The garden of eating


Jamie At Home sees the return of Jamie Oliver, the TV chef who annoys as many people as he entertains. After all the media attention surrounding his healthy school meals campiagn, he’s now taking cooking back to the very basics. Words Matt Pomroy

There used to be a website called ‘1,000 People More Annoying Than Mick Hucknall’, where visitors would nominate celebrities who got on their nerves to a greater and more frequent degree than the ruby-toothed ginger from lame pop group Simply Red. It seemed like a big ask. But as people began nominating and voting, one thing became clear – the public was really fed up with Jamie Oliver.

He stormed to the top of the list with literally thousands of people not only claiming that he was more annoying than Mick Hucknall (a feat in itself, let’s not forget), but pouring out the kind of vitriol normally reserved for fascist dictators. There were numerous spin-off sites dedicated to abusing a TV chef who essentially had done nothing more than show people how to make simple meals.

The reasons were surprisingly numerous; the ‘mockney’ accent with his expressions like ‘pukka’ and ‘laverly’; the gummy gormless grin; the seemingly endless exposure from irritating supermarket adverts – a whopping 65 different commercials between the years 2000 and 2004. And the fact he had a beautiful wife despite looking like Mr Potato Head (I found this somehow reassuring, but it wound up a lot of people); the dreadful music he chose to soundtrack his series, and 100 other things that contributed to the hatred of a man you couldn’t escape from. The singer James Blunt has since taken over Oliver’s mantle as the object of ill-conceived derision, but you can still buy T-shirts that simply state ‘I Hate Jamie Oliver,’ as if this is a defining aspect of your personality.

But here’s the thing: despite having endless hatred fired at him, he didn’t go away. For every person that would presumably dance with glee if they ever saw him crash his moped into a tank of hungry piranhas, there were two who thought he was just spiffing. His stock was further raised when he turned his flappy tongue to berating the British government for the rubbish they feed children in school dinners. He became something of a hero in the eyes of people fed up of seeing their children eat food they like, rather than food that’s good for them.

It became a huge story that was debated in parliament, with MP Boris Johnson stating that ‘if I was in charge I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like’, while Tory leader David Cameron lauded Oliver and claimed he had done more to improve school dinners than the Department of Education. Some schools took chips off the menu as a result, thus creating a new generation of school kids who now despise Oliver, but parents loved him. Tony Blair awarded him an MBE for services to the hospitality industry, or ‘services towards helping distract the public from the shambles in Iraq’, as it was known by some cynics.

Now, though, Jamie Oliver is (in his own words) going back to basics and showing people how they can cook simple meals from items grown in their own garden. Jamie’s own garden is anything but basic – it’s huge – but what he presents is very down to earth and simple.

Each programme is themed around one primary ingredient such as tomatoes, onions, strawberries, beans, courgettes and, erm, pizza. The music is still irritating, and it really is just like a return to The Naked Chef, except in his huge country home. Gone is the coterie of grinning mates, but he’s still the same as ever. We learn that ‘horseradishes and tomatoes are good friends,’ before telling us about ‘the mother recipe of tomato salads… a death row meal… little slices, bosch… have a sniff around the market… completely wazzed up pulp of tomato… bit of vinegar, you think I’ve gone bonkers… imagine being that sausage… beautiful.’

We haven’t all got huge gardens, but he shows how tomatoes can grow in a tin can on a windowsill, and as he throws it all together you actually think, ‘I could make that’. Whereas Heston Blumenthal does very clever and complicated cooking, Gordon Ramsay makes you think ‘I never want to work in a kitchen,’ and Nigella Lawson usually makes you think about things other than food, Oliver keeps it all blindingly simple.

It’s quite hard to really dislike a man who just wants to tell us how we can make decent meals really easily. ‘All I ever wanted to do was to make food accessible to everyone,’ he said a few years back and once told a viewer who’d written asking for advice on vegan diets to ‘stop being a vegan and start enjoying what you eat.’ There’s a nice joie de vivre about his attitude, and given the choice you’d rather have Jamie Oliver in your kitchen than You Are What You Eat health freaks like Gillian McKeith, wouldn’t you? Admit it, he’s alright, isn’t he?

And because we’re in Dubai and don’t have to endure his constant adverts and grinning face confronting us every 20 minutes, a bit of knockabout cooking advice is a rather pleasant way to spend half an hour in front of the telly. And you might even learn something, me old china.

From Time Out, September 2007

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