As a brand, Jamie Oliver is brilliant. He’s the Richard Branson of food. He does daft stuff on the telly that gets him loads of publicity, and this follows through to bookings in his restaurants and sales of his books. Better still, the restaurants aren’t bad, and the recipes are OK. But without all the front-end TV stuff, would we ever know much about this one-time vegetable-chopper at the River Café?
Maybe not, but now he’s ubiquitous, we can see that he and his consultants use design very cleverly. Not the design of the food itself he basically seems to pile everything up, nothing very artful there, none of that nouvelle cuisine nonsense from decades back but in everything else around it. Where Nigella Lawson’s kitchen looks like the stage set it is, and Delia Smith’s garden-room variant looks like she’s had a second-rate interior designer in and nobody would do serious cooking there anyway, Oliver’s looks the business. Even if it is artfully assembled for the cameras.
The last one of his I saw was some kind of weird lean-to, like a converted gardener’s hut or stable. Not too big, a sense of a yard outside, distinctly cluttered with stuff that might actually be useful. We buy into the fact that he seems to live on some vast country estate we’ve seen his walled garden and his gardener but we also see that believable kitchen in action and you think, I could cook stuff there.
It’s always been like this. Remember Oliver in the early days, when the storyboard had it that he lived alone in some mews flat, went everywhere by scooter and had cool friends drop by for scratch suppers all the time? Even then, the kitchen was the most convincing part of the whole set-up.
Commentators both culinary and financial have made much of the fact that Oliver’s star has risen as Gordon Ramsay’s has fallen. Ramsay is the better chef, if Michelin stars are anything to go by. But we tired of his sergeant-major schtick on the telly, and anyway, he makes it all look such hard work.
But what Oliver does in his irritatingly matey, mockney way, is make everything seem almost easy. Even charmingly amateur, when the need arises. If you’ve ever eaten in a Jamie’s Italian and you ask for one of those boards of antipasti, you’ll know that the waiter will bring it to your table and set it down on a couple of cans of tomatoes. With nice Italian labels. What with that and squidging up food with his hands in the kitchen like a naughty boy, no wonder he has been taken to the nation’s heart, even though his tongue is much too large for his mouth.
Look around you in the restaurant and you can see all the obvious design cues telling you that this is an everyday, peasant kind of place given just a light sprinkling of urban fairy-dust. It’s not quite as sterile as a Carluccio’s, nor sadly is it anything like the kind of cosy, bad-taste, fishing-nets-and-views-of-Sorrento Anglo-Italian that used to be everywhere and is now a bit rare.No, what Jamie’s people do is something like an Italian brasserie, to mix cuisines. The formula clearly works.
What next? I always liked the idea of Lyons Corner Houses the original mass-market but highly respectable restaurants for the people, with their distinctive design, right down to the uniforms of the staff. The food was doubtless terrible. But if Oliver can crack that market next, he can do anything.
Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors