When Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef was released in 1999, even Game of Thrones's Three-Eyed Raven, who can basically see everything ever, couldn't have predicted the mop-haired mockney's rise to worldwide fame and estimated £240 million fortune.
But here we are, and what a journey it's been. That initial series, and the accompanying book, which sold three million copies in 25 languages, launched a career that inspired and irritated in equal measure.
I'm firmly in the former camp. On my 13th birthday my godparents gave me a copy of 2004's Jamie's Kitchen. That same year I met Jamie – because he's pretty much always referred to on first-name terms – very fleetingly (perfectly nice bloke), and dedicated a school project to the rather broad theme of 'food'. In short, Jamie is about 90 per cent of the reason why I love food.
But to my eternal embarrassment, and despite having enough of his books to create a small library, I've never read, nor cooked from, the one where it all began. This month, however, Penguin released special anniversary editions of five of his classics, which presents the perfect opportunity to delve back to the beginning.
So, let's take a look at The Naked Chef 20 years on. This is Jamie pre-Fifteen, pre-turkey twizzlers, pre-accusations of cultural appropriation, pre-kids with weird names and pre-occupational hazard (he's really, noticeably skinny in the pictures here). A time when a fresh-faced 24-year-old straight out of culinary school was yet – but about – to conquer the world.
Save for a chic, minimalist, turquoise and cream cover – each of the five-book range comes in a different shade – a new introduction, and updated nutritional information, nothing has changed in this anniversary edition, right down to the original front cover of a spotty-faced 20-something in a questionable purple aloha shirt, which can be found on page three.
In the new introduction, Jamie reasserts his original ethos, that he's setting out to help the average cook build up a "foolproof repertoire of simple, delicious and feisty recipes," while avoiding "culinary jargon and any complicated, time-consuming process that isn't justified by the end result." Admirable as ever, then, but does it stand the test of my kitchen?
The answer is a resounding yes. Jamie's genius, I've always found, is in creating maximum flavour from quick, easy-to-follow recipes. While some may find the cheeky-chappy language a tad jarring, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone denying the recipes work. Most here are barely longer than a paragraph and rarely do they spill onto the following page.
The quest to help create "bloody great food to have at home with friends and family" sounds very Italian, and it's from Italy that Oliver has always taken the biggest inspiration (not surprising since he spent his early days grafting at Michelin-starred finishing school River Café and Carluccio's when it was cool).
A suggested basic larder is a flexitarian's dream – you'll be stocking up on olives, cannellini beans and sun-dried tomatoes in no time – and the whole book is very Med diet long before wellness was a thing. (In truth, it hasn't dated at all, though in researching this book I came across a delightful clip of Jamie very earnestly explaining the very exotic-sounding pancetta, see video above.)
My testing focused on the Italian recipes because a) Jamie likes Italian food and b) I like Italian food. How good can a basic minestrone really be? Is making fresh tagliatelle worth the effort? Do you really need to cook your fish in a two-kilo salt crust? And is Jamie, ever the enthusiast, able to properly explain how to make bread, which requires rather more accuracy than dollops, glugs and a "chuck-it-all-in" mentality?
Despite that long larder list, there's nothing Ottolenghi about this – it's 2019, and you can pretty much find anything here. The only ingredients I couldn't easily source were 'tipo 00' flour, a fine Italian flour used for pizza and pasta, though eventually, at fourth calling, I found a rather expensive pack at a local Italian deli; and the suggested salt-cooked fish, John Dory or mullet, weren't available at the local fishmonger, though bream, also recommended, was.
The recipes: what I tried and how they turned out
I started with the toughest of all: bread. Despite having made well over 100 Jamie recipes in the past, I'd never tried one of his breads. The aforementioned quibbles over sourcing the right flour notwithstanding, I eventually made a pretty nice focaccia – though only at the second attempt.
It's a fairly simple bread, which builds on the foundation of a basic bread recipe on the previous page (this means lots of back and forth, a little tedious). My mistake was in letting the first attempt rise to way beyond the height of a regular focaccia, which rendered it chewy and undercooked in the middle, overdone on top. Not Jamie's fault, rather a lapse in concentration. Focaccia 2.0 was pleasingly salty and oily, the not quite as airy as I'd hoped.
Fresh pasta (pappardelle and tagliatelle with various sauces)
I once had a pasta maker. It is now broken, parts are missing, and rarely used, retired due to my growing frustration. But thanks to this recipe I now know pasta is easy as sin and the only equipment you'll need are your hands, a rolling pin and a knife.
After explaining how to make the pasta (just eggs and flour), there are ample recipes, all simple and, at least for the ones I tried, delicious. Pappardelle with sweet leeks and mascarpone was al dente, with a creamy, cheesy, salty sauce beautifully coating the pasta. Tagliatelle with baby courgettes (I used regular ones), lemon and basil was light, fresh and summery. Cover them both in parmesan and enjoy.
Fish in sea salt
I've always wanted to try cooking a whole fish covered in sea salt, but have never got round to it. In very Jamie-esque fashion, the reader is instructed to buy whatever whole fish they want and stuff it with whatever ingredients take their fancy. For the less confident, there are suggested herbs.
After shoving fennel, thyme, lemon and bay (most of which are among recommended ingredients) inside my bream, I cover the fish with 2kg of coarse salt, dampen it to encourage a crust, and bake. The salt crust method seals in the steam and moistens the flesh. The flaky meat was beautifully soft and tender, though my clumsy surgery did mean a little too much salt came in contact with the flesh. Still, it was tasty and fun.
More toolkit than recipe, the reader is encouraged to basically use any leftover veg they have – it's one of those Italian dishes that every family will make in their own way, with whatever is in season. So here's minestrone al Morrissy:
I fried a little pancetta (to replace ham stock, a Jamie suggestion), with onion, garlic, carrot, celery and fennel, all diced to roughly centimetre cubes. A tin of plum tomatoes was then added (I figured you wouldn't get very much flavour from British tomatoes in early April), along with leeks, courgette, garlic, rosemary, cabbage and bashed up spaghetti.
There was an incredible depth of flavour, it felt healthy yet indulgent (a little olive oil, parmesan and basil goes a long way), and the thick soup made for a filling dinner with a little crusty bread (or focaccia) for mopping. Something that can be repeated again and again, when veg is nearing passing its peak and creativity is lacking.
Under a basic 'roast leg of lamb' umbrella there are four options to choose from: rosemary and garlic, pancetta, sage and rosemary, apricot and thyme and anchovies and rosemary. I opted for the latter, intrigued by what the salty fishiness from the anchovies could add.
Cooking times are well explained, which isn't always the case for roast meat – 13 minutes per 450g plus an extra 20 should provide a nice medium crowd-pleaser. It did. The anchovies pushed far into cavities, melted into the meat and gave the gravy a light fishiness which was delicious.
Not much to fault here, and it's easy to see why Jamie rose to stardom. Most of the recipes are incredibly simple and well explained, there's a good mix of dishes, plenty of which seem very current even today.