Class conscious

In my third year at secondary school, I was taught cooking, which was dressed up as "domestic science" to sell it to the lads. Cooking was, naturally, seen as something that cissies did (although there was nothing cissie-ish about the teacher, a steely, rasping-voiced woman who, when she said "We're going to make an apple crumble", put a vindictive emphasis on the last word). It was also, even in the radically unsnobbish environment of a Yorkshire secondary modern, seen as a below-stairs kind of activity.

I never paid much attention in those lessons. Twenty years ago, it was safe to assume that there was no big money to be made in becoming a good cook. Now, the celebrity chefs are the aristocrats of the lifestyle culture, and we have the fascinating class phenomenon of young Jamie Oliver. I have been cooking from his book, The Return of the Naked Chef, since Christmas.

Oliver is the most brilliantly marketed person of the moment. He - or his people - realised that chefs have been, if anything, over-promoted socially, so he adopted his widely celebrated tactic of coming on all "street". None of your prissy "slowly stir in two ounces of lentils". Oliver will say something like "bung in a handful of lentils". The book concludes with some street salutations, possibly lifted straight from a dictionary of contemporary slang, such as "respect", "nice one" and "shout going out". I, personally, will give £100 to anybody who can authentically state that they've heard an ordinary person spontaneously saying "shout going out" in place of goodbye.

Oliver's book actually contains a recipe for bacon sandwiches - I mean, I can make a bacon sandwich, for God's sake. But he also knows what salsa verdi is, and marscapone. He's nice to old ladies, too.

My wife once stayed in especially to watch a programme where Oliver chirpily cooked a meal for a group of old ladies, but this was too much, even for her. "I felt like throwing up," she later admitted.

Class-wise, Oliver is all things to all men and women, a strategy epitomised in a reference in his book to "the River Cafe posse". It is extremely annoying, but that bacon sandwich of his is damn tasty, I must say.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose