Dear Kitchen Agony,
I’m a huge fan of celebrity chefs. I never miss a favourite’s TV programme, buy all their books, cook their recipes and try to live the foodie lifestyle to the hilt. But I’m scared that my interest is becoming unhealthily obsessive. It’s eating up all my leisure time and spare cash and I’ve started having disturbing dreams in which Nigella Lawson lays along the top of my kitchen worktop tossing my carefully prepared mise en place off the side, like a big, mischievous cat. Just the other day in Maidenhead High Street, I began to think that Jamie Oliver was following me. Am I going mad and should I be worried?
No you are not going mad, but you should be worried. You are a victim of saturation marketing, the ultimate outcome of which, if you get sucked into it, is that your identity can become subsumed by the object of your veneration and you lose all free will. For example, some people have watched so many TV programmes in which Gordon Ramsey travels round the world beating up hapless kitchen drudges that they think they are a part of the story. One or two have become convinced that Ramsey has come into their own kitchen and told them to get the fuck out, something that probably didn’t happen at all.
Jamie Oliver is a chef who has reached such a level of popularity that he just can’t stop growing, like Alice after swallowing the “EAT ME” cake. Even if Jamie wasn’t personally following you along Maidenhead High Street that day, he was assuredly smiling out at you from 101 product wrappers and from cardboard cut-out shop window displays.
I used to be Jamie tolerant; I even admired him. It was hard not to be charmed by the lad, impressed by his enthusiasm and his good-natured commitment to sound causes, not to mention his reliable and jolly good recipes. But Jamie grew and grew, until he was taking up all the available space.
He opened a bright pink cookery school cum café in my High Street, his endorsed food products colonised my supermarket, his books burdened my shelves, his branded garlic crusher made my kitchen drawer jam. He was on the telly every night, he lectured politicians and did whatever it is people do with the Queen. He opened a string of top quality restaurants, and then he opened a string of low-quality restaurants. And then he went too far.
He launched his own Jamie Oliver compost. I could swallow the Jamie line on all sorts of things, but I couldn’t stomach the compost. What next? Jamie Oliver dental floss? Just how many things in the world does a man need to stamp his name on? Jamie Oliver has become the Genghis Khan of retailing.
So I said No. I just said No. And I bought a different brand of compost, one less ecologically sound, but what the heck. A man must be free.
Are celebrity chefs the victims of their own marketing experts? They don’t have to be. When Michel Roux Jr. brought out his book Cooking with the Master Chef (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), he didn’t have to include 15 full-page pictures of himself twinkling at kitchen equipment. Some of the customers who splashed out £25 for a copy might have preferred more shots of dishes, so that they could see what they were meant to look like. Sure, it’s nice to have the odd picture of the chef, if only to give you an idea how fat his recipes are likely to make you. But 15! It’s not long before you tire of the maroon and grey striped polo shirt. And you can’t help regretting that the lemon tart, which does happen to be pictured, didn’t come with a recipe. And that the Veal Stew with White Wine Sauce recipe doesn’t deign to tell you when, how much and what type of wine to add to it.
This is shoddy publishing but we can’t let Roux off the hook. He’s making money out of it, and it’s his responsibility. If a chef expects the highest standards from his kitchen staff, he should also expect them from his publisher.
It’s up to us to say Non! Non Michel, Non!
So next time celebrity chef hysteria strikes and you find you have started purring like a Nigella, or dressing up as a Hairy Biker, just say No, take yourself in hand with a black coffee or glass of red, and dip into Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking (1951)—no pictures in there, other than the odd painting of a fish, and no danger of her trying to sell you a lawnmower.
Please send any kitchen queries/agonies to Martin Plimmer at firstname.lastname@example.org