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Fanny Cradock: Britain’s First Celebrity Chef

Fanny Cradock: Britain’s First Celebrity Chef

Celebrity chefs surround us in the UK. Their faces appear on books, on the side of bus stops, on product ranges in supermarkets, their names lit up in bright lights on their chain restaurants.

While now the TV chef is a completely innocuous part of our culture, back in 1946 it had just been invented. Phillip Harben was the first person to bring cooking to the small screen making the trendy recipe of lobster vol-au-vents in just 10 minutes. And throughout the late 1940s and early 50s, short cookery slots on TV started becoming established.

However, these programmes were more instructional and focused less on the character of chef than what we are used to today. Rationing was still in place in the UK until 1954 and it wasn’t till 1953 that Queen Elizabeth II was crowned bringing in a new era of consumption, prosperity and consumerism after the austerity of the post-war period.

In 1955 as Britain started to develop into this new era, a new TV chef first waltzed into the living rooms of the nation. Eccentric, glamorous and formidable, Fanny Cradock created the concept of celebrity chef.

Still from Fanny’s Kitchen 1955. Fanny wears a ballgown and Johnny has his monocle on, very practical kitchen attire.

Her first TV show was called Fanny’s Kitchen and saw her order her husband Johnny around the kitchen. She wasn’t actually legally married to Johnny until 1997 though as she was already still married to two different men. The show took place in an extravagant kitchen for the time and Fanny would wear ballgowns with an apron over the top, while Johnny would also be dressed in suitable evening wear. She changed her accent (she was born and raised in Leytonstone) to speak in standard Received English. This posh and glamorous style of presenting coupled with her direct and harsh attitude to whoever was helping her on set gave her a reputation for being snobby.

Colourful Cookery By Fanny Cradock 1968

The food itself has not aged well. Her love of food dyes and elaborate presentation yielded a cuisine I would best describe as the opposite of Instagramable. Mashed potatoes would be dyed mauve and fish would be presented with eyes piped back on and salads suspended in savoury jellies. At the time many Britons were starting to experiment with new dishes but it was before cheap air travel and increased immigration to the UK really started to impact the cuisine of the nation. So at the time, green devilled eggs were seen as delightful and exotic.

Fanny had 24 TV shows continuing up to 1975. However in 1976, the British public turned against her. Gwen Troake was a home cook who had won the Cook of the Realm competition and had been awarded the task of preparing a banquet attended by Lord Mountbatten and Edward Heath. Live on air, Fanny proclaimed her disgust at Gwen’s menu “Seafood cocktail and then straight into the Duck!”. Impressively this one statement was enough to get her sacked from the BBC who felt that she had crossed the line. The irony is that most TV shows now are based on the concept of critics going in on peoples dishes.

She made her last TV appearance on the Parkinson show, but she stormed off set in horror as she realised that the woman on the show alongside her was in fact Danny La Rue in drag. She died in 1994 aged 85, having pioneered the concepts of the celebrity chef and written hundreds of recipes.

I could write so much more about her life, she is one of those characters in history whom the more you learn about, the more intriguing her story becomes. However, the blog has to stop somewhere! Hope you all have a good week and are coping with the lockdown monotony.





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