Naked cooking in the raw - it's pukka, mate
For Jamie Oliver's latest recipe, take 15 rookie recruits, a couple of teachers and a restaurant. John Davies reports
Looking back, Jamie Oliver realises he has been a kind of teacher for more than half his life. His trademark style as a television cook evolved at an early age, when he helped out in his father's restaurant.
"When my dad added new graduates from college, very often, even at the age of 13, it would be me who would break them in," he explains. "It wasn't so much that I was advanced or talented; the fact is, I was working in the kitchen every weekend, I knew my sections and I knew my job. These trainees were men - they had bristles on their chins and they were big lads - so very early on I invented a style of teaching them that was about encouragement. It was quite a soft but, I hoped, an inspiring method which avoided me getting my head kicked in, basically. Even if I didn't think I knew it, I've been teaching for a very long time."
This communication style, which has worked so well for Jamie in his three television cookery series, is now being extended to his most ambitious project so far: a charity, Cheeky Chops, which will train groups of unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds to cook and then employ them to staff a high-quality, not-for-profit restaurant in Islington, north London. The restaurant, named Fifteen (because the budding chefs are being trained in groups of 15), is due to open this month, and from this week is the focus of a new Channel 4 series, Jamie's Kitchen.
The series follows Jamie and a team of helpers from the early stages of finding a site for the restaurant and selecting 15 recruits from more than a thousand applicants, through the trainees' faltering progress as they learn the basics of catering with help from Jamie and "two fantastic lecturers" - Mark Gautier, then at Hammersmith and West London College, and Peter Richards, who taught Jamie at Westminster and Kingsway College in the early Nineties - to the final days before the opening.
Meanwhile, Jamie's home life with wife Jools and their first baby, Poppy, provides further docu-soap elements (although there are cookery tips, too - you can learn how to make bread in the second programme). Inevitably, the emphasis is on the students who have problems, such as 19-year-old Kerryann Dunlop, whose attendance record left something to be desired. "You'll see there are some ups and downs," as Kerryann puts it, having survived early difficulties to last the distance.
But overall, the story is one of success, despite three students dropping out. "It's made my life," says 24-year-old Elisa Roche, who was homeless when she started the course. "Once you get in the kitchen and get a love for it, it doesn't feel like a job. It's physically tiring, but mentally you're constantly finding out things." A view echoed by fellow student Tim Fiadatan, 19, who describes the course as "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, getting trained by some of the best chefs around, not just Jamie, but the others that we've been working with" (the students have had work placements in top restaurants, such as the River Cafe and Bamboo).
Jamie, who is only three years older than the oldest student in his first group, admits that he, too, has learned a lot. "There was no benchmark, no one had ever done anything like this before," he says. "It's been a learning curve for me; not just the teaching but the business side as well."
Although he saw the students at least once a week to start with, basic teaching was entrusted to Mark and Peter, both seen in action in the series. They had six months to get the students to catering NVQ level 1 standard. "We picked the units that we wanted them to work on, instead of giving them a choice," says Jamie. "That's unconventional, but workable. The colleges did wonders in such a short time." He has been reporting back on the fast-track course to City and Guilds, the examining body for NVQs.
Jamie's goal is ambitious: to get his students to care as deeply about food as he does. He's taken this first intake to meet farmers and fishermen, and wants "to get them lectures from the best cheese people, best herb people, best wine people, best olive oil people" - something that needn't be confined to the lucky 15.
"When we get someone who rears rare-breed pork or beef, and he talks about hanging and the do's and don'ts, and what a commercial animal is like compared to a rare-breed animal - well, let's film it, let's edit with intelligence, let's make a video and give it to every college in the country, because they haven't got access to the genius bloke," he enthuses. "It's about trying to find a mechanism to get it to all the students that are on (catering) courses. It's certainly not about being a TV bloody chef."
For the Cheeky Chops students it's not the Jamie Oliver of the notorious Sainsbury's adverts that has been in evidence; he's been more of an older brother figure. "He's always there, even to the extent that some of the kids are calling him up with personal problems," says Elisa Roche. "I think lately he's spent more time with us than he has with Jools and Poppy. They must be really cheesed off.
"I was a bit sceptical at first - I thought maybe this was a publicity stunt. But his heart's really in it."
See www.channel4.comjamie for details of Cheeky Chops and the next '15' courses. If you would like to support Cheeky Chops, write to financial director Mark Ager, Cheeky Chops, 'Fifteen', Westland Place, London N1 7LP.
The restaurant is at the same address. Jamie's Kitchen is published by Michael Joseph, pound;25. You can also follow the project's progress on www.jamieoliver.com