Media training for chefs, some top tips

Andrew Pern at The Star at Harome

An example of how to do it well, Andrew Pern at the Star in Harome

Tony Naylor’s column in this month’s Restaurant magazine debates the pros and cons of chefs letting TV cameras into their kitchens. [abridged as I can’t find it online: Great British Menu is worth doing] Now, as someone who has spent many an hour filming in hot, confined kitchens on behalf of Channel 4 I’ve a few points of my own to add, see below. Furthermore the magazine’s lead article charts the rise of a new batch of young talented chefs, and any chef starting out now would be wise to think about some media training alongside ‘sous-vide for beginners’.

It’s highly likely that your first experience of having a journalist with a camera in your kitchen will be someone like me, from a predominantly online background. Video on the web is cheaper and quicker, and though it may hit a smaller audience, it hits the right one. After all they’ve actively chosen to watch the clip unlike the 30 souls in an old people’s home watching Jenny Bond who you’ll never convert into customers. All the major ISPs and portals as well as broadcasters are commissioning more and more video; short clips under five minutes tightly focused on a particular dish work very well with an accompanying recipe. It’s a nice easy way to loose your cherry and see if it’s for you rather than committing yourself to something you may not like.

I use a Canon HV-30 with a Panasonic wide-angle lens and external hand held mic, so I can get good and close to the action and fill the frame which is what I want. The advantage of this over a full TV production crew is that I’m faster and take up less space in your underground lair. Telly, as anyone who’s ever worked in it will tell you, can take ages to film. Video on the web isn’t broadcast quality, but therein lies its charm.

So here are my tips for chefs both young and old when I come calling with my camera.

Tidy up before hand. It sounds obvious but you’d be amazed how disorganised even the best-run kitchens can look on camera. For God’s sake get rid of the clutter. I’ve found the best time to film is in the dead hours from 3 – 5pm, when the brigade has cleaned down after lunch service but not yet started dinner. Give everyone, especially the kitchen porter, a ciggy break as the mics can pick up the tinny sound of jet washed cutlery from 20 yards away. If possible kill the extractors and any particularly rattle-prone fridges and freezers while shooting, remembering of course to turn them on again after takes; the Human ear screens these low ambient sounds out, the microphone does not.

Be yourself. You’d be amazed how many chefs, these lions of the range, become lambs when the camera turns over, much to the enjoyment of the rest of the brigade who enjoy seeing the boss squirm a little infront of the lens. Don’t try and act all Ramsay, just be yourself and speak in clear complete sentences. Most professionals from surgeons to chefs to street sweepers aren’t very good at telling people what they’re doing whilst they’re doing it. There’s nothing worse that someone saying ‘and now’ – long pause as the ingredient is added – ‘we add’ – much stirring – ‘the rice’. That’ll be really hard to edit down to what might is simple stage in the recipe. Do steps in complete motions and tell the camera what you’re doing as you’re doing it clearly and coherently.

Tongs and boards. Most chefs I’ve met cook with their hands, but most people at home don’t and pushing and prodding food with your paws looks odd and even unhygienic on camera. Use tongs to move items around the pan and a clean spoon for tasting each time, (but never speak with your mouthful!). Make sure you use the right coloured board for the right ingredient. You should be doing this anyway, but when your mind’s on a dozen other things both you and I might not pick it up and it only takes one call from ‘disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ to derail things. Also make sure it’s your best one and not covered in knife marks and scratches. In fact use my visit as an excuse to tap up the owner for some new gear, nothing looks as bad on camera as a close up shot of a beautiful ingredient on a manky old chopping board.

Let there be light. Nine times out of ten kitchens are in the basement and often poorly lit by a single strip light. This’ll present a problem for the camera so consider removing the plastic housing for the duration of the shoot. Getting film lights, and indeed tripods and things into kitchens is difficult in my experience so if lighting is really bad consider demonstration the bulk of the recipe actions in a brighter part of the kitchen or even out in the restaurant. I’ve been in kitchens where the lights under the hood have blown, use this as an excuse to replace them. Beware of pass lamps though, they’re incredibly yellow and make everything look weird, dial them down a bit if possible.

It’s never done that before. It’s inevitable that your signature dish you’ve cooked a million times goes tits up in the presence of a camera. I’ve had sauce bottle tops come off spilling all over the dish, undercooked mullet en papillote and leaky pastry work. It happens, so make sure you’ve got an understudy waiting in the wings. Also if your dish has a slow cooked element like a pie filling or long braise, use the Blue Peter method and prepare one earlier, neither of us wants to sit around for eight hours while something casseroles.

Finally… Remember also that the whole thing wants to edit down to around five minutes, by the time I’ve said who I am and where I am, and you’ve said hello and told us what you’re going to make and ran through the raw ingredients, we’re two minutes in. It’s quick, clear, confident actions that I’m after, and talking on camera is something that everyone thinks is easy but is actually very hard.

I love filming real working chefs. It’s a chance to take viewers through the doors and behind the pass of real restaurants. When done right it can ensure that customers gain a better understanding of how a dish they might have been eating for years is made. When it goes wrong you and your establishment (and me) can look a bit crap. Take advice from me about what to say and what to do, but don’t be afraid to suggest things, this is your kitchen and you know it inside out. Once it’s published follow it up, put a link to the video on your own website (what do you mean you’ve not got one?!) and tell your friends to watch it. And finally, try to enjoy it and have fun. If you don’t, it’ll come across on camera, and the camera never lies.

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