Jesse Mulligan reviews the new cookbook by Jamie Oliver. His calm and measured verdict: It stinks.
I made three dishes from this cookbook and they all stank. One of them was the pot-roasted cauliflower, a recipe pushed hard in the Jamie Cooks Italy publicity materials, and one I was deliciously excited about. I love cauliflower, and roasting. Also pots. But this was the worst cauliflower dish I have ever eaten.
I don’t know why I thought it would work. It was an entire fucking head of cauliflower, sitting on a puddle of sauce. I roast little cauliflower florets all the time and they’re great, the extra surface area making for a high caramelisation to nutrient ratio. But roasting a whole head and expecting it to taste good is like roasting an entire potato and hoping it’ll taste like French fries.
The shortcuts that made Jamie Oliver such a breakthrough chef are more miss than hit in this book. I still bang garlic with a heavy knife to loosen the skin, pound a bunch of herbs to release their flavour, twist a fist of dried spaghetti around a central point so that it splays and fits in the pot. But in this, book 3, the shortcuts have gotten too stupid. Like when you’re meant to turn your pan to medium high and peel ‘petals’ off your onion, tossing them in as you go. When you’ve got through all of the onion he asks you to drizzle over a bit of olive oil and toss in some anchovies.
This is doing things in reverse order and twice as hot, which on the positive side means you have less time waiting around but on the negative side means you have onion petals scorching in the pan with nothing to facilitate their frying, and the anchovies sit on top of everything instead of melting into the oil over a low temperature like they usually would. It is absolute bonkers and I can’t understand how he has let it get to print. Where did it all go wrong?
He was The Naked Chef when he arrived in 1999, and though ostensibly describing his approach to food, that nickname captured his sex appeal too. The food was fantastic, and easy, and new, and he had big cheekbones and puffy lips and said things like ‘pukka’ which was all we needed to fall in love with him.
To be honest this was all a bit annoying even by season two, and his people did well to tone down the catchphrases for later series. He was at his best about five years in, which was when the first Jamie’s Italy book came out. That one is a bible, with the best pizza recipes as well as more adventurous stuff like braised octopus. I still go back to it all the time, brushing semolina off the dustjacket and diving in for the best versions of the best Italian dishes.
This latest book doesn’t mention that earlier volume, which feels like a bit of a slap in the face to those of us who’ve been there from the beginning. “You’ve been to Italy before, Jamie!”, you feel like saying as he lays out this journey of wide-eyed discovery. He could have at least called it a Return to Italy, or Italy Rediscovered. “Jamie Cooks Italy” doesn’t even make grammatical sense.
The chickpea fritters he wants you to cook don’t make sense either. It’s fried hummus, without the flavour of tahini. The sauce is olive oil, lemon juice and rosemary which is fine but only dresses the outside, not the dense, flavourless interior. He encourages you to serve the fritters on a bed of plain rocket which might have sounded exotic in 1999 but in this post-Ottolenghi world is perhaps one step up from grass clippings.
The best dishes in the book are the classics. I bet the spaghetti cacio e pepe tastes brilliant, because it’s just pasta with good cheese and pepper. But you don’t buy a Jamie book for these sorts of recipes – his version is almost identical to what you’ll find in any bog standard Italian cookbook (though Jamie adds the extra step of filtering the pepper through a sieve, which is just the sort of haute pissing-about he’s always told us to avoid).
Though he is a cross-media global brand – the knives, the restaurants, the social campaigns – Jamie’s recipes are more important than you might think, because they help us forgive his frequent missteps. When he named his son Buddy Bear, we could close our eyes and think of his puttanesca. When it emerged that his “30 minute meals” were nothing of the sort we could at least fall back on his slow-cooked lamb shoulder. And the vinaigrette recipe I use every day of my life was enough (well almost) to help me forget this picture of him playing the drums.
But when the recipes stop working, so does the schtick. I hope I’ve got unlucky, and that as I keep cooking my way through this book I’ll feel some of those Jamie butterflies again. But right now he’s leaking political capital fast. If he’s writing these recipes himself he needs to get back into the test kitchen. If somebody else is writing them, he needs to reconsider what he puts his name to.
Jamie Cooks Italy by Jamie Oliver (Michael Joseph, $65) is available at Unity Books.