2000s Archive

About a Boy

Originally Published April 2003
When it comes to Jamie Oliver, the British public has been nothing if not fickle. Still, he’s changed the way the nation thinks about food. Can he do the same for us?

On a warm friday night in London, 2,800 people are rushing to their seats in the massive Apollo Theatre. Grandmothers of 60 with their grandsons of 8; moms, dads; young couples of the opposite and same sexes outfitted in this season’s smart bags and Puma sneakers: They’ve all paid between $20 to $40 to see the hardest-working chef in show business. But as the lights dim, it’s the shrieks of teenage girls that rise through the balconies.

Squeals morph into a chorus of oooohs and aaaahs as a video screen flashes images of baby Jamie, his tongue, even then a tad too large for his mouth, poking through his gums. Then there’s Jamie in a mullet haircut, Jamie camping it up in cooking school, wedding videos of Jamie and “the lovely Jools,” as he calls Juliette Norton, the mother of his child and the envy of young women across England. To the escalating techno backbeat, we see Jamie today scooting through London on his gray Vespa, smashing into the back wall of the theater, and whoooosh—lights up, music peaking—through the curtain onto the stage. The audience screams. Off the bike, he places a call to Domino’s.

He orders a jalapeño, anchovy, and pineapple pie, puts down the phone, then dives into his first recipe—a homemade pizza—to show how easy it is. Grunting and sweating, he attacks the dough (“You can make bread,” he says. “But I live it. I feel it”), tops it with sun-dried tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, and slides it onto a marble slab in the oven. Before Domino’s arrives, he’s on to his next dish: chicken and Thai noodles in a tinfoil bag. (To alleviate the humiliation of the Domino’s delivery woman, who arrives 30 minutes after his own pizza has been cooked and consumed, Oliver tips her $50.)

Then, bang! J’s into a South Indian lamb curry, chopping onions, expounding on the joys of fresh, fragrant curry leaves. Mid-dish, he launches into a reggae tune he has written and recorded (“Lamb curry/You give it to me hot/Ain’t no worries/When you cook it from your heart”). The crowd sings along until the finale, the pasta cook-off, in which four volunteers race the clock to whip up fresh tagliatelle. J hops around the stage recording them with a handheld digicam, then pounds out a tune on his drums. After two hours and 45 minutes of raw, unleashed cooking power, the audience is on its feet, chanting, whooping, hungry for more.

The cynical might have viewed this spectacle as an elaborate marketing scheme to kick off Oliver’s third cookbook, Happy Days with the Naked Chef. But with the music and sports promoters IMG behind it—not to mention eight corporate sponsors, some of whom pitched in $150,000 for the privilege of being associated with Oliver—the show took on a life of its own. After three nights in London, it traveled for 24 dates across Australia and New Zealand. (In Perth, fans camped outside the night before tickets went on sale, and all 3,000 seats sold out in a day.) On past Australian tours, word has it, girls bared their breasts, and at a food exhibition in Birmingham, one woman slipped a pair of panties around a cheese grater and tossed it onstage—inspired, presumably, by Jamie’s fresh ravioli.

It would be easy to compare Oliver to a rock star, but that’s yesterday’s metaphor. This teen idol rides a Vespa, not a Harley. There’s no busty blonde in tow—he married his high-school sweetheart, to whom he’s remained faithful for nine years. And the only herbs that interest him are legal ones. Besides, Oliver’s appeal has nothing to do with rebellion. Guys like him because he’s confident and makes cooking look effortless. And while young mothers and teenage girls consider him a sex god, most of the people who want to go home with him would rather watch him cook than cuddle up in bed.

If he warrants a comparison, Oliver is more like a Holy Roller, spreading the gospel of fresh ingredients, simply prepared. At 27, he’s already been a huge television success, with his first series, The Naked Chef, having appeared in 44 countries, on 64 channels. In England, his first two cookbooks, The Naked Chef and The Return of the Naked Chef, sold second only to the Harry Potter series, and Happy Days is nearing 2 million.

“Jamie started a mini-revolution,” says Rosie Kindersley, owner of Books for Cooks, London’s top bookshop for foodies. Kindersley has been in business for ten years and is not prone to hyperbole or to promoting television chefs who’ve never swabbed a kitchen floor. “The people screaming about him are also screaming about *NSYNC and other boy bands. At the same time, we have these beautiful old Kensington girls in twinsets and pearls saying, ‘Isn’t he frightfully wonderful?’ ”

Jamie Oliver grew up in Clavering, a tiny village in the county of Essex that’s about an hour and a half northeast of London. Essex is London’s version of New Jersey, a place relatively low on the food chain that’s renowned for fast girls who like boys with fast, souped-up cars. Coming from there is generally a liability in class-constricted Britain, but Jamie made it his strongest asset. His “mockney” English, for example, infiltrated the mother tongue. (Good food is “pukka tucka.” He doesn’t give it his all; he “gets stuck in.” He doesn’t drink; he “bevs up.”)

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