One if by Land, Two if by Kitchen
Amanda-Jane Doran -- 9/4/00
Britain's hottest chef makes his American debut with Hyperion and on Food Network
Oliver's U.S. publisher, Hyperion, is bracing for a media invasion when Oliver lands on these shores in October to promote the American edition of The Naked Chef and the launch of the show by the same name on the Food Network. By the way, it's the food that is naked, pared down to essentials, and not Oliver, though he has had many offers.
"He is one of the publishing phenomena of our time," said Will Schwalbe, executive editor at Hyperion, who acquired The Naked Chef after seeing a blad of the British edition, published by Penguin's Joseph Michaels imprint, at Frankfurt in 1998. "His attitude toward food was immediately obvious. He is not dumbing down the food but making it available to the widest audience possible--from MTV viewers to grandmothers."
PW recently sat in on Oliver's taping session in London, sampled a taste of his talents and considered how the British boy wonder who has brought rock 'n' roll into the kitchen might appeal to an American audience. PW watched Oliver strut his stuff in a trendy, loft-style kitchen with exposed brick and expanses of stainless steel. His manner is laddish and informal; despite the banter, Oliver is a consummate pro, scarcely flubbing a line as he chats to the camera and performs culinary feats with very sharp implements. He has been on the road all week for his show, cooking budget food with students and macho marinated steaks for fire fighters. He explained that the firemen came in handy twice as he cooked their "pukka tucker," which, whatever it is in American, they liked.
When Oliver lands in New York this fall for his American book tour, there may not be screaming girls on the tarmac, but judging from the pre-pub buzz about The Naked Chef, Hyperion expects his arrival to play like another British invasion. "I really see him as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones of cooking," said Schwalbe. Hyperion has already gone back to press for The Naked Chef and will have 80,000 copies available by the October 11 pub date. Taking a cue from his popularity--particularly among the ladies--in England, the American media are already courting Oliver. In September he's featured in People magazine, then he kicks off his tour to New York, L.A. and Chicago with appearances on the Today show and Regis. Some ink mentions of the Naked Chef already in place this fall: GQ, Food & Wine, Harper's Bazaar and the New York Times Magazine.
Just 25 years old, part of Oliver's appeal is that he seems such a normal bloke. He d sn't drive a flashy car, just a scooter, and he includes many of his friends in his programs. One menu was devised for his sister's hen night (American translation: bachelorette party), which was filmed in his flat complete with raucous behavior. Oliver is rather keen on his "duds" and favors casual street fashion, particularly the British designer Duffer of St. George. He d sn't dress up for the camera, but he has a great eye for color. For PW's visit he was wearing a lilac, short-sleeved sweatshirt and old, frayed Levis with trainers, aka sneakers, which he'd described as "choice" and "wicked."
Oliver was introduced to cooking in his father's pub, where he began helping out at the age of eight. "All the food was fresh and we used local produce where we could," he told PW. Oliver received a thorough grounding at Westminster Catering College and did stints in France and Italy. He described the three months he spent at Chateau Tilques as a turning point, which had him returning to England obsessed by the quality of the produce he had used, and "gob smacked" by the commitment of the chefs he had worked with. "In Italy I was cooking with old biddies, getting into their kitchens, and also sourcing olive oil, olives and charcuterie. It was more touchy-feely than the training in France." Thus began his love affair with regional, seasonal food. His enthusiasm for fresh, simple ingredients, simply cooked, borders on religious fervor.
His first job, outside of the family pub, was at Antonio Carluccio's famous Neal Street Restaurant , where Oliver perfected his breadmaking, among other skills. He went on from there to the ultra-chic River CafÃ©, where he worked with his culinary her s Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. Then came his big break. Tom Weldon, Oliver's publisher at Penguin UK, explained that during the shooting of a Christmas special at the restaurant, the camera kept coming back to Oliver. Weldon said that when the producer, Pat Llewellyn, rang Oliver the following day, he wouldn't come to the phone. Many calls later, she discovered that he thought his friends were playing a joke on him.
When Penguin/Michael Joseph signed the first book in early 1998, it was practically completed. Oliver had been working on the recipes for years and said he had always dreamed of writing his own cookbook. Lindsey Jordan, Oliver's editor at Michael Joseph, explained to PW that she wanted to preserve Jamie's "lingo and voice" in the book. Oliver has also taken charge of the styling and design of his books.
The public's response to Oliver has been phenomenal. So enthusiastic were his fans on a recent tour of Australia and New Zealand that his publisher had to hire bodyguards. Even the fact that he recently married his college sweetheart d sn't dissuade his groupies, which gets back to his image as a normal bloke. For example, last Christmas he cooked a meal for 20 members of Penguin staff and their partners. They enjoyed the same grub--sea bass baked on a bed of potat s and mushrooms--that Oliver had cooked for prime minister Tony Blair.
In preparation for his U.S. debut, Oliver visited New York City briefly last fall. "I went shopping and eating around everywhere and met my publishers," he told PW. His low-down on Gotham's restaurants: "Union St. CafÃ© was great, so was the Mercer Kitchen, but my favorite meal was at Babbo's, Mario Batali's place." Oliver described New York as "cosmopolitan and eclectic. They're pretty laid-back people with a bit of a mad side," he told PW. "I don't know enough about the States. I'm going over to be enlightened."
While English food d s not immediately conjure images of fine cuisine, Oliver follows other Brits who have made cookbook history by coming to America. Take for example the recent success of the Two Fat Ladies, Jennifer Patterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright. Sadly, Patterson died last year, but the Two Fat Ladies cookbooks remain popular. Though it d sn't release sales figures, Crown's four titles by the Two Fat Ladies received critical acclaim and recognition in the market, largely helped by Food Network's adoption of their BBC show--which, by the way, shares a producer with Oliver's show.
Are the British taking over in the kitchen at last? Jamie Oliver's youth, charisma and energy, together with a commitment to producing feisty, stylish and ultimately delicious food, have changed the face of popular British cooking; can he do the same on the other side of the pond? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, PW recommends Oliver's orgasmic apricot tart tatin and a glossary for some of his more flavorful lingo. As the Naked Chef would say: "Get stuck in."
Volume 246 Issue 36 09/04/2000