Jim Carroll

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Campaigning with Jamie

Jay Rayner’s review of Jamie’s Italian, a new chain of restaurants from Jamie Oliver, probably summed up the chef for many. Writing in last Sunday’s Observer, Rayner reckoned the joint had been put together with regard to “the buzz words …

Wed, Oct 15, 2008, 09:42

   

Jay Rayner’s review of Jamie’s Italian, a new chain of restaurants from Jamie Oliver, probably summed up the chef for many. Writing in last Sunday’s Observer, Rayner reckoned the joint had been put together with regard to “the buzz words to associate with brand Jamie – all that ‘authentic’ ‘rustic’ ‘pukka’ ‘matey’ bollocks you have to wade through before you get to the essence of what Jamie Oliver is about.”

For many, that’s Oliver in a flavour shaker, the cheeky chappie splashing a big lug of olive oil into a pan while addressing his audience as either ‘mate’ or ‘darling’. It’s a schtick which has served him well, with a full shelf of best-selling cookbooks, an annual TV series and restaurant ventures like Jamie’s Italian and Fifteen to his name.

But over the last few years, Oliver has ventured beyond the comfort zone inhabited by most of his peers. It began with Jamie’s Kitchen, a TV show focusing on his efforts to open a high-end London restaurant, Fifteen, staffed by a bunch of disadvantaged kids. The restaurant opened – and it’s still open – and has led to other Fifteens in Amsterdam, Melbourne and Cornwall. That led to Jamie’s School Dinners, his attempt to improve the standard of British school meals.

The latest TV-led healthy eating campaign (naturally accompanied by a book in the shops for the Christmas) is Jamie’s Ministry of Food. It’s a four-part series about turning Rotherham into the culinary capital of Britain. What Oliver is trying to do is get the townfolk to learn how to cook fresh food and then pass on the recipes and cooking methods to friends and family.

Leaving aside the cumbersome TV structure – the director’s need for a narrative and good/bad characters infringes a lot on what Oliver is trying to do (there are too many shots of the chef looking pensive or pissed-off, for a start, though they have found a fascinating character in Mick the Miner) – it’s an audacious undertaking. Rotherham’s citizens are probably typical of many around the UK (and Ireland) in how they approach food. It’s fuel, something to be consumed quickly before moving on to something else. Fast-food, takeaways and snacks dominate the menu. One of Oliver’s cooks existed largely on bags of crisps before he arrived in town and I’m sure she wasn’t the only one in that regard.

Oliver is the cheer-leader for a completely different way of looking at food and is naturally appalled by what he finds in the town. His great scheme is to change how the good folk of Rotherham regard food which will, he hopes, encourage other towns to follow suit. He’s taking his cues in this regard from the Ministry of Food, a UK government body which gave advice on cooking and the use of rations in the post-war years.

The culture clashes between Oliver and Rotherham are fascinating to watch. There is always a danger in this situation that the chef will come across as self-righteous and over-bearing, but what saves Oliver from pomposity is the zeal for what he is doing. After all, he could make far handier and easier money doing something more pukka, like plugging a supermarket or doing bespoke cooking classes or writing another book about scootering around Italy. Instead, he’s spending his Saturday afternoons listening to 5,000 people calling him a fat bastard at a football ground to focus on an issue which very few others would bother their hoop with.

So can the campaign succeed? On one level, it already has because of reviews and features about the show. But the problem is that those who will read and see these are probably already part of an Oliver-friendly constituency. The real challenge comes in towns and villages and suburbs who couldn’t give a batter burger about Oliver and fancy food. While the TV show is doing its best to turn the whole shebang into some kind of X Factor finale – breathless voiceovers about problems and setbacks to come in the final episode – the truth of the matter came home to Oliver when he decided to knock on some doors in the town and see if people actually knew about what was going on. Most of them hadn’t even heard about the Ministry of Food. Not that this stopped Oliver in his tracks – he just went off and found another way around. You really can’t knock enthusiasm like that.

(You can watch the shows to date online at Channel 4)

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