook it in your slot, but so long as you don't cook out of your repertoire then these shows will accurately reflect your abilities and cuisine style.
"I don't want to go on a television show and cook things that aren't mine," says Outlaw. "That's why the Great British Menu was appealing because it stands for the things I do - like championing local British produce - and it leaves you alone to do your own thing."
A programme such as Saturday Kitchen also delivers on the "true-to-oneself" front, as its producers neither demand major recipe dumbing-down nor impose dishes on its guest chefs. The show regularly pulls in audiences of nearly three million viewers, but it was not always thus. In its early years (it launched in 2002) its viewing public hovered around the one million mark. Its change in fortunes came about four years ago, after a switch of production company and presenter.
"We took a bit of a risk and went quite cheffy when James Martin took over the presenting; we didn't know if we'd take the viewers with us," admits the show's producer, James Winter, who was brought in to revamp the programme from Sky's Taste programme by Cactus TV (the production company which makes the show for the BBC). Fortunately, Winter's risk paid off, and once he had secured a few high-profile industry names as guests, other starry chefs lowered their guard and agreed to appear on the show.
Being made to look good, free to cook in your natural style and subliminally market your restaurant is a very potent and persuasive lure. And on top of that, the show pays an appearance fee to guests. Winter declines to be drawn on specifics, but the grapevine says that £300 (plus expenses) is the base rate for this type of show.
If you're wondering how to get on a show such as Saturday Kitchen, then taking the bit between your teeth and contacting the producer - in this case, Winter - is a good starting point. "I don't mind if people knock on my door and say ‘come and look at me'," he says. That aside, Winter also keeps his own chef-search radar working: he eats out frequently, talks to other journalists and chefs - essentially keeps an eye open for someone doing something different, although chefs don't, he stresses, "have to push the bells of gastronomy".
Sometimes, Winter actually starts off with a desire to feature a certain dish on a show. He'll then look around for a chef who has an interesting take on it and, if he or she isn't used to TV, work with that person on how best to showcase the recipe on air. So it's worth having one or two signature or classic dishes that you can wave under his nose. Just think carefully about the dishes before you get to this stage, though. Remember, TV producers have certain constraints: limited time for dish demonstrations, for instance; and their job is to make watchable telly, so have a little bit of a story attached to your dish and a dash of theatricality.
Series such as Saturday Kitchen and its rival Market Kitchen run pretty much all year round so there are plenty of opportunities to pitch for a spot on them. However, they are not the only option in the TV realm on which to put over your cooking credentials seriously. Don't rule out appearances as an expert in your field on early evening regional TV magazine programmes, or even better, national ones such as the BBC1's The One Show. Don't rule out online podcasts for national newspapers or local radio, either.
Having said that, there's no getting away from the fact that national TV packs a massive punch.
"I thought when I didn't go through my regional heat on the Great British Menu again this year, ‘I'm not doing that fucking thing again,'" Byrne admits. "But then I thought about it and told myself ‘get your head out of your arse and do it if they ask you!'" The power of the plasma-screen in the corner of the sitting room really can't be underestimated.
- Be honest, be yourself - TV producers need a personality not a cardboard cut-out.
- Keep your demo-ed recipe under 10 minutes
- Make your recipe tell a story - from raw ingredients to plated dish.
- Make sure your dish isn't too simple, but don't do something overcomplicated.
- Cut out too much Blue Peter Syndrome - ie, here's one I made earlier.
- Be short and sweet when answering questions/explaining techniques.
- If appearing out of whites, stripes and blues (sometimes greens) can be kiss of death on camera.
- Always look at whoever is interviewing you, not the camera.
HOTEL MANAGEMENT UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Kit Chapman, proprietor of the Castle hotel, Taunton, has experience of both the positive and negative points of appearing on the small screen.
Last year's documentary, Keep It In The Family, screened on BBC2 and made by independent production company Twofour Broadcast, looked at how the Castle would manage the hand-over of the hotel from Kit and his wife, Louise, to one or both of their two sons, Dominic and Nick.
"The programme was screened this time last year and provided us with an unexpected piece of welcome publicity in the midst of a very deep recession. It undoubtedly helped boost occupancy levels at a very difficult time."
However, Chapman warns that the time and effort required in filming TV programmes can have a negative impact on standards within a restaurant or hotel, referring to the very public falling out with his former head chef, Phil Vickery, over his appearances on BBC TV's Ready, Steady Cook.
"What an owner of a business does is down to them, but when an employee chooses to go down the TV route and spend time away from his main job, the employer has to think very carefully about how it may impact the operation."
