Live to eat

Happy Days with the Naked Chef

Jamie Oliver <em>Michael Joseph, 320pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0718144848

Anyone who failed to pay attention when Jamie Oliver first appeared in our lives might have assumed that his current Sainsbury's adverts were an aberration. Some celebrities exist so far above the credibility threshold that they are allowed to dive beneath it occasionally without devaluing their own stock - the commercial detour into grinning twitland is excused by a general feeling that "I'd do the same in his shoes, fair play".

Having not followed the Naked Chef's career, I took this to be the case here. Despite the supermarket toe-curlers, his cookbooks sit in fashionable Notting Hill kitchens; he is spoken of as a cool person; pop culture seems perfectly comfortable with the notion of Jamie as rock star. His book, therefore, came as a tremendous surprise. It turns out that the star clown of Sainsbury's adverts is, in fact, a wildly sophisticated, rather stylish upgrade of the standard Jamie Oliver persona. Happy Days with the Naked Chef is a cookery book written in the style of a slightly precocious teenage girl's diary. "Gordon Bennett," it opens. "Last year was busy, but this one has been doolally!" Jamie tells us about the day of his marriage to the lovely Jools ("Everyone was tucking in, passing stuff around"), his recent travels ("very inspiring on the old food front") and his new book ("really cool new chapters"). The recipes have a personal twist of his own - "But hey, that's what it's all about" - and he signs off next to a photo of him and his laughing friends going surfing: "Love Jamie. x"

For an ambassador of the kitchen, Jamie is unexpectedly apologetic about his profession. "I want to reassure you that even though I'm a chef, I still get cravings for a good old fish finger buttie or sticky sausage and cheese bap with brown sauce," he promises. The first chapter is devoted to "comfort food" ("These American pancakes are great! Simple, simple, simple - my Jules goes mad for them!"), and another to "quick fixes", great because they mean no washing up. Most of the recipes are promoted on the grounds that they are easy - not like cooking at all, in fact. You just "smear a massive dollop" of this, "lug" on a bit of that, and you've got a "blokey, hearty pasta". Easy. "Boom boom boom, on a plate and it's in front of them."

The frame of non-culinary reference is relentlessly non-foodie - Jamie playing footie as a boy, growing up in a pub, being skint, having a laugh with the missus. Luckily, Jools can't cook, so the household retains a winningly amateurish appeal, despite her husband's gourmet accolades. In a recent interview, she took care to stress that Jamie was genuinely "common", and the point is hammered home throughout Happy Days. "I've got a mate called Andy Slade, the local gasman, back in Essex," writes Jamie. To prove it, there is a picture of Andy sitting on a radiator. "Andy the gasman" reads the caption.

Reading this book is like being hit over the head with a frying pan. Jamie is cool! Jamie is normal! Cooking is funky and not just for ponces! But who could possibly be persuaded? The Naked Chef is a frumpy aunt's idea of a whacky guy, conjured in the vocabulary of Smashie and Nicey - "lovely jubbly . . . pretty damn sexy . . . how orgasmic is that?!" Touring in a VW camper van to promote his book, he brings to mind no one more vividly than a young Cliff Richard - going on a summer holiday.

It is inconceivable that anyone of the opinion that cooking was uncool can have been converted by Jamie Oliver. How, then, to explain his monumental popularity, or his official status as representative of cool? The logical conclusion to draw must be that his real role, rather than to convert us to cooking, is to reassure people who already enjoy it. Uneasy about their enthusiasm, they fall on him, happy to suspend their usual critical style faculties in exchange for an endorsement of their hobby. People are willing to buy him, in effect, because they are already sold.

Read in this way, his success could be seen as rather promising. Unlike dinner party bores who find it "so encouraging" to see everyone "getting into cooking", the craze makes me faintly depressed - a mass retreat into the domestic, closing the door on the world, promoting an ethos that mistakes a good root vegetable intake for the mark of a morally virtuous human being. "Remember," urges Jamie. "Don't eat to live, but live to eat. That's what it's all about!" Er, no.

Somewhere inside, we must all be uneasy with our craze, knowing Jamie's motto isn't true. Why else would we need to worship a chef who simultaneously distances himself from cooking and insists it's OK? If Jamie Oliver is the coolest thing cooking can offer, this should tell you all you need to know.

Decca Aitkenhead's book about clubbing, Strange Ways, is published by Fourth Estate later this year

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?