It’s twenty years this Easter since Jamie Oliver first slid down that spiral bannister in The Naked Chef. As he hopped onto his scooter, he introduced a new audience to the idea that food could cook them up a whole load more than what’s on the plate.
Food became about taste – as in lifestyle rather than flavour, but did it really get people cooking? Well, yes if you believe the supermarket sales stats; Jamie’s first-ever Sainsbury’s ad for a prawn curry pitched at the ‘lads night in’ market rocketed the sale of prawns by 900% in just six weeks back in 2002. Weekly sales of jars of nutmeg rose from 1,400 to 6,000, prompting Sainsbury’s to order two years’ worth of stock when he suggested in the series that it was ‘just the job for a pukka Spaghetti Bolognese’.
So how come I was asking Tom Kerridge last week about Fresh Start, the book of his latest TV series in which he teaches eight overweight families to cook? Their weight gain and lack of kitchen skills are, Tom says, inextricably linked, and it’s his job to teach them that blow-torching red peppers and adding mustard to a coleslaw will fire their imaginations and get them cooking healthier food for their kids.
Didn’t they watch The Naked Chef? Or do they just prefer the shrink-wrapped noodle soups and slow cooked lamb shanks that the supermarkets served up at the first sniff of a food revolution twenty years ago? True, the difference between now and then is time – or lack of it. Most households these days need both partners to work against the clock to fund the lifestyle that TV taught us to desire, and if no-one’s licking the bowl after an afternoon of cupcakes, who’s going to want to learn to cook?
But what has changed is the great British palate? Tom would be the first to agree that the batch cooking and flavour bombs he’s teaching his families to carve some time from their busy days are nothing new; from Tom’s Fresh Start to Donal Skehan’s Meals in Minutes and Ottolenghi’s Simple, they’re the latest granny skills to be repackaged to save waste and time. But they’d be impossible skills to teach without our high streets wafting the aroma of a Leon black bean chiili or a Wagamama katsu.
How we got to Wahaca is a fascinating story of keeping up with the Joneses and the power of TV storytelling, and as we celebrate the 20th birthday of The Naked Chef, let’s doff our caps to Jamie O and his team of brilliant producers, and marvel at how Britain learned to eat.