This appeared as a longer feature article in the Toronto Star food section on January 26, 2000, after I discovered Jamie Oliver’s fledgling show “The Naked Chef” on TVO. I spoke to Jamie in the flesh a few months later when he was consulting at a London restaurant – the Toronto Star article appears below this one. Twenty years later, he’s had his ups and downs, and I am still a fan.
Jamie Oliver must have supernatural powers. He can make a person leap out of her comfy chair, run downstairs, fling open the freezer and act on an overpowering urge to roast a leg of lamb. I should know. It happened to me. Under slightly different circumstances, it also happened to Jody Read, acquisitions programmer for TVO.
I came across Oliver’s hot new British TV cooking show The Naked Chef quite by chance a couple of weeks ago while flipping channels.
There he was, enthusiastically cooking up a storm: in particular, slathering bountiful amounts of olive oil and handfuls of chopped fresh rosemary on – you guessed it – a glistening leg of lamb. By strange coincidence, it was the enticing vision of this handsome young chef – a mere 24 years old, the slim, boy-faced Oliver has long blonde bangs, a cleft chin and an endearing lisp – preparing the aforementioned cut of meat that persuaded Read to pick up his quirkily named show.
“I was at a huge programming market in France last year, ” Read explains. “I’d gone to see Optomen, producers of the Two Fat Ladies, about following up on their next series. They were also in the process of producing six episodes of a new show called The Naked Chef and showed us a clip.”
One sight of Oliver in his nifty, compact home kitchen chatting cheerfully at breakneck speed as he explained why and how he was slathering that leg of lamb and Read was hooked.
“I thought Jamie was wonderful, ” she enthuses. “I found him extremely engaging. His love of cooking is very contagious.” Which is why, Read continues, “I ran out and bought a leg of lamb and cooked it for my family.” There are many reasons The Naked Chef is the latest cooking show to rule Britannia, ever since the series began airing on the BBC last spring.
Each episode of The Naked Chef begins with a shot of the grinning Oliver explaining the show’s attention-grabbing title. “No way. It’s not me, ” he quips knowingly with a dimpled grin, “It’s the food. I suppose you could say it’s stripping the recipe down to its bare essentials.” As Oliver explained to the U.K.’s Radio Times last year, “I was determined to show that, when chefs eat at home, they don’t make dishes with coulis this and reduced that but take normal ingredients and make them more tasty.”
The theme of each episode is sweet and simple. In one, Oliver prepares dinner for his peers on a chefs’ night off: leg of lamb with veggie accoutrements followed by sumptuous baked fruit crowned with a blob of mascarpone cream. While babysitting his Uncle Alan’s ‘tween daughters, our hip ‘n’ happening cook whips up, with the girls’ help, a filling supper of fancy raviolis and spaghetti followed by a fabulous frozen dessert of rich semifreddo inundated with crunchy pralines. For his sister’s “hen night, ” Oliver poaches salmon fillets on a bed of green beans.
Oliver’s enthusiasm for what he’s doing is palpable. “Get stuck in, ” he urges, tossing a salad vehemently with both hands. “Get those flavours really going, ” he says breathlessly, vigorously chopping lime leaves, then stirring them into a chicken curry. “You can really smell it, ” Oliver tells us, sensually stuffing a red onion with soft thyme butter.
“My job is to get people excited, ” Oliver continues. “I have fantastic dinner parties at home that don’t cost much. That’s the kind of cooking I do on my show.” Oliver has no doubt about why or how he developed a passion for food. “My parents have one of the best pubs in England, ” he says proudly. “They have a busy kitchen with seven chefs and use only local, organic produce. When you grow up in that environment, you tend to take on food as second nature.”
Although he began working in the pub’s kitchen at age 8 – “I got seven pounds 20 a week (about $17)” – Oliver recalls making a pizza, dough and all, when he was only 4. “My dad was very cool. He taught me to make pizza and omelettes at about that age, ” he gushes. “I’m a massive baker. I love making bread, pasta – anything to do with flour. As a kid, I loved yeast – it’s a living thing. You can shape it, leave it and it grows. It’s like magic.”
