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'Naked Chef' Specializes in Stripped-Down Style

Jamie Oliver, star of the popular BBC cooking show, brings his straightforward food philosophy to the Food Network.

October 31, 2000|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Let's get this out of the way up front: No, "The Naked Chef" is not really naked.

In fact, the Naked Chef, a.k.a. Jamie Oliver, says he really hated the title when the producers of his BBC cooking show first came up with it as a way to describe his stripped-down style of cooking, with its emphasis on basic ingredients and straightforward preparation. "Tacky," he says.

But it worked--helped along, no doubt, by Oliver's charm and shaggy hair and blue eyes--and now the 25-year-old is a huge phenomenon in Britain and Australia, with a hit TV show shot in his London East End apartment to a hip soundtrack, two cookbooks, a new London restaurant for which he is executive chef and British supermarket ads featuring his family.

The band in which he plays drums, Scarlet Division, has a single just out. His recent wedding to his childhood sweetheart, Jools, chronicled on his Web site (http://jamieoliver.net), provoked a media blizzard. And he's about to hit the U.S., where he's been on a whirlwind media tour for the last week to promote his upcoming debut on the Food Network, where slightly edited versions of his British show will start airing Saturday at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m.

But at an early-morning interview, Oliver doesn't want to talk about being a media phenomenon, shrugging off his celebrity status as a "geezer with a big lens camera," who jumps out of a Jeep to take a picture. "You think, 'That man's got a problem,' and then you see it in the magazine the next week."

Instead, he steers the conversation toward vanilla pods. How there was a run on them in England after he featured them in a show. And he talks of being "proactive for the country" in teaching people not to accept bad spinach from their grocery store, and seems happy about the fans who approached him at his downtown New York hotel to thank him because their wives or girlfriends "never used to cook and now they cook two or three times a week. . . . Their quality of life has been tickled a bit." He gets passionate when he talks about how "we've got the most outrageous mushrooms in England."

But he also lets drop that when he was on NBC's "Today" show earlier in the week--where he made fresh pasta with Matt Lauer and Katie Couric (calling her "darling," a term he uses frequently) and the gang--he was toning down his humor. He hints about getting into a fistfight with a former boss who was offended at Oliver's anyone-can-be-a cook philosophy. And at a Food Network party earlier in the week to welcome him to New York, Oliver, dressed in a baby blue corduroy suit and pink shirt, took delight in recounting an interview where he discussed eating "codfish semen" and he joked about his "verbal diarrhea."

It's a disarming mix, perhaps born of the fact that Oliver apparently didn't set out to be a star. Growing up, he and his friends "were all the thick bastards" in school. (Since he's become a success, he says, "I feel like writing me English teacher a letter and getting all the spelling wrong.") For years, he says, he cooked "without being passionate," at his parents' pub as a way to make pocket money to buy running shoes and the like. When he started cooking dinner at home for them, and the response came back, "Well done, son, bloody good," he realized he wanted to cook full time, later studying professionally.

His break came just a few years ago, when the makers of a documentary on London's posh River Cafe, where he was working the frenetic pastas and risotto station, focused in on him. By noon the day after it aired, the phones were ringing. Oliver, thinking the calls a prank from his friends, graphically told one producer off before realizing he was "using words like commission and pilot, which were far too intelligent and underground for my boys."

His producers had plenty of TV chef experience; they also turned the "Two Fat Ladies" into cooking stars in an offbeat show that had them zooming all over England in their motorcycle and sidecar. Oliver insisted on a similar out-of-the-ordinary format for his show, with its freestyle camera work and personally chosen soundtrack, which he compares to what "Blair Witch Project" did for film. "I only want to do what I want to do . . . I've kept it real," he says. "Even though I'm a young boy, I have a lot of integrity . . . . We're not doing crappy, shallow food."

*

His food leans heavily on breads and roasts and pastas, and ingredients such as fresh herbs; critics have complained that he uses a mortar and pestle to smash them up, which they say is hardly in keeping with his "stripped down" philosophy. But he says the results would be just as good if his viewers wrapped the herbs in "a tea towel and bashed them with something heavy." His philosophy, he says, "is really about doing as little as possible to make a big difference."

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