If you follow Jamie Oliver’s cooking programmes, alternatively known as The Naked Chef, you’ll notice that his cool and effortless boyish attitude to cooking strikes a chord with the young, mostly male, upwardly-mobile, and aspiring members of the British middle class; it’s about an obsession with fresh, locally-sourced or grow-your-own ingredients, and recipes firmly grounded in French/Italian cooking traditions. He’s deeply committed to getting Britain cooking at home again, and so none of those ready meals and takeaways plaguing busy families. But he has done so by entering the homes of lower income families in some of the roughest neighbourhoods in the country, who, by Jamie’s middle class standards, have Britain’s most deplorable eating habits. He is persuasive to some, patronising to others.
Ever so commercial-savvy, Jamie is also the face of the local supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, and his mantra is clear: cooking can be easy, quick and should be inexpensive. You can also adopt the Jamie Oliver lifestyle by buying his stylish dining and kitchen products whilst reading his eponymous magazine. But it doesn’t end there, he’s all about kids eating nutritious meals in school and teaching them to start cooking from a young age too, because it’s never too early to be have bourgeois aspirations. So far so caring and generous, but very commercial.
His newest television project, called Jamie’s American Road Trip, aims to spread his love of funky fusion cooking in the United States, which comes with a US-inspired cookbook too (launched on the day of his first episode no less). Eschewing the usual tropes of American food and travel itinerary, Jamie rubs shoulders with ex-gang members in Los Angeles, immigrant communities and the homeless in New York City, and other marginalised and disenfranchised groups. Told through the medium of local food and recipes, Jamie brings to the table some pretty interesting stories of life in America today despite his naive geniality and earnestness which I found awkward at times, but it is his ignorance and Eurocentric views about food that I found just difficult to swallow.
In an episode filmed in New York City, Jamie meets Egyptian-born chef Ali, who runs a restaurant popular with the large Egyptian community in Astoria. The chef was kind enough to prepare on camera his specialty, a tomato-based meaty broth which Jamie made references to minestrone. What sounded like someone making sense of familiar flavours ended up becoming a comment that suggested that “ethnic” cuisines simply orbited around Western European cooking. To make sense of non-European flavours and textures, “unusual” food must be viewed through European lenses. And so dim sum is like Chinese tapas, chapatis look like Indian pancakes, kuih-muih can only be translated as Malaysian cakes. “You are degrading my cooking and culinary culture”, says Chef Ali to the Naked Chef. Clearly flabbergasted and apologetic, Jamie goes on to make another racist mistake in New Orleans.
On last night’s programme, Jamie recounts the devastation caused by hurricane Gustav, marvels at the resilience of the human spirit and the taste of gumbo. There he meets Leah Chase and she shows him how to make a quick and proper gumbo. While adding into the cooking pot some okra, Chase talks about the history behind the gumbo and how people brought into the South for slave labour hid okra seeds in their ears. She also asks Jamie whether Britons eat okra to which he replied yes, because the South Asian communities eat a lot of them and they’re easily available in “ethnic” areas in many cities around the country.
Again, Jamie annoys a guest on the programme by lumping together diverse ethnic communities and culinary traditions into a pot labeled non-White European and Other, and therefore more-or-less the same. He apologises for his general buffoonery and says that he didn’t mean to sound racist; he’s just unaware that his comments were hurtful.
And there’s another example that encapsulates Jamie’s Eurocentric worldview: inspired by the vibrant immigrant community in New York City, he sets out to select guests who represent it for his very own underground restaurant/dinner party, but they all turn out to be mostly White. They are also young, middle-class, and bourgeois just like him. To summarise my thoughts on his show, I find it successful at presenting the diverse and complex relationships Americans have with food, from anti-restaurant movements to free food programmes for the poor. But unfortunately, his show is limited to just that: it only presents but fails to be sensitive and insightful about what it is showing. It appears that Jamie Oliver’s world isn’t really as colourful and diverse in the truest sense as his approach to cooking, which is a pity for someone whom many believe has his heart in the right place.