Tuesday 18 March 2008

Deconstructing Jamie.....

Jamie Oliver, that is.

A comment left on here the other day blithely opined that I probably regarded him as 'complete anathema'. I'm not sure why. I recall once having included in a blog-post a picture of him looking rather naff in a bath-tub full of pieces of fruit.....as part of a dismissive reference to the generally insidious influence that celebrity chefdom is having on aspiring young chefs in the UK....but, apart from that, I don't think he's particularly featured in anything I've ever written. So, I can only suppose the assumption that I'm anti-Jamie is based on an extrapolation from my overall positioning on food and cooks, and on those I think truly worthy of respect in the culinary firmament.

So, let's get something straight, from the outset: I do not regard Jamie Oliver as 'complete anathema'. Interestingly though - to me, at any rate - the suggestion that I might do so has got me thinking about exactly what I do think about him and about his fellow kitchen celebs. And why it is that I regard them all with the significant degree of, well, ambivalence which I certainly will admit to.

Ok. Jamie. The facts. Not knowing much about him, beyond the general fact of his existence centre-stage in the TV-Media-Publishing World of Food during the past decade, I looked him up on Wikipedia. And it's an impressive output: since being catapulted into the limelight, almost exactly ten years ago, he's managed seven TV series; ten books; a high-profile campaign in support of better school dinners; a rant against battery-farmed chickens; an extensive workload as the public face of Sainsbury's; launched a range of 'Jamie Oliver' saucepans (and possibly assorted other kitchen paraphernalia - don't know) ; set up work-opportunity restaurants to help underprivileged kids in London, Amsterdam, Newquay, Melbourne.... and somewhere else I forget. And in addition to all of that, he's managed to find time to get married and father a couple of children. The boy's time-management skills must be....what's the word....'pukka'?

Oh, and Wikipedia also listed in his CV the fact that after he'd left Catering College, he 'studied' in France, and was 'head pastry chef' at the Neal Street Restaurant, before spending three and half years in the kitchen of The River Café. And this is where the element of doubt begins to creep in. Not only does the mellifluous and flowing prose of the Wikipedia entry suggest that it was the work of Jamie's PR - and why not? - but the maths starts to give the game away. When you compare the various dates in the entry, and do some subtraction along the way, his time 'studying' in France and being 'head' pastry chef (for which, maybe, read 'the' pastry chef - Neal Street Restaurant isn't exactly Claridges) must all have been crammed into a little over a year of his short life. Reads well on the page, though - as long as you don't bother with the detail. But the fact remains that it's significantly a construct, for public consumption

And the same is surely the case for the ten years of his celeb-dom. All that impressive output is not credibly consistent with the labours of one person. What we're actually looking at is the output in reality of a slick Jamie-Oliver machine, which puts together TV programmes and books, and advertising campaigns.....which are then presented by the cheeky chappie himself. The 'Jamie's Italy ' phenomenon was a clear case in point - Jamie travelling the length of Italy (a country with which he had no particular previous association) in a battered little Fiat , on a slightly extended holiday, accompanied only by a camera crew, a production team, and a posse of researchers. I'm not knocking it - I'm just saying that it's an awful lot of magic lantern, that you can choose to believe if it suits you to.

The fact is that Jamie Oliver is extremely good at his job - which is that of a TV presenter and entertainer, and not that of a professional chef (or even a professional food writer). That's fine; the camera likes him - nothing wrong with that. To what extent he makes any contribution to the recipes I have no idea, but I suspect that an awful lot of them go straight from the research team to the editing process, without a lot of Oliver input along the way. Which doesn't make them a bad thing - in fact, I'm sure some of them are probably really quite good - but it does mean they have about as much personality associated with them as a set of Good Housekeeping Recipe Cards. Which of course is the whole reason for Jamie - to provide them with a personality, which otherwise they might lack.

And that, I suppose, is pretty much my take on Jamie and his ilk. They're very good at what they do, but it's all a bit of a pantomime - and frankly, I just don't find it very interesting.
In comparison with say Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, Marcella Hazan and Julia Child, Patience Grey and Alan Davidson, and, of course, Bruno Loubet. With these people, you feel their writing is the result of much thought and contemplation, rolling ideas around in their minds, comparing diverse experiences, considering options and combinations and techniques. Working from their recipes, you feel as though in some way you're touching, however lightly, the very rich tapestries that constitute their lives and knowledge and experience. The bit you read on the page is merely an echo of much, much more in the background, that is only ever hinted at.

All of which is very real........ and most of which is very definitely worthy of a lot of respect.

Tonight's Dinner:

Smoked Salmon tiède, with Creamed Onion & Basil.

Lamb Shanks, double-roast, in Red Wine; gratin of Turnip.

Lemon Tarts.

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