With the show’s success and its accompanying cookbook The Naked Chef topping Britain’s bestseller list for five months, Oliver doesn’t seem to have a big head. “I must say, after I made vanilla sugar on my first show and vanilla pods sold out all around the country, I realized what a responsibility I had, ” he says, still sounding surprised. “People really listen to what you say on the telly.”
But, Oliver adds, “I’m not a boy on a mission. I just love what I’m doing. It’s creative. I never get bored.”
Oliver, who left school at 16 and trained as a chef for three years at London’s Westminster College, urges cooks to “be curious. If you want to cook something nice, you’re halfway there.” His favourite dishes are “simple, rustic – like the food I cooked when I was working in Italy and the French countryside. Not poncy French food: simple dishes made with great ingredients. “Why make it so complicated? If I’m making risotto, for example, I choose a couple of nice, seasonal vegetables, a complementary herb and cook it up – a nice juicy, oozing risotto.” When asked about the future, Oliver says he’s planning to open a restaurant – “Not too big, about 40 seats, ” in the town of Cambridge, near where he grew up and where his parents still own and operate their pub.
As for mentors, “Definitely my mum. She’s not the world’s most technical cook but she makes the best Sunday roasts and fabulous puddings – Spotted Dick, syrup pudding.” Next, Oliver credits Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, chefs and co-owners of London’s famous River Cafe, where Oliver worked until quitting three months ago, for teaching him a lot. Gennaro Contalda, baker at trendy Neal Street Restaurant, where Oliver also worked, gets warm kudos from our rising star. “Gennaro took me under his wing, ” Oliver says sweetly. “I worked my arse off to get his techniques. The recipe for his bread’s in my book.” Above all, Oliver would like us to enjoy our food.
“When I was growing up in the pub business, everyone was very busy, ” he explains. “But the pub closed between 3:30 and 6 p.m. So it was very important that we all sat down together for dinner at 5 o’clock.” And it wasn’t just about the food. “That was the time for our family to sit around the table and have a proper talk. Of course, there were arguments but that was part of the fun.” Oliver favours his family’s casual style of serving food on big platters. “We passed stuff around. There were cans of beer, jugs of drink. That’s what cooking’s all about.”
Here’s that lamb recipe Jamie Oliver was cooking on TVO when I discovered him.
Roast Leg of Lamb
A 2-ounce (50 gram) can of anchovies contains about 10 fillets. For rare lamb, roast 10 minutes per pound plus 20 minutes; for medium, roast 13 minutes per pound plus 20 minutes; for well done, roast 20 minutes per pound plus 20 minutes. If the butcher removes the hip bone for you, it will be easier to carve once it’s roasted.
- 4 lb (2 kg) bone-in leg of lamb
- Half lemon
- 2 tbsp coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
- 10 anchovy fillets
- ¼ tsp each: salt, freshly ground back pepper
- 1 tbsp olive oil
With sharp pointed knife, pierce skin of lamb at an angle 10 times randomly about the leg, going 2 inches deep. Poke finger into each cut to make more room. Rub lamb with cut side of lemon. Push rosemary into cuts. Stuff an anchovy into each cut. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Rub bottom of heavy, shallow roasting pan with olive oil. Place lamb in roasting pan. Roast in preheated 425 F oven 1 hour 12 minutes for medium done, turning every 30 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
LONDON – These days, Jamie Oliver comes by his sexy, just-out-of-bed look honestly.
“I’ve only been getting four hours sleep a night, ” he says, smiling wearily, when I ask about his recent, much-publicized marriage to 26-year-old high school sweetheart Juliette Norton – known to friends, family and the media as Jools.
We’re seated in the elegant, mahogany-walled dining room at Monte’s, the three-storey restaurant-cum-club in this city’s posh Knightsbridge neighbourhood, where Oliver has been consultant chef since it opened earlier this month.
The boy-faced Oliver, 25, dressed in his chef’s whites, is slim, 6 feet tall with shaggy blond hair and sideburns, a dimpled chin and full-lipped smile. He has just affably offered me “about an hour or so, love, if that’s okay” of his action-packed day for an after-lunch chat.
