British chef has nude attitude
LONDON Jamie Oliver is about to tell an Essex girl joke, then thinks better of it.
7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays, TV Food Network.
'The Naked Chef'
7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays, TV Food Network.
The punchline isn't important, anyway. The point of the joke is to reveal a salient clue about what drives the 25-year-old bloke going on 13 to judge by his looks who is inarguably the chef "du jour."
This is the "Naked Chef," a name which he immediately wants you to know he dislikes and will dispose of when he completes the third season of his TV series (the first is airing now on the Food Network), as well as his third cookbook, headed to the editors this month.
"I've hated it from Day One, but it's been a great brand," Oliver says of the title intended to convey his stripped-down, bare essentials mode of cooking and dreamed up by the same people at the BBC who gave the world the "Two Fat Ladies" cooking series.
Oliver is sitting in Monte's, the posh restaurant on toney Sloane Street where he consults, clad in chef's whites instead of his usual secondhand retro. But this rock star of a chef is readily recognizable with his trademark tousled mop (yes, he is always being told to cut it, and no, no one has ever suggested a hair net) and the porkchop sideburns that are what to wear in hip London these days.
He has just roasted a spring chicken so small it makes baby carrots look big and serves it on a bed of sauteed bitter Italian greens. "You don't have to eat it all, luv," Oliver says. "But you've got to try it." Before long, he's picking off morsels of the tender bird, popping them in his mouth, smacking his plump little-boy lips and licking his fingers. The plate slowly inches across the table until it is in front of him.
Such gusto helps explain Oliver's nearly overnight success, which has turned him into a global television personality and best-selling cookbook author and an immediate smash in the United States, where he hit the ground running last fall and hasn't stopped, madly signing books, chatting it up on American talk shows and doing regular spots on NBC's "Today" show.
But it is his roots as an Essex boy that are most telling. People from this gritty county east of London are considered how to put it? low on the food chain in England's impenetrable class structure. Hence, the Essex girl jokes. And Oliver's desire to prove himself.
Virtually raised in the kitchen of his parents' pub, the Cricketers, in the village of Clavering, Oliver was fiddling with food from the moment he could walk. "As a kid, I'd put things in Mum's Aga (the classic slow-cooking oven of England), and I'd leave them in overnight," he recalls. "When I came back, it would be volcanic dust, like you'd just cremated your gramma." He was 5 then.
At 8, he was peeling potatoes and shelling peas. At 11, he could julienne with the masters. After he got an A in art and a C in geology but flunked everything else in high school, Oliver skipped off to France to cook. He returned to get formal training at Westminster Catering College and started working at the River Cafe, one of London's most chic eateries. The rest is, well, you know.
The morning after being seen in a documentary on the cafe (or "caff" as he is wont to call it), Oliver was offered a cooking show. He was 21 at the time. By his account, it took more than a year to persuade producers to do it his way: shooting in his own house, in street clothes, with a handheld camera and rock music accompaniment.
Since then, his books "The Naked Chef" and "The Return of the Naked Chef" have sold 3 million copies worldwide. His first hit No. 1 on the best-seller list in San Francisco, "and I've never even been there. Just ridiculous, ridiculous," he says. (The second, renamed "The Naked Chef Takes Off," goes on sale in the United States in October.)
"The Naked Chef" cooking series is shown in 48 countries. Two weeks ago, it was nominated for a James Beard Award for best national television cooking show. He has appeared with Regis Philbin, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Rosie O'Donnell and Katie Couric ("I quite fancy her, I do," he says).
The appeal of his book and show has a surprisingly wide demographic range: from youngsters, who no doubt relate to his pop-culture, short-attention-span style, to old-age pensioners (or "OAPs," as he calls them). Recently, Oliver has noticed that men constitute a growing share more than half, he estimates of the crowds that turn up at his book signings. Evidence of enlightenment, perhaps?
"A successful cookbook must involve a bit of men getting in touch with their feminine self," he says without a smidgen of irony.
"His passion for food is so infectious," says Eileen Opatut, chief programmer at the Food Network, trying to explain Oliver's success. "He has no inhibitions when it comes to making it, talking about it and eating it."
Says Bobby Flay, executive chef of the New York restaurants Mesa Grill and Bolo, and who also found stardom as a young, streetwise TV chef: "Jamie seems to be the perfect answer for Gen-X cooking enthusiasts. . . . He's a rock star that cooks, is what it comes down to."
Cooking for the masses
But Oliver's stardom has as much to do with his accessible style of cookery. He's not above grinding up a box of Malteasers (malted milk balls) and mixing them into ice cream. And none of that esoteric culinary vocabulary for him. No neat dishes of chopped, sliced, dried and pureed ingredients at the ready. He doesn't bother to measure, he just dumps sugar and flour in right from the bag. The vigor with which he stuffs a lamb practically hurts. "Just shove it down the gaps!" he says enthusiastically.
No doubt about it, he loves cooking. The other night, he dreamed whether he should use a red or a white onion while cooking a roast. "It used to be naked women on 'Baywatch,'" Oliver says. "Now I dream about onions. It's because I'm completely obsessed by food."
There's little he won't eat, either, although he nearly drew the line in Japan, where, while promoting his TV show, hosts served him cod semen. "And of course because I was the guest, I got the biggest bit."
With success have come the trimmings. Cooking at No. 10 Downing Street for Prime Minister Tony Blair. A column in the Saturday London Times. Food editor of Marie Claire magazine. Numerous awards, including being hailed as one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine. A contract to serve as spokesman for Britain's chain of Sainsbury's supermarkets, in which he now appears in ads with his new bride and childhood sweetheart, "the lovely Jools," as he always calls her. The two of them even had front-row seats recently for Sean "Puffy" Combs' Sean John fashion show in New York.
It was Juliette who finally made the Naked Chef slow down. Between the books, TV series, promotions and his beloved band, the Scarlet Division, for which he plays drums, they hardly ever saw each other. (The band's first and so far only release, "Sundial," recently hit No. 42 on the British charts.) London newspapers tattled that the former model, who had dated Oliver since they were 17 and who now writes a diary for his Web site, was pining away and that the two had spent Christmas with their separate families.
"I told the missus, 'Look, darlin', it's for our future,'" Oliver says, "but she said, 'B.S., I've had enough.' So now we have every Sunday together. We just chill out."
They are renovating a two-floor flat in London's plush Hampstead area, and children are on the agenda.
Future looks bright
Also on the agenda (it's a long list): a restaurant of his own in London, which he hopes to open next year ("a 100-seater, a deli and a bar"); a new cooking series and books he produces himself; and maybe a move to the United States.
In Europe, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan, the Naked Chef stands out in a crowd. On his honeymoon in a tiny village in Italy last year, a fan came up to him and Juliette in a restaurant, waving his fork and raving about Oliver.
Trying to break into the market in the United States, however, he says, has been tougher than elsewhere and may require more attention. Rather than jetting back and forth, he and the missus may move across the pond for six months or so.
But ask Oliver where he sees himself at the ripe age of 30, and it's not leading this life.
In six years, he plans to be off to the country, where he will "open a pub, grow my own food, have a donkey and some chickens, and close on weekends," he says. "But now I have to make a point, do genius food and cook simply, with absolutely perfect taste and perfection for an Essex boy."
USA Today reporter Jerry Shriver in New York contributed to this story.