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1st March 2013

What we really think about Hugh

Eve Commander ponders the virtue of this controversial chef

On the surface there’s not a lot to dislike about Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. He’s affable and champions good stuff like local produce, ‘real food’ and an end to battery chickens. The fact that he was chucked out of the esteemed River Café Kitchen for ‘being messy’ and ‘lacking discipline’ made him endearing. When, on a Thursday evening I watched him foraging in the undergrowth in an attempt to live ‘the good life’ in River Cottage I considered it a vaguely uncool but guilty pleasure. But as I grew wiser, I saw that what I took as boyish charm was really youthful petulance. After all, who calls their TV program after the restaurant they weren’t good enough to work in, saying that the experience helped to shape their career, unless they’re childishly point-scoring?

I had built up a picture of a homely farmer and found him to be an aristocrat.  Educated at Eton, he’d skipped from Oxford to conservation work in Africa; to failed sous chef; to journalism; to TV cook. Talk about having his cake and eating it! But that wasn’t all. Suddenly, he announced he would be doing ‘A whole summer without flesh’; was this the same man who notoriously flambéed and puréed a human placenta to serve as pâté on TV Dinners? How could I respect the words of someone who’d spent hours on our TV screens hunting for rabbits and expounding the virtues of organic chicken and then honestly claim that going veggie was ‘no deprivation’ to his eating experience whatsoever? Where once his Fish Fight and Chicken Out! campaigns seemed well-meaning, now they felt sanctimonious; the £240 a head to dine at River Cottage now seemed cynical. Instead of the nickname Hugh ‘Eatsitall’ that he earned in the early series of River Cottage by gamely cooking up road-kill, Hugh ‘Haveitall’ seems more appropriate. Whilst we’re hoodwinked, this man takes the biscuit.

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