I’ll just state this outright: I’m firmly in the corner for Jamie Oliver. He’s my favorite TV chef. It’s entirely possible that in real life, he’s an asshole who beheads kittens to make a nice Welsh rarebit, but on TV? He’s ridiculously charming, and, more importantly, he makes it seem like anyone can cook, even if they have absolutely no idea what to do in a kitchen. His Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution was my favorite reality show of last year, and I’ve dropped in on other programs he’s been on since seeing that series through to the end, checking out some of his British originals here and there, flipping through his cookbooks in my local bookstore (though I have yet to buy, to the chagrin of the bookstore owner and Oliver himself, I’m sure). I just can’t help but like the guy, and that was the main reason I volunteered to cover the debut of his new series, Jamie’s Food Escapes, which aired its first episode Wednesday night on the tucked-away corner of the cable universe, The Cooking Channel.
The Cooking Channel, which is all right there in the name, has been trying—somewhat unsuccessfully—to explain just why it’s not the Food Network over the past year. The main difference seems to come from the fact that Food Network is more interested in cooking reality shows and random series where some dude travels the world and visits restaurants, while The Cooking Channel is very intent on having at least one major cooking segment in all of its series. But that gets a little wearing. How many recipes can one copy off the TV, especially when it’s just as easy to pull up foodgawker.com and run a search for whatever happens to be on your mind for dinner that night. The Cooking Channel is doubling down on the idea that watching somebody cook on TV is more interesting than just looking up a post on one of the many, many great food blogs out there.
The thing is, though, that Oliver IS the kind of chef I’d watch on TV, even though there’s nothing revolutionary in any of his shows. Jamie’s Food Escapes takes the bare bones of a cooking show and then mashes it up with a travelogue, with more of an emphasis on the cooking than on the travel sections. (This is what sets it apart from the generally enjoyable No Reservations over on Travel Channel.) Still, there are some borderline stunning moments. At one point, Oliver is talking about all of the ways you could spice up a basic risotto after visiting the king of risotto in Venice, and the camera pulls back from him at the end of a long alley, careening backwards as he continues to speak, his voice still close, even as he, himself, grows more and more distant. Bicycles ding past, kids race by, and you get the general sense of just another day in Venice, even as Oliver continues to talk about all of the things you can do with a nice risotto. To Oliver, cooking may as well encompass the entire world; it means that much to him, and it can be so flexible as to incorporate just about any person or thing he can think of. It’s the most democratic of actions.
The premiere took Oliver to Venice, but he quickly dispensed with the kinds of tourist-y footage you might find on other travelogues. He visited the main tourist attractions in the first couple of minutes, then resolved to find the real Venice, taking a page from my favorite travel host, Rick Steves. Oliver wandered the back streets of Venice, hanging out at dodgy bars and learning how to open wine bottles with swords or preparing a nice minestrone for the convicts at a women’s prison. There were occasional nods toward the fact that Oliver was in another country to do all of this, like scenes where he went to visit Italian chefs and tried to learn their secrets in charmingly dodgy Italian, but for the most part, this could have been any cooking show about learning the cuisine of another country and incorporating it into the dishes you make in your own home.
Not that this is a bad thing! The greatest thing about it was that Oliver often roped these old Italian chefs into his presentation (the last section, featuring a friend helping him whip up a mean tiramisu, was particularly delightful in this regard) and that he prepared all of the dishes outside, the soundtrack filled with the sounds of leaves rustling and birds chirping. Sunlight dappled off of the olive oil he seemingly adds to every dish at the end, while the whole of these segments was devoted to capturing what it must really feel like to suddenly start preparing food—good, simple food and nothing too elaborate—while out of doors. As he prepared traditional Venetian dishes, Oliver would also sprinkle in bits about the history of the city and its cuisine, thus satisfying any educational requirements the show might need to have. I’m not going to say that any of this is shocking or new, but the presentation is strikingly well done, and I can only hope Oliver carries the same basic ideals to future destinations.
But if there’s a reason to watch this show, it’s Oliver himself. It’s rare to have a TV chef who’s so confident that he can help you out of the take-out hell you’ve sunk into, eating the same four or five cruddy things every night. Many TV chefs will say their meals are simple, but they’ll either be gigantic, fatty monstrosities (like Paula Deen’s), or they’ll be insultingly basic and tasteless (like Rachael Ray’s). Oliver doesn’t do much beyond some very basic things—like sautéing onions and garlic in olive oil before tossing in some other ingredients—but the confidence he exudes and the things he stands for seem so basic that it’s hard to watch the show and not want to head into the kitchen to try out at least some of the things he preaches. And he’s even better about suggesting that viewers at home make their own dishes the way they want to. There are no rules for a minestrone, he says. Just pick up some veggies at the market and go to town. For Oliver, cooking really IS the world, a common denominator we can draw between every single human being on Earth, one that’s endlessly elastic and egalitarian. No matter what you’ve heard, he wants you to know that the art is as simple as getting some ingredients and beginning your journey.
- In case you’d like to check out future episodes, The Cooking Channel will air the run of the series (which appears to have run in Britain before it came here) at 8 p.m. Eastern on Wednesdays.
- My wife raises an important point: When does this guy EVER see his family? He’s hanging out in L.A. right now, filming the second season of Food Revolution. Will that small, adorable child from the opening credits of that series ever see dad again?! Only time will tell.
- Finally, favorite food blogs? Mine’s this one, mostly because it exudes that same sense Oliver gives off of being able to DO this. There’s nothing so complicated in the world of cooking that it can’t be broken down into simple instructions, and the author of that blog is terrific at doing so.