He became the myopic attention for those who just have nothing good to say about someone trying hard. Pilloried for being successful, it was seen as some form of champagne socialism when he asked the government to give more money for kids to eat a good school meal and avoid the processed soilage that was a “turkey twizzler.”
Jamie Oliver is a lot of things, but to see his business fail, risking the livelihoods of over a thousand staff, and that of his supply chain is perhaps the most unappetising aspect of the tale that started some seventeen years ago.
For many, his rise to fame as The Naked Chef was a televisual orgasm. Someone who didn’t measure, someone who didn’t shout, someone who had the energy of a labradoodle using words like “bash”, “bosh” and “pukka” – oh how I miss pukka – without seemingly knowing what he was doing, yet the results were craved and his books sold in the millions.
This is where I could risk making this piece sound like some form of an obituary, but we need to be clear; he was more than your boardroom chef, he is social campaigner, asking us all to look at ethics in food production, cutting out processed meats, championing healthy food, getting people cooking with the “pass it on scheme” and so on. They are/were not all perfect but it should satiate those that bloodlust like some badly written 80s Bond villain. Yes, he took away your Twizzlers, but get over it!
Surely one of his greatest achievements was that he opened the door to Italian cuisine and culture with his restaurants. His is a passion for a nation that – like his mentor Antonio Carluccio – he tried to stick into some chain model form, but done with a little more of a family vibe.
His love for nonnas in the last book Jamie’s Italy was a little too ‘Chiantishire’ for my liking. Yet it exposed what the last great generation of home cooks could do with so little, and that was a greater demonstration than any previous cook had managed to translate to food. His love of Italy and Italian cuisine is no act for commercial success, it is pure and comes from that inner sense of wanting to share his passion, vision and knowledge.
In many ways – even if some, nay most, of his recipes aren’t truly Italian – he was a genuine disciplinarian of Cucina Povera. You have to understand why though. The internet can provide you with loads of “original” recipes and translation technology has made it easier to follow along to YouTube videos from the horse’s mouth in the first place. Having to be original by being unoriginal will sell books, even if it boils the piss of puritan recipe haranguers.
Jamie’s Italian provided a gateway into Italian food for those that wanted an Italian experience but with a name behind it.
Long before the struggling brand’s inception, no less, let’s not forget that the River Café trained chef was particularly influential in introducing a whole new wave of Brits to the magnificent simplicity of produce-driven Italian cooking over stuffy fine dining. From fresh pasta to ‘pukka’ risottos, these recipes would go on to inspire a generation of eaters (many who’d never even visited Italy) to use food as a vehicle to tour the country from their own kitchen, provoking a culinary revolution of sorts.
The restaurant’s glory days, no doubt, paved the way for its own worst enemy – a market with large gaps for the likes of Padella in Borough Market or Stevie Parle’s Pastaio: two hugely popular casual Italian restaurants with no reservation policies. Both have menus deeply rooted in fresh, competitively priced pasta dishes and simple dishes formed from a handful of ingredients. Building on the blueprint set by Jamie’s Italian, but with considerably better, cheaper food.
Jamie will survive, and with that I am sure so will the chefs, the talented ones at least. His name is still a glamorous pull and with his ability to sell books, TV shows and capture the hearts of those just looking to rustle a simple meal, he’s got a lot of attention.
But what Jamie’s real legacy will be for many – myself included – is that he showed what Italian cooking should and could be like. The only tragedy is that as a commercial model, he didn’t get it right.