Oliver oils up for Christmas

By Michele Hewitson

By MICHELE HEWITSON

Jamie Oliver is stuffing lemons with coarse salt and herbs, jamming them into a jar and calling it a Christmas present. It’s a bit, well, Women’s Institute isn’t it? asks the off-screen woman who has the job of keeping Oliver pukka-ing while he cooks.

Course it is, because Oliver, with his bee-stung pout and naughty-boy eyes knows that out there in Women’s Institute-land there are thousands of women who wouldn’t mind a bit if they woke up on Christmas morning and found a Jamie Oliver under the tree.

It’s that little boy appeal. Chuck it in the blender, whizz it up with the sexy swagger of a young Mick Jagger, throw in the chef’s whites (we like a man in a uniform) and the girls go crazy for it.

“The Austin Powers of the palate, Jamie Oliver has emerged as an international icon of 90s Britannia,” panted a website advertising one of his cookbooks.

Oh, please. It’s enough to make you gag on your chilli and buffalo milk mozzarella salad. Still, he is a bit sexy, though. Just ask the ladies down at the Women’s Institute.

Sunday’s The Naked Chef should have Oliver fans everywhere swooning. It’s Jamie dressed up with tinsel: a mix of Brit-pop video effects, recipes you can try at home and Jamie with his just-got-out-of-the-sack hair pressing all the right buttons on the food processor.

Throw into the mix scenes at home in North Essex with Oliver’s family — Mum’s Aga, the village pub his Dad owns and where Oliver learned to cook, the chintz, the bonhomie — and we’re in Joanna Trollope-land with crazy camera angles.

Mum tells a story about how, when Oliver was a little boy, she’d tell Jamie to listen out for Santa. He’d say, “I can hear him coming.” He still can, he says. He still believes in Father Christmas.

As well he might. He’s the chef who put pukka back into the vocabulary and made cooking cool for blokes. Watch him wield that knife, watch him in action over his industrial oven with turbo-charged firing facilities and you’ll know that cooking’s not for wimps.

The chef who has released two best-selling cook books (he pushed Delia Smith off the number one slot), is the “face” of Sainsbury’s supermarkets in a deal reported to be worth a million quid for two years and the consultant chef in a club called Monte’s in Chelsea. And then there’s that show, and he’s a drummer in a band too, called Scarlet Division, which makes him dead cool. And dead rich too, no doubt.

Has it gone to his tousled head? Nah, of course not. A big part of the Oliver appeal is that he comes across as being as natural as an organic spud. All that really means is that he’s a telly natural — which is why he was “discovered,” by Patricia Llewellyn, the woman who “discovered” the Two Fat Ladies, in the first place.

The naked bit of the equation is a teaser (whooah, imagine Jamie sweating in the kitchen wearing only a pinnie), but it’s also supposed to represent the Oliver philosophy of food.

It’s stripped down cooking with the emphasis on fresh. And you’ve got to have fun doing it, a slightly irritating mantra that might just fail to cheer up those who have to do it every night for the picky husband and kids who make vomiting noises when you bring out the parmesan.

Never mind them. In Oliver’s kitchen, cooking has “gotta be a laugh. It’s gotta be simple, it’s gotta be tasty.” It’s “funky” too — globe artichokes are funky, so are lugs of olive oil, so is mashed potato — but only when it’s done right.

Oliver is a celebrity chef in an age where a spatula is as obligatory an accessory for the sex symbol as the microphone used to be. But he’s not sold to us as a celebrity — or even, actually, as a chef.

He could just be an enthusiastic amateur cook who whips up meals for the mates while listening to the Stone Roses. He’s not, of course. He’s a highly trained professional but he’s happy to go along with the charade. You wouldn’t want to go showing off, like.

“I don’t want to be seen as a TV chef,” Oliver has said. “I don’t consider doing the programme a job. I’m just letting people into my life.” Which is as plain silly, not to mention disingenuous, as nouvelle cuisine.

He wouldn’t be on the telly, letting people into his kitchen (if not his life) if he wasn’t happy enough to be seen to be a TV chef. The secret of his success, he thinks, is his ability to make it all look easy.

“I’m trying to do home-cooked wholesome food on the level of the people watching.” That can be a double-edged cook’s knife. When he became consultant chef at Monte’s, which happens to be in Sloane St from whence its clientele totter in on their Manolo Blahnik shoes, the Observer got sniffy.

The food, and the prices (90 quid for two, including three glasses of wine), said food critic, Jay Rayner, were at the seriously poncey end of the scale — and poncey is Oliver’s favourite swearword.

Rayner’s gripe was not with the food but with the gaping chasm between “the marketing of the product and the product itself. If Jamie Oliver really does believe in his ‘Naked’ brand, he ought not to be servicing the ladies who lunch (so to speak),” He ought to be “running somewhere urban and funky, serving up simple, modern food at reasonable prices.”

None of which will matter a damn to the irrepressible Oliver — or to the loyal legions who watch the show and buy the book. In the end, the best way to measure the phenomenon might be to send out a census officer on Christmas Day to count how many homes serve up what Oliver cooked for the folks for their pre-Christmas celebration: “wicked” poussins stuffed with parsnips, “funky” globe artichokes baked with cream and parmesan.

And you just know, sigh, that this year’s pukka present will be those folksy jars of preserved lemons, as made funky by everyone’s favourite celebrity chef.

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