Jamie Oliver has a lot to be pleased about now that the government has created the sugar tax he's long been campaigning for. His celebration might have seemed annoying, but are you allowed to be annoyed at Jamie Oliver, what with all the good he's done, for the kids and that? Or is it fine because he's so awful? To come to some sort of conclusion, VICE's Sam Wolfson and Joel Golby debate the big question of our age: is Jamie Oliver the worst?
Sam Wolfson: On the spectrum of cool, Jamie Oliver ranks somewhere just below Absolute Radio and above the Ben Shepard gameshow Tipping Point. He has become the most successful chef in Britain, not through experimentation or innovation, but through remorseless accessibility.
In the late 90s, this involved little more than travelling places by Vespa, listening to Feeder and dispensing with the measuring apparatus that traditionally helps you be good at cooking. I cannot defend this Jamie Oliver.
But something about his inoffensiveness allowed him to become an incredibly effective activist, reminiscent of Jesus, whose whole thing was being totally chill and the opposite of offensive in any way.
He's worked tirelessly to make British kids eat healthier, to get fresher food to people on low incomes, to erase the rot off junk food in the UK and to improve education for excluded young people. He doesn't, as many people assume, do this from some high upon tower, patronising the plebs. On Jamie's School Dinners, Jamie's Ministry of Food and Jamie's Dream School he works patiently with people, understanding their concerns about change, and has time and time again been incredibly effective in moving people and governments to make life-changing alterations. School dinners are healthier, we now have a sugar tax and both the British and Australian governments have helped fund his Ministry of Food centres, which use his techniques to get people into healthy cooking. Those kids who were about to get kicked out of school and went to his weird celebrity academy thing where Cherie Blair taught law nearly all went back into education or employment after the show ended.
He didn't have to do that; he could have just become Gordon Ramsay and opened 27 steak restaurants per minute in America. But Oliver has really made something of his position, and for that I feel like he deserves a break.
Joel: No. You're close, but no. Because I can sense you want to hate Oliver. You're close to understanding the duality of the man, and falling into a common trap along the way. This is the thing: a lot of people, when they step up to hate Jamie Oliver, get confused, wobble on the home plate and fuck the landing – they hate the icon, not the man; the chef, not the person who says "pukka" a lot. This is wrong. As a seasoned Jamie Oliver disliker, I can see and correct these rookie mistakes from afar. Come with me – let me loop my hands around you, let me curve the clay of your hatred, Ghost-like, into something porcelain and real:
You need to understand that Jamie Oliver is two men at once. One half of Jamie Oliver is a man who legitimately still thinks beaded surfer-style necklaces are alright; another is a wholesome celebrity chef who cares truly about the health of your family. You need to discount the chef, thin him out in the wash. The nugget of gold we want to blaze with fury must be washed of his sand.
This is where people went wrong when he turned up last week, on a moped, outside Parliament, arms in the air in celebration, bouncing from foot to foot like a toddler on a Ribena high: this is a man who has identified a very real source of additional, empty sugar in children's diets; has rallied to have it taxed at a higher rate as a way of pushing big soda into addressing their recipes; a man who wants you and your children to live long lives with strong teeth. You cannot hate that man and the good that he does. You cannot have a go at him. The Jamie Oliver who cares about you is a perfect angel – a martyr, almost; a saint willing to die in battle on a hill for your right to live a long and happy life. He doesn't want your hard Rotherham mum passing you chip cobs through the grated fence of your school. He wants you to live past 45.
Unfortunately, this man inhabits the same body as one who thinks Toploader are good.
And so to the conundrum: which strand of Oliver to hate? In a way, you have to hate all of him – the core of the warm-hearted chef is wrapped in threads of the man who made this full-body cringe of a video starring Ed Sheeran, Alesha Dixon, the dying gasps of Paul McCartney's credibility and every single size-L checkered shirt Fat Face has ever stocked.
You cannot respect one half of Jamie Oliver without acknowledging the dick-headery of the other. You cannot like a man who made a rap video with Ed Sheeran.
Sam: But that's the problem: his ability to do good for our nation's nutrition is not a coincidental sideshow to him being Tim Lovejoy with an overbite. It's because of his uncool, dad-like qualities that he's able to soothe our unique culinary maladies. We're greedy. We want Keith Floyd being hilariously chauvinistic on a boat while cooking something in three litres of butter. We want Marco Pierre White losing his mind over an incorrectly filleted bit of swordfish. But what we need is someone to show us how to rub a bit of allspice into some chicken thighs so they don't taste like Playmobil.
This is a country where children eat nondescript carbohydrate shaped into smiley faces for their lunch. Where delicacies include sausage meat wrapped in flavourless gelatine wrapped in breadcrumbs, and tinned tuna and sweetcorn squidged onto white bread. Where our national dish, our pride and joy, The Roast, basically means sticking a whole bit of meat in an oven for three hours, boiling some vegetables and then layering the whole thing in dehydrated flavour granules and boiling water.
We need to walk before we can run, and Oliver is the chef equivalent of one of those push-along strollers that toddlers use. He is the man for the Tesco Metro generation, the people who never have more than one meal's worth of stuff in their fridge. His 30 and 15-minute meal series gently introduced the idea of nice, shared salads and properly seasoned rare meat under the sneaky guise of "fast food". He has accepted that times are bleak – that most of us don't have all weekend to roast a pheasant – and he is making the best of that with his "Soy-Baked Salmon with Zingy Salsa" and his "Kinda Sausage Cassoulet".
Think of Jamie Oliver as Stansted airport. Not classy, not charming, not somewhere you'd ever go if you had the choice, but somewhere you can get a decent sandwich, and something you're just going to have to put up with if you want to have a cheap flight to Marbella/not watch our children die of obesity.
Joel: You are close to convincing me – so close. But you have made a fatal mistake: you have forgotten about the "Lamb Curry Song":
Look at that. The weakest clapalong in human history. A cod-Caribbean accent saying "whack it in". The words "my friend ginger" sung without irony. The intense and exhausting Oliver drum solo. The way he's dressed like that one guy who bought a whiteboard to hang above his bed to document how many girls he shagged in fresher's week, but meekly has to take it down four months later when the only thing drawn on it is a permanent marker cock. This is the true demon that lives within Jamie Oliver's chef-lad body. A personality vacuum who thinks capers are "cheeky".
What makes the line "my friend ginger" so pertinent is the fact that, by all accounts, Jamie Oliver doesn't have any mates. I remember reading an interview with him in Men's Health circa 2009 where he admitted as much, saying he didn't really have any idea of what it was like to go to the pub with the lads because his wife and kids are his only friends. Nobody has ever gone on record as being Jamie Oliver's mate. Nobody has gone public and said, "I am friends with this man." He exists in a friendship vacuum. His Facebook account is sending Candy Crush invites to no one. Is he so unbearable that no human being other than the ones who absolutely have to can bear to hang out with him?
It almost makes you feel sorry for him, doesn't it? Jamie Oliver, a lonely old lion, roaring to no one on an abandoned savannah, drumming alone in his special little drumming room, calling the members of Toploader up one-by-one and getting the cancelled number dial tone, stripped to the waist now, saying "nice one, dude!" into a full-length mirror. That's a little twinge of sympathy, wracking through your body, isn't it? Only, you're forgetting the "Lamb Curry Song".
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