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Celebrity chefs and the virus

"I can do the only thing that I can do, which is help you with food, I can give you the best chance to get decent grub on the plate and feed yourself and the people that you love around you." Jamie Oliver

Last night I watched one of the few episodes of Jamie Oliver's latest series called Keep Cooking and carry on which is specifically designed to help people through the current crisis. So far I have only seen two episodes, but apparently there are now two series. The first one was knocked up in his office - that must be his office kitchen above (he's making bread) - in three days, with a very small crew. The second series - yet to come - is filmed in his home, by his wife Jools on her telephone and also knocked up very quickly.

To my mind it's a truly excellent series as not only does it show you how simple it is to cook things like risotto and bread, but it also demonstrated the 'use what you've got', and improvise method of cooking rather than sticking to a recipe. For example, last night he cooked an eggless chocolate cake. I can remember the recipe because for a start the ingredients were all in 200 quantities. 200g or 200ml that is. All you had to do was remember the order in which you threw the ingredients into the food processor, and what temperature to cook it at. It looked so good.

Here is just one video example - a fried pizza. The Italians cook fried pizza sometimes - I've written about it before - and I do sometimes too - I seem to have more success with them than the 'proper kind'. I give it as an example because quite apart from the actual recipe shown here, it showed little things like squeezing lumps of sausage out into sort of mini meatballs for cooking. A technique you could use in other things, although a little surprisingly he did not mention this. If you're using dried herbs, put them in the fat at the side of the pan first to get more flavour. Save on the washing up by using the same pan for cooking the filling and the pizza, tipping the vegetables out on to the cooktop whilst you put the pastry in. And so on. Let alone lots of suggestions for what you could make the filling with, but not so many that you couldn't think of some yourself. It's an idea and a method rather than a recipe. Which is what I find so inspiring about all of this.

In his words:

"These are bendy recipes where you can swap out ingredients so that you can make delicious food, no matter what you've got in your fridge, cupboard or freezer"

His words. His words, his voice, his accent often set him up as a target for snobby scorn it seems to me. But I reckon he has maintained his accent because the people he wants to talk to are the working classes, not the middle class trendies. I used to talk like that. So I know where he is coming from. In England, less so now than when I was a child, but still prevalent, is an attitude that says that if you speak like that you must be dumb and below consideration. My mother was so conscious of this that she sent me to elocution lessons. I did enjoy them - they were really drama lessons - but I don't think they changed my accent. That came from mixing with people from all over the country at university. We all had disparate accents and the extremities of those accents were all smoothed off by the interaction. Anyone can change their accent if they want to. Jamie doesn't. It's part of the schtick.

Ever since he burst on to the scene - back in 1999 with The Naked Chef - he has been somewhat over the top with his presentation. It can be irritating I suppose, but his enthusiasm is infectious and definitely aimed at the less fortunate amongst the population. His mission has always been to improve people's attitudes to food and to make cooking well less forbidding than it generally is.

"Food, at least in Britain, divides like little else, given the dichotomy between Asda mum and farmer's market mummy. Isn't food the new acceptable face of snobbery?" Susie Mesury - The Independent

Jamie Oliver has tried through various high profile efforts to change this. Fifteen - his experiment in training troubled and unemployed youth in the restaurant industry, the school dinners mission, the Ministry of Food mission whereby he set up sort of schools in working class areas where people could learn to cook. Some of these have been failures. Fifteen in Melbourne, for example, ended disastrously with a fire started by one of the chosen apprentices. There have been scandals, economic failure and the closure of all of his restaurants, and yet he soldiers on trying to get people to cook for themselves in a healthy way.

Maybe all he cares about is making money and he is just a canny businessman. Well no - his restaurants failed. Maybe all he is is an opportunist. And yes maybe he is making money from this latest venture - there will be a book, and he is doubtless getting paid by Channel 4, but does it matter what his motivations are if what it turns out to be is a stimulus to ordinary people to try a few new things? And besides what are all the other celebrity chefs doing to help?

For this post I decided to check out the websites of all my other favourite celebrity chefs to see how they are helping, and found that, nobody, not even Delia, is doing anything. I must confess I would have expected more from Delia, Nigella too. Most of them make no acknowledgement of the current crisis at all. Some examples.

  • Maggie Beer is encouraging people to buy her stuff online. It's all about buy, buy, buy there: "Our dedicated team are ready to help you with all your online shopping needs during these unforeseen times and implemented measures to safeguard operations. Shop here!"

  • Yotam Ottolenghi has basically just shut up shop.

"Due to the unprecedented health circumstances and the responsibility we have to our guests and staff, we sadly decided to temporarily close all our locations and online shop as of Monday, March 23. We'd like to thank all our guests, customers and wonderful staff for their continued support during this period. Stay safe and see you soon!"

  • In her news section Stephanie Alexander talks about her recent trip to India.

  • Gordon Ramsay, actually is more current - he is doing charity runs and things, but the bulk of his 'news' seems to be about trips here and there - surely he isn't allowed to go anywhere?

The rest of them just do not mention the crisis at all - Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson, Luke Nguyen, Adam Liaw, Rick Stein, Curtis Stone ...

And we know that the supermarket chains, however, good they have been at emailing us all with what's happening, have been very slow with the content in their magazines. So far no mention of the crisis. I haven't checked out all the other foodie magazines.

Let's hope that Jamie's efforts, and indeed just plain circumstance actually changes the way people eat, shop and cook - yes cook. For Jamie also says, "use this as an opportunity to try new things." I have certainly been a little bit inspired to try new things from watching his program - like making tomato sauce in big batches and freezing it. Yes I know, it's a pretty obvious thing to do, but I just didn't think of doing it. His method of making it was very 'out of the box' too. He calls it 7-veg tomato sauce - can't find a video but there is a recipe on his website.

So check out the videos - lots of them are online at YouTube, or Channel 10 - where it is screening - or watch it on Channel 10. Currently I think it is at 7.30pm on Sundays. That's today! Must go and set it up to record, because David certainly won't want to watch it. He was intrigued by the basic and messy nature of Jamie's kitchen though, although it now seems that that was his office kitchen.

I learnt the very useful SWOT technique back in my management days - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats - the positives in the acronym come from the negatives. You identify the negatives and then after discussion and brainstorming you come up with ways to turn them into positives. And this current crisis is a perfect example of how the threat can be turned into a joyous opportunity to experiment and learn new things. And, of course, it's also an opportunity for children to join in - I didn't mention the benefits of all of this to children. Jamie seemed to be actually making up the risotto recipe as he went - he did say that it was the first time he had ever demonstrated a dish in that way. And he seemed genuinely surprised that it was alright to use cheddar rather than Parmesan - he had no Parmesan.

"Don't let food be one of the things that worries you," Jamie Oliver


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