How I learnt to be a food presenter

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How I learnt to be a food presenter

What would scare you most about cooking in front of an audience? I put this question to my friends and the answers ranged from ‘getting distracted while chopping a vegetable. I’d like to keep my fingers!’ to ‘people judging me based on my mistakes’.

Personally, the main reason I decided to take the How to be a Food Presenter course at Leiths was to improve my confidence. I too felt scared by the idea of cooking on camera, and it seemed like a good chance to leave my comfort zone.

My coursemates

It was fascinating to discover why my coursemates had come along; they had such inspiring plans.

Mary Harding, who took the Leiths Diploma last year, wanted to get better at cooking for an audience because she plans to teach cookery – and because she’s taking part in a friend’s documentary.

Dorothy, a talented chef at a private boarding school near Milton Keynes, had developed a reputation as ‘The Yam Lady’ thanks to her cookery videos on Facebook. She’d realised that people were really interested in her lessons on Ghanaian produce, and wanted to take things further.

Jen (another Jen!) was a chef from London who wanted to train in food presenting in order to offer online classes in Caribbean cookery.

Monica had an incredible story. Having learnt baking from her mother as a child, she set up a project to teach children across Zambia how to bake bread and cakes.

Then finally there was Marie, from Switzerland, who loves to cook. She’d recently moved to London to be with her husband, and wanted to become a bona fide professional television presenter.

A lot to remember

The course covered a lot of really detailed information. We learnt what type of shots you would need to ‘give’ the Director and the Vision Mixer. We learnt to treat the camera as a sort of ‘third friend’, who we looked at and spoke to as much as we spoke to the guests on our show, or the members of our audience. It really was ‘like learning to drive’, or perhaps, learning to drive while conducting an orchestra!

We also had to consider positioning our bodies at the right angle, wearing camera-friendly clothes, and controlling the unconscious movements we made without realising, which included:

• Swaying from side to side
• Using too many hand gestures while talking, so it became distracting
• Head scratching in the manner of a puzzled chimpanzee (me!)
• The nervous smile

The thing you have to get used to is that all eyes are on you…but as cookery shows are supposed to be entertaining, your personality is what carries you. As long as you ‘mess up with style’ the audience will still want to watch you. I was oddly chuffed when Tony, the course leader, described me as ‘weird but watchable’!

Camaraderie

One of the best things about the course was the way we all learnt from each other’s strengths. Jen had a great way of projecting her voice, speaking in short, clear sentences, and regularly looking up at the camera to engage with the audience (even whilst chopping veg!).

Mary, however, could not be topped for culinary knowledge. When she offered her freshly prepared chocolate éclairs to us, the audience, there was nothing fake in our rapturous praise!

Talkback

Talkback was a whole new experience. 

You were fitted with an earphone and, as you were trying to get on with your TV show, Tony would chip in with comments like ‘Interrupt her! Boring! Ask her about cake!’, ’30 seconds to autocue’ or, on one memorable occasion, ‘We can’t see you at all Jen, come back into shot!’

It felt like I had a buzzing bee in my ear when I was trying my best to think, so I was totally surprised when, in the following week's class; the talkback actually became useful. Somehow a little part of my brain was able to compartmentalise this little voice, trusting it and paying attention to its deadlines, while still remaining present in the moment.

I later learned that if you see a TV presenter fiddling with their back pocket, they are probably sick of the Director’s talkback, and have decided to pull the cord!

Just keep talking

Two of our sessions were taken by Simon Davies, who seemed oddly familiar. It turned out he’d presented Playschool in the 1980s, right about the time I would have been watching as a child.

He’s now a presenter on Bid TV, which involves working three hour long live presenting shifts.

He was really good at teaching us to engage the audience, because on Bid TV, if you lose their attention, your sales fall, and the presenters are judged on the sales they make.

Simon taught us to keep talking, filling in any gaps in the action (for example, if your onions and garlic are softening) with cheery personal anecdotes.

A sense of accomplishment

Everyone’s final cooking segments went well, and you could really see a world of difference from week one, and even from the previous week. 

Initially, we’d all found talking on camera pretty scary, and watching ourselves back on screen rather gruesome, but with the support of the group, who gave positive reinforcement and constructive criticism, we soon hit our stride

When it came to our ‘Location Day’, our final lesson as a group, we were interviewing stall holders at Notting Hill Farmer’s Market with professional ease, and giving the audience lots of information on the best uses of each ingredient.

We felt triumphant (Hairy Bikers, beware!) and ready to go back to our individual projects with a fresh new enthusiasm.

Our How to be a Food Presenter course is running again in February. Find out more and book your place here

Jen Coles

Author: Jen Coles

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