In the age of satellite TV, celebrity is cheap - and the term ‘celebrity chef’ is almost an insult. But the revolution in British food wouldn’t have happened without them. They have dragged food from the women’s page (‘Five things to do with cream of mushroom soup’) to the front page. Food is now part of our popular culture in the same way as film or theatre.

Celebrity chefs are everywhere. Whole TV channels are devoted to them. And, although the Delia Effect is alive and well, the powers of modern celebrity chefs extend far beyond an ability to prompt a run on cranberries at Waitrose. The likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver are campaigning to change world food production. They also make a fortune.

The phenomenon is nothing new. Chefs of renown were always out there - John Evelyn, for instance, excited public opinion in the 17th century with his thoughts on salad in Acetaria. And Hannah Glasse dared put her recipe for Yorkshire pudding in her rather fancy eighteenth-century Art Of Cookery. But Isabella Beeton surpassed all the chefs who had gone before with her Book of Household Management - even though she was actually a bit of a con. Mrs Beeton didn’t run a great household and she ‘borrowed’ most of her recipes - if she had bothered to test them, she would probably have found carrots really didn’t need to be boiled for two and a quarter hours. But there was something about her prose that managed to reassure and inspire her readers. Like many chefs who came after her, she was selling a lifestyle.

It was TV, however, that created the modern ‘celebrity chef’ phenomenon, giving chefs exposure they had never had before. As the first televised cooks, advising housewives how to cook with rations, Marguerite Patten and Philip Harben were the first of a new breed. Then came Phyllis.

She rewrote all the rules. In the dark days of austerity, Phyllis “Fanny” Cradock and her third husband Major John Cradock became the country’s leading authorities on all things culinary. There was something unsettling about Fanny’s mask-like face and her food was truly awful - everything seemed to be suspended in aspic or dyed green. But she had an enormous influence on our food culture, proving cookery needn’t be dreary. She replaced the standard chef’s apron with an evening gown, drop earrings and a pearl necklace. Yes, she was a frightful food snob and seemed to treat her viewers with contempt - but she began to lure us away from wartime food and towards a bit of glamour.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth David was doing the same - more convincingly. She told us about the ways of garlic and olive oil and the joys of peppers and aubergines. But the unfortunate thing about the woman canonised as the patron saint of British food writing - with books such as Mediterranean Food and French Provincial Cooking - was that she never did TV. “Elizabeth hated performing and public appearances,” remembers Jill Norman, David’s long-time editor. David was furious when a photographer took her picture in the street and put it in the paper. She wasn’t really ‘celebrity chef’ material. Nevertheless, she reinvented the national diet over 15 years, and her belief that food should be simple, healthy and fresh is still timely today.

But it took the Galloping Gourmet to show us how to really do the food-on-TV thing. Graham Kerr, a smooth, handsome bon vivant and raconteur with a zany edge, entered the stage area of his wildly successful Canadian show by running in and leaping over a chair in the dining room set. He then threw in chat and flirtation as he cooked in front of a live studio audience, demonstrating food was about more than just nutrition. It was about indulgence and theatre.

As was anything involving Keith Floyd, who, thanks to his constant glugging of red, earned himself the unwanted moniker of “the Ollie Reed of celebrity chefs”. He was much more than that, of course, and is credited by many with paving the way for the modern TV chef - the likes of Rick Stein and Gary Rhodes making their first TV appearances on his show.

But while his recipes were inspirational, they weren’t necessarily educational. It was Delia who dared teach us how to boil an egg. Very down-to-earth, smoothing out the difficulties of foreign phrasing and exotic techniques - that was Delia’s USP. Still is. Her risotto (baked in the oven) is as Italian as a Chelsea pensioner, but it works. Which is why we love her - and why, when she recommends something, we buy it. Delia’s How To Cook reportedly led to a 10% rise in egg sales across Britain. And her use of ingredients (such as Aunt Bessie’s frozen mashed potato) or utensils caused sell-outs overnight. Now there’s even a Heston Effect. When Heston’s Christmas Puddings (retailing for £13.99) sold out in store, they were selling on eBay for more than £100.

More than money
There’ll no doubt have been a pretty penny in it for Heston too. But chefs can use their celebrity for more than financial gain. Take Hugh’s Fish Fight. Fearnley-Whittingstall, trapped by the cutesiness of his River Cottage format, must have been delighted to get his teeth into a campaign to protect our fish stocks and engages with young folk in a way politicians can only dream of.

The same is true of Jamie Oliver. In between making money with huge supermarket endorsements and restaurant openings, Oliver has been working to improve our eating habits. He collected more than 270,000 signatures in favour of improving school meals and delivered the petition to 10 Downing Street. In the US, he tried to reform the diet of one of the most overweight cities in the USA. He’s not just a celebrity chef - he is a culinary activist.

His last series celebrated the ‘Britishness’ of our food. The idea came from a conversation with his mates - and from his desire to make a show that was a “pat on the back” for Britain.

Jamie Oliver is one of the ‘good guys’. But the ‘bad guys’ haven’t gone away. I saw Marco Pierre White doing a book signing in New York with Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain. White is their hero - and they said as much on the book jacket of The Devil In The Kitchen. He engaged with food in a new way. He made food sexy again. But their working relationship ended over a pan of risotto. “Marco grabbed it,” says Batali, “and said, ‘Not enough salt’. So I added a little more salt, and a little more cheese, and he tried it again. ‘This still sucks,’ he shouted. That’s when the pan hit me in the chest. I threw two big handfuls of salt into his beurre blanc and stormed out.”

In the UK, White was an obvious inspiration for Gordon Ramsay, the trans-Atlantic restaurateur and reality TV star with a potty mouth. He always wanted to be treated seriously and hated the “celebrity chef” label, yet seems to spend more time on the box than in his restaurants.

There were no such pretensions from the Two Fat Ladies, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson, who sped around on Jennifer’s Triumph Thunderbird. You could imagine them popping into a convent to cook whether the cameras were there or not. But they didn’t make us cook more. Their job was to entertain us.

Nigella entertains us (especially the men) in a different way, cooing “mmm” and “aah” as she lollops an egg yolk from one hand to the other. After the credits have rolled, we see her sneaking to the fridge to wolf down the leftovers. Like Mrs Beeton, she has sold us a lifestyle.

With all these food shows on the TV, are we getting any better at cooking? The era of celebrity chefs has come about just as we have grown more reliant on microwave meals and fast food. Ironic? Maybe not. Food author Michael Pollan recently noted that, by making food such a spectacle, shows such as Iron Chef and The F Word have reinforced the message that cooking is best left to the professionals. We have put chefs on a pedestal. And watch them with our warmed-over dinners on our laps.

Oliver is aware of the dangers. “Everything I’ve devoted my efforts to is about trying to break down walls,” he says. “I ask myself, ‘Can people engage with what I do? Or are we scaring them away?’.”

Thanks to the celebrity chefs, we now see food as a comfortable place - and also as a political issue, something worth fighting for. Whether we get round to actually cooking it - well, that’s another matter.