Jamie Oliver was part of a culinary evolution -- one including Emeril Lagasse and Nigella Lawson -- away from the intimidation factor of predecessors such as Julia Child or even Martha Stewart and toward simply prepared but sophisticated food. His show The Naked Chef, and now Jamie Oliver’s London (seen Stateside on the Food Network), presented the English chef’s approach to “pukka” life, with an emphasis on ingredients and ease over technique and equipment. Like a kitchen dervish, Oliver seemingly slapped together gourmet meals for on-camera occasions ranging from a christening to a football-watching session -- all of it narrated in a dialect so British that the Food Channel site features a glossary of his oft-used terms (“pukka” being excellent, or first-rate).
Oliver’s informal tone makes cooking seem an act of will rather than skill, and his books present a vibe similar to his show. He prescribes techniques and ingredients almost offhandedly, mentioning his own preferences in such a way that leaves you free to discover alternatives but likelier to follow the master. In a cereal recipe from The Naked Chef Takes Off, Oliver writes, “At this point feel free to improvise, adding any other preferred dried nuts like raisins, sultanas or figs -- but personally I think my combination works pretty well. This will keep for a good couple of months very happily in your airtight container, but you'll have eaten it by then, I guarantee.”
Often, dishes in Oliver’s books consist of a few list-free paragraphs that seem more like concepts than recipes at first; but if you read, you’ll see that everything you need to know is right there. Measurements for Oliver often consist of “some,” “a handful,” “a squeeze.” Instructions often include directives such as “bash up,” “whizz up,” “scrunch,” and “smear.” With text like this, it’s easy to see how Oliver has gotten scores of novices -- particularly men -- into the kitchen.
It wasn’t surprising that Oliver became a media darling so quickly. His ebullience, photogenic looks, and youth made him the sort who could appeal to everyone from grandmas to regular blokes. His culinary skills, however, could not be questioned. Having started at age eight by helping in the kitchen of his parents’ pub/restaurant in Essex, he later attended Westminster Catering College and gained experience at kitchens in France and at London’s Neal Street Restaurant and the River Café. His presence in a documentary about the café led to several T.V. offers after it was shown, and The Naked Chef was born.
Cooks around the world couldn’t get enough of Jamie Oliver -- but by 2001, many in Britain had had their fill. Wrote one Guardian columnist, “Jamie Oliver is -- like the Lord himself -- all around us. He is available and on sale in every format, real and virtual. …It is getting hard to spend a day without seeing his face or hearing his voice.” Sensitive to the criticism, Oliver reportedly told the Observer, "I'm quite boring, I've been with the same girl for nine years, I work hard, everything I do is positive, so I couldn't see any reason why the press would aggro me. But then it did." The nay-saying seems to have died down a bit, as it’s become clear that the appetite for all things Oliver has not yet been sated.
Those who are looking for a certain amount of culinary consistency in a cookbook author might do well to look elsewhere. Oliver has often mentioned that he is continually sampling cultures and evolving his cooking style, still being in his 20s and all. His next book, Jamie’s Kitchen, he writes on his Web site, “is completely different to Naked Chef stuff.” This is good news, though, for cooks who aren’t afraid to experiment a bit. Oliver helps ease the bumps in the ride.
Good to Know
Oliver is opening a nonprofit restaurant in London that will also employ underprivileged kids in the kitchen, an endeavor he hopes to capture in a new T.V. show.
He has played the drums in a band called Scarlet Division since he was 13, and released a CD in the U.K. called Cookin’, which was a compilation of his favorite tunes to cook by.
Married to ex-model Juliette “Jools” Norton since 2000, Oliver had daughter Poppy Honey in March 2002 and has a second child on the way.
Oliver’s association with the grocery chain Sainsbury’s caused some headaches for the chef. The spots, which also featured Oliver cooking on his BBC-produced show, did not agree with the network’s code of ethics. One in particular, which featured Oliver speaking Cantonese and practicing Kung Fu, drew protests from some viewers who considered it racist. His deal with the BBC eventually soured over conflict with his Sainsbury’s commitment, and Oliver set up his own company, Fresh Productions, to handle his projects.