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They’ve not tasted, smelled, touched or seen it, yet the number of people who have heard comedian Greg Davies describe his mum’s lemon suet pudding runs into the tens of thousands. On comedians James Acaster and Ed Gamble’s podcast Off Menu, his interview is the most popular download – and Off Menu is one of the most downloaded podcasts across the UK.
Were it about politics, music, history – anything easily confined to the ears – this would hardly be worth mentioning, but it's about food. It’s the most multi-sensory subject going. Yet, far from being the exception, Off Menu is one of a number of food-based podcasts for which the nation has developed a bottomless appetite.
'It started because Ed and I love food – and we love talking about it. It’s a way of enjoying food all day without eating your way into obesity.' They made a podcast, James Acaster continues because they were 'having those conversations anyway'.
If people stopped listening, they’d stop recording them. The premise was simple: in a dream restaurant where you can choose anything from anywhere and anytime, guests must choose their dream menu, including a starter, main course, side dish, dessert and drink.
Its success –100,000 subscribers and over a million listens at the time of the writing – lies in the stories their choices generate, and in Acaster and Gamble’s reactions. 'Pretty quickly we realised, we can’t keep coming back to food – we have to let the conversation flow,' Acaster muses. 'Step back, and you see that food is a window: onto community, socialising, cultures, and your memory of different times of your life.'
Food as a vehicle rather than an end in itself, then, is Off Menu’s formula. Indeed, Jay Rayner argues, it is the only formula if a food podcast is to succeed. Though perhaps best known for his reviews in The Observer, Rayner is equally at home in the recording studio, with two successful podcasts of his own under his belt.
An Off Menu listener himself, he has also been featured, and observes that what the listener is 'tuning into here is two extremely deft comedians playing off each other. Beware thinking it’s about format,' he continues. 'It’s not about format. It’s always about personalities.
Both Off Menu and Table Manners [another popular food podcast, in which Jessie Ware and her mother Lennie invite celebrities round to their house for a meal] are about the people presenting them, and the dynamic. Really what you’re earwigging into is the relationship between mother and daughter.'
Both Table Manners and Rayner’s podcasts – Out to Lunch and the panel show Kitchen Cabinet – differ to Off Menu in that there is actual food present. Where Acaster and Gamble rejected the idea of food on air, for the Wares, and certainly for Rayner, eating is a fundamental part of the event.
He’s never had an episode of Out to Lunch (where he interviews people of profile he admires over a lunch out) let down by the food – 'the least I can do is land a good restaurant' he observes – but his best interviews are those where he’s succeeded in matching his celebrity guests to a restaurant in 'a way that conveys a sense of the person': classic, chic Italian Locanda Locatelli with Stanley Tucci, for example, or Elbow frontman Guy Garvey with the no-frills nose-to-tail restaurant St John.
'The food has to be good', he says, or at least, the food has to be 'a talking point.' Certainly on the Kitchen Cabinet, a culinary panel show that explores the various ways in which we cook, eat and drink, the food needs to create 'some sort of visceral response.'
Yet even on this programme, that is absolutely about food and cooking, food knowledge alone is not enough to qualify as a panellist. 'What we’re looking for is a personality,' Rayner continues. Simply 'rattling off a list of ingredients might work on TV where you have the distraction of visuals, but what’s important here is an emotional reaction.'
Speaking to me, as he is, six weeks into lockdown, this feels particularly resonant. We are cooking more now than we ever were – but unable to eat with anyone outside our household, it feels not just preferable but pertinent that food podcasts and their presenters provide a means of 'connecting food to life.'
You could ask why, with such a smorgasbord of food programmes on screen, you’d opt for listening over watching. For Rosie Birkett, co-host of the BBC Good Food’s own podcast with Tom Kerridge and Orlando Murrin, it is the potential of a podcast format to 'be more sincere and natural. It can be off-putting' she says of the studio, crew and cameras that come with TV programs.
'When we're making the podcast, it's just the three of us and the producer in the room, chewing the fat.' Where TV and books offer more technical advice, audio lends itself to more to stories: 'there's a narrative behind every ingredient, producer, chef, food system.' Sure, there are few subjects so multi-sensory as food, she agrees, but there are also 'few subjects so relatable. Even if you're not physically seeing, tasting or touching the food, we can draw upon our memories.'
In divisive, difficult times, an informal chat about food is something we can all engage in and connect over. 'We might not agree politically,' Acaster concludes, 'but if start talking about fresh fish I had right out the ocean, then for 20 minutes you and I can just relax.'
Pick of the best food podcasts
James Acaster and Ed Gamble invite special guests – usually comedians – to their dream restaurant, and ask them about their dream starter, main course and dessert. Listen now.
Out to Lunch with Jay Rayner
The famous food critic invites a well-known name out to lunch. Listen now.
A culinary panel show hosted by Rayner that sets to celebrate, study and sometimes change the way we think about food, cooking and eating. Listen now.
Guests from the worlds of music, culture and politics join Jessie Ware and her mum Lennie for dinner and a natter. Guests ranges from John Legend and Richard Curtis to heroes of the hour Jamie Oliver and Joe Wicks. Listen now.
BBC The Food Programme
Investigative programme examining in all manner of issue surrounding the food and drink, through history, politics, science, culture and agriculture. Listen now.
Voices at the Table
Hosts Miranda York and Anna Sulan Masing explore the light and the dark side of food culture through stories, poems, readings and performances extracted from their popular Voices at the Table events series. Listen now.
Take a Bao
Exploring the resplendent panoply of Asian food, from dumplings to durians via chefs, farmers, food writers, scientists, anthropologists and more. Listen now.
The Splendid Table
A modern, multicultural snapshot of the cultures, cuisines, ideas and the personal stories that spill forth from the wide world of the table. Hosted in its current incarnation by Francis Lam, this well-seasoned program has been running for two decades. Listen now.
'It’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters' is the strapline of this award-winning podcast hosted by Dan Pashman, which uses food as a way to talk about people and how and why we eat. Listen now.
Listen to our foodie podcasts
Have you listened to the BBC Good Food podcast yet? The first ten episodes see Orlando Murrin and Rosie Birkett unearth the stories behind chef Tom Kerridge’s favourite recipes and ingredients. Orlando and Tom have now returned for a second series, which includes special guests. Plus, find episodes where the GF house team liven up your kitchen with tips, recipe inspiration and techniques. Listen now.
For everyday tips, virtual culinary tours, step-by-step guides to subjects like sourdough and home smoking, listen to the podcast from our friends at olive magazine. Expect subject material as diverse as it is delicious. Hosted by Janine Ratcliffe, it features chefs, writers, bakers, brewers, butchers, dieticians and more. Listen now.
Do you have a favourite food podcast? We’d love to read about it below…
This review was last updated in September 2020. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews, or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at goodfoodwebsite@.