“My wife is really broody, ” continues the hip, unassuming young man with the pale complexion and a way with a whisk. “Jules wants to have babies. She’s got me working really hard.” That’s quite a mandate for a lad who already has plenty on his plate.
There’s the job at Monte’s where, in addition to answering phones and chatting up diners, he did much of the cooking for my excellent lunch. Then there’s the third series of Oliver’s hugely popular BBC television show The Naked Chef that he is currently taping. In addition, Oliver finds time for his latest venture: shooting TV ads and planning in-house projects for Sainsbury’s, the large supermarket chain with which he recently signed a high-priced endorsement deal.
But Oliver, who started cooking in the kitchen of his parent’s country pub in Essex when he was a mere pup, loves his busy culinary career. “The kitchen is where I’m at home, ” he says, and seems to handle fame and fortune without letting them go to his head.
“I was stopped 13 times riding my scooter to work today, ” he says of his fans. “I always give them an autograph if they ask. I don’t mind at all, although being on telly and doing books, people sometimes think you’re someone you’re not.”
On occasion, he admits, fame can get annoying.
“I have to have two of these now, ” he says pointing to the pair of snazzy cell phones on the table in front of him. “This one’s for the wankers and tossers (translation: jerks and jerks), ” he tells me with a grin. “The other one’s for the people I want to talk to.”
As for his appeal, “people dig my show because it’s not formal, ” he says in his Cockney accent. “My fans talk to me on my level. They’re not bemused or patronized by me. I’ve had big guys – road workers – stop me on the street, rub their stomachs and say, “Look what you’ve done.”
But Oliver gets serious when it comes to the Sainsbury’s connection, stating his motive is to express his affirmation of organic farming and opposition to genetically modified food. “It’s in my contract that they’ll sell and promote organics and minimize GM foods, ” he says. “If they don’t do it, it’s simple: I walk.”
Oliver says he’s not a supporter of organic foods “just because it’s fashionable.” Nor is he promoting them “because they’re the best.” He just thinks growing food with as few chemicals as possible makes sense. “That’s the way food was grown thousands of years ago, ” he says. “In half-decent soil, looked after by a gardener who’s reasonably at one with the Earth.” And the proof’s in the eating, he insists. “It’ll taste much better and be much better for you.”
Oliver sees organic farming as an inevitable trend. “The main reason organic food’s not more popular now is that it’s pricey and doesn’t look as good, ” he says. “It’s expensive because few are doing it. Now, with the support of government and the media, because of supply and demand, it will get cheaper. And don’t forget – chemicals are expensive.”
As for genetic modification, he considers it “mucking about with food.” Oliver admits he’s not a scientist but says he has little faith in the experts who promote this technology. “You can’t police it, ” he explains. “If you have a load of geniuses who are remotely humane doing it, it might be okay. But these days, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a test tube in every country seems to be having a bash.”
Still, Oliver’s main passion is sharing the joy of cooking with others and he’s savouring every moment of working on The Naked Chef’s new series.
“My generation, in particular, is really getting into cooking, ” he enthuses. “When I kick the bucket, I hope people will say I got people eating better food.”
As we conclude our chat, he sums up his sweet and simple philosophy thus: “Cook some food and have a laugh.”
UPDATE May, 2020: Jamie Oliver has written 20+ cookbooks mostly with companion TV cooking shows. He lives in London with his wife Jools and their children. Last year, he filed for bankruptcy protection and closed 20+ of his UK restaurants.
Now in quarantine, he’s cooking up a storm on his umpteenth, timely and popular TV show “Keep Cooking and Carry On” showing viewers how to do their pantry proud.
I find Jamie’s TV shows entertaining and educational. I glean tips and tricks from his compelling, lively demos. He is an accomplished cook and he still has charisma and charm. His passion is still contagious. I find his recipes are 50/50 failure/success. I have had Jamie’s recipes fail. I’ve had some successes. Here are a few of the latter: