Jamie Oliver – like the poor he so adores – seems always to be with us; to be with us and to have been with us always as well, although it’s only 14 years since he first thrust his meat and two veg at us in the television series The Naked Chef. Since then, not a year has passed without some new Oliver production: cookery books, more TV, many Sainsbury’s advertising campaigns, restaurants, delicatessens, food product ranges and latterly a number of campaigns aimed at improving the eating habits of the nation, specifically its children.
Not content simply to gnaw the mound of bread he’s accumulated by giving supermarket endorsements, Oliver has committed himself to spreading the wholesome word: his Fifteen chain of restaurants aims to give a break to young folk who’re broken, by delinquency, addiction and poverty, by inserting them into the food industry as sous-chefs and so vastly improving their life chances.
It’s this combination of shameless avariciousness and a belief in the drizzle-down of oily emolument from the top to the bottom that makes Oliver the personification of contemporary Britain. If Terence Conran plummily taught the middle classes how to be a proper European bourgeoisie in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Oliver is his worthy estuarine successor, taking the permanent foodie revolution on to that portion of the former working class who bought up the public housing stock. Now they can borrow against their equity to buy bruschetta, while the poor saps who didn’t get their plutocratic act together poke Turkey Twizzlers through the school gates to feed their morbidly obese cuckoo kids.
Needless to say, Oliver sticks in my craw and I’d walk a cunty mile to avoid him and all his works. What this society needs is a culture that values its eternal soul above its lemon sole and a form of social justice that doesn’t depend on the tit-beating self-righteousness of charity – with all the patronising bullshit that goes along with this. Still, I don’t expect Oliver to have a Damascene conversion on these matters, not while he’s doing such a lovely jubbly.
Between the liverish columns of the brutalist former bank building at the end of Shaftesbury Avenue in London, a new outpost of Oliver’s army has been established: Jamie Oliver’s Diner. Unlike his delis and his Italian (sic) restaurants, the “pop-up” diner does indeed have a surrealistic, throwntogether feel, like the chance meeting between a hand-held card reader and a PR wonk on a conference-room table.
“I know,” some bright spark must’ve said, “let’s make it a themed western dinosaur burger joint!” And verily, it was so, complete with a triceratops meat chart on the wall and weird glyphs on the ceilings that show cowboys and dinosaurs peacefully cohabiting in the sagebrush. There are hortatory slogans painted along the architrave: “Gorgeous food cooked with love and care”; “No porkies, just free-range meat”; and – most heartening, this – “If it’s not eaten, it’s composted.”
My two velociraptors had standard sevenounce burgers with various bits and pieces, Mrs Tyrannosaurus (who doesn’t usually attend these reviewing meals) went for a chicken burger and I had the Caesar salad. The food was nothing special: Mrs T said her burger tasted “bitter”; the bit of grilled chicken on my salad was just that – a bit about two by three inches and as wafer-thin as Mr Creosote’s mints. The boys were pissed off by the cardboard straws in their Cokes, which were weirdly absorptive. The fries, naturally, came in those dumb little zinc buckets. With “home-made” lemonade for me, a Bacardi and Coke for Mrs T and a tenner tip, the whole schmozzle cost 20 quid more than the weekly Jobseeker’s Allowance.
On the back of the paper menu, together with recipes for cocktails called Cucumber Number and Dark’n’Stormy, there’s a chirpy little missive from Jamie himself, wherein he witters on about “great food values and ethics” and “sustainable and local ingredients”, all of which leads inexorably to “yummy healthy dishes”.
There’s also a sidebar entitled “A word about nutrition”, in which the usual guff about calories and saturated fats takes on the air of a pious homily. Jamie says: “The beauty of being a pop-up is it gives us loads of flexibility to listen to what you guys want, so please let us know.” To which I can only respond: do please pukka off with your millions to Necker Island with Branson and leave us in peace, matey.