RESTAURATEURS ON TV
Chefs aren't the only hospitality professionals on TV. Restaurateurs are leaping in to the limelight, too, either in fly-on-the-wall documentaries or in trouble-shooting shows - think Hotel Inspector or the Raymond Blanc-fronted BBC2 series The Restaurant.
David Moore, joint-proprietor (with chef Shane Osborn) of London's Pied Á Terre and L'Autre Pied restaurants, has participated as one of Raymond Blanc's business side-kicks in the 2008 and 2009 runs.
Moore says: "Before you do any television, you have to ask yourself, ‘what is the premise of the programme?' Let's not kid ourselves, The Restaurant is reality TV, but I knew the programme-makers were there to make me look good and hopefully mention my business. Having said that the producers said at the beginning of the first series that they wouldn't do any filming at Pied but luckily they changed their mind.
"Shane has appeared on a couple of TV shows, too - The Stress Test and Grandad's Back in Business. Both had a clearly defined angle and he was there as the professional expert - he wasn't asked to do anything silly.
"After the first series we didn't really notice any knock-on effect. But the second series last year had more of an effect. The second time around I was more of a face and the 10-12 minutes you see of Pied Á Terre made you want to investigate it."
Simon Wright is joint-proprietor of the Y Polyn pub-restaurant in Nant, Wales. He was also a programme consultant on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares series and, more recently, made a series for BBC Wales called the Wright Taste. The latter followed his 12-month experience of farming as rookie smallholder.
Wright says: "The programme arose by chance, but it was excellent for business even though the BBC was quite careful and the restaurant name was never actually mentioned (people aren't daft, they tracked us down). We were pretty busy anyway but my guess is that business might have been up as much as 10% as a result of the series.
The great thing about the programme is that it reflected my values and the restaurant's values, so anybody who came as a result had a picture of what we were about. But I'd say you have to weigh up carefully what television will do for you. And don't rule out radio - it's underestimated."
KEY TV PRODUCTION COMPANIES
Saturday Kitchen, Rachel Allen Home Cooking, The Hairy Bikers.
Ready, Steady, Cook; I Can Cook (CBeebies). Factual arm Cheetah does documentaries on food-related issues like obesity.
Daily Cooks Challenge (original makers of Saturday Kitchen).
Great British Menu, Heston's Feasts, Market Kitchen (for Good Food Channel, formerly UK TV Food), The F Word.
THE HOTEL INSPECTOR
The experience of appearing on Channel 5's The Hotel Inspector wasn't a good one for Jonathan Davies, who runs the Rose & Crown hotel in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. In fact it was a "disaster", Davies says.
"All they are interested in is using your hotel as a cheap film set - it is cheap television. It did us absolutely no good at all," he claims.
He was disappointed that the advice he was looking for on interior design, business and a review of his website didn't live up to expectations. Then there were the crank calls when the programme aired. "We got blokes who wanted to have the room Alex Polizzi (the hotel inspector) stayed in, and what's more they wanted her sheets and so on. We also had an attempted theft of some of the antiques here, and for months we had nutters turning up pretending to be hotel inspectors."
If it wasn't so overwhelmingly negative for New Yorker Ralph Parisi and his English partner, Sarah Pountain, who run the Jessop Townhouse Bed & Breakfast in Tewkesbury, there were few positives to be drawn either. "It was neutral. We certainly didn't gain any business from it. In fact, we might have lost some because they portrayed me quite badly and we got some nasty eâ'mails from people who saw the programme," Parisi says. "It also didn't do me and Sarah any good personally because we had different outlooks on how good it was and how we should have handled it."
The business has survived the experience, but Parisi indicates that they are now looking to sell up. His advice to those considering appearing on the show? "If you are going to do it, you need to be very careful and go into it with a united front and a good idea of what you want to accomplish."
And it seems that David Webb and Julie Sayers had just such vision. They appeared on The Hotel Inspector while transforming their three-star B&B in Blackpool, the Sunnyside Hotel, into a five-star establishment, renamed as Langtrys.
The experience worked, Webb says: "It was definitely positive. Doing the revamp we wanted to move from holiday trade to a more corporate business market and the idea was to get our name out there as quickly as we possibly could."
Within the first month of the programme airing, the pair received over 35,000 visitors to their website and a big increase in online bookings, and they can still track the peaks in traffic every time the episode is repeated. Recent showings abroad have also resulted in bookings from as far away as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Webb was less worried about he advice from Polizzi. "Because they edited the show so well it made it look like we didn't take any advice. It wasn't strictly true, we did take some things on board but the main thing was just to get our name out there," he says.