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A recipe for disaster?

A five-part series tracks British chef Jamie Oliver as he tries to turn a group of troubled kids into master cooks.

October 13, 2003|Margy Rochlin | Special to The Times

Two years ago, star British chef Jamie Oliver set up Cheeky Chops, a charity foundation that would put 15 disadvantaged, unemployed young people annually into an all-expenses-paid training program that would turn them into professional cooks.

Naturally, there had to be some kitchen ground rules: No drinking, no drugs, no sexual fraternizing. That didn't work. What about just showing up for class? As it turned out, they weren't good at that, either.

"Jamie's Kitchen," Oliver's new series airing tonight through Friday on the Food Network, documents seven months in the transformation of a bunch of lawless charges into the skilled chefs hovering over stoves at Oliver's East London restaurant, Fifteen.

But what makes "Jamie's Kitchen" such compelling television is that it also chronicles Oliver's stark realization that only a fool would assume that such a social experiment would unfold according to plan.

"I always presumed that I'd get these kids together, they'd all work really hard, learn loads, we'd open up a restaurant and it would be all perfect," says Oliver, who conducted a crackling cell phone interview from London. "But the reality of it was I was being overenthusiastic. I forgot they weren't robots, they all came from different walks of life, they were actually individuals."

No one would ever accuse Oliver's kids of being nondescript. Last November, when "Jamie's Kitchen" was shown in the United Kingdom, record numbers of viewers tuned in, shocked by the antics of pasty-faced trainees who greet this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by exhibiting the self-control of 10-year-olds.

There's skinny Michael, who is prone to wall-banging outbursts, and fish-hating Michelle, who tells Oliver to buzz off when he explains why it's crucial for a chef to have an adventurous palate. When two of the most unapologetic truants -- a pair of slouchy girls both named Nicola -- are threatened with suspension, they sob for forgiveness, then resume their disappearing act. All the while, in one-on-one interviews, the cameras capture how the students' moods surge between the preening arrogance of the undeserving and an emotional nakedness.

The most heartbreaking part of their childish shenanigans is that even the worst of the lot grasp how much they are risking. At one point, a perennial goof-off named Dwayne gulps, "If I got kicked off the course, I would never be able to live with myself," as the thought of failing for the umpteenth time makes his eyes widen.

"Jamie's Kitchen" is a far cry from the eye-rolling staginess of NBC's "The Restaurant," a similarly themed behind-the-scenes reality series that Oliver has been debriefed on but hasn't seen. "I've heard it was reality-ish," says Oliver referring to the fact that "The Restaurant" featured actors cast in the role of staffers, granted ubiquitous cameos to advertisers' products and reservations to customers who promised to bring high drama to specially miked tables.

How does Food Network President Judy Girard compare the two shows? Diplomatically. "Hats off to ['The Restaurant' producer] Mark Burnett because that show was so beautifully edited that it created a lot of drama," says Girard. " 'Jamie's Kitchen' just is drama. This is cameras put on what was happening, not manipulated in any way, shape or form."

"The Restaurant," felt so manufactured that nothing seemed at stake for chef-owner Rocco Di Spirito. Presumably, the second the cameras stopped rolling, Di Spirito would fire his hammy employees and sally forth to reap the benefits of a prime time-enhanced profile.

The motor that drives "Jamie's Kitchen" is that Oliver has personally wagered everything. By the filming of episode one, where the lucky 15 are plucked from a pool of 1,000 applicants, Oliver had already invested almost $800,000 of his own money to underwrite the project, mortgaging his offices and the house in London's Hampstead district that he shares with his wife, Jools, and two young daughters.

In what could be considered a recurring bit in the series, Oliver attempts to placate his then-hugely pregnant, understandably aggrieved wife, who wonders why her husband chooses nurturing slacker recruits over home.

With "Jamie's Kitchen," Oliver left the safe format of the cooking shows that made him famous ("The Naked Chef," "Oliver's Twist"), relinquished editorial control, and opened all sides of his life to camera crews that trailed him 24/7. When Oliver's wife objected to using footage of the couple arguing, Channel Four, the network broadcasting the series, aired it anyway.

"She never signed a release form, never gave them permission to put it on telly," says Oliver. "I mean, I felt really vulnerable. I felt as vulnerable about the TV show as I did about the students as I did about the possibilities of the restaurant working. If I could say 'sleepless nights,' then that would be an underestimation."

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