Back in 1999, a group of 8 friends got together for a dinner party in the Hills district of Sydney. The one thing they all had in common was that each family had welcomed their first child in February or March of the previous year. Yes, we’d all met through a new mother’s group.
Back in those days, with our babies just over a year old, not yet terrorising us as toddlers, we managed proper grown-up dinner parties – the sort where we’d take turns to host and sit down at tables with matching crockery and cutlery and glasses. Everyone would make an effort – this was us being adults again and not just parents.
Although each couple had a different style of entertaining, one thing was common – invariably it was the women who would cook (unless it was a barbecue) and the men who’d deal with drinks etc, appearing only in the kitchen to help with the serving up.
Then something changed. A brash and cheeky twenty-something Essex boy slid down a spiral staircase from his poky London flat and onto our TV screens.
In the days before social media and smartphones, this show was different – the camera work was shaky and rather than the host talking down the lens of the camera, he talked to an unseen woman asking questions of him. (As an aside, apparently, this was because he was rubbish on camera in those days.)
The food was also different. It was stripped back, served on plates that didn’t match, cooked in a tiny kitchen, the type of food you prepared by getting your hands stuck into it, the type of food you ate in the same way. It was simple, it was good, and suddenly it was also cool for men to cook. (Disclaimer, my husband never really cared whether it was cool or not.) It was food without pretension, without fuss and without anything unnecessary. It was naked food and the presenter was Jamie Oliver, The Naked Chef.
I remember buying that first cookbook almost as soon as it came out and there are recipes I still cook from it. His pastry, pizza and pasta recipes are staples, his chocolate tart something that is requested fairly regularly, and his chickpea and leek soup is a winter must-have.
At this dinner party though, my friends had also bought the book and our dinner was cooked completely from it. I can’t remember everything we had, although I know that the baby spinach, fresh pea and feta salad featured. Little loaves were cooked in mini terracotta flowerpots, salads of mixed leaves were strewn on over-sized plates, and, for the first time in our little group, the husband was the cook. If I recall it correctly I think they might have even played the soundtrack from the series. That’s right, there was a Naked Chef Playlist – or CD as it was in those days. It’s available on Spotify now, in case you’re interested.
Jamie Oliver is, of course, so much more than a chef these days and he’s used his fame to do so much more than sell cookbooks; although he has sold more than 45million of them – not bad for a boy with dyslexia – and is the UK’s highest-selling non-fiction author. He’s absolutely put his energy into causes that he passionately believes in – and while he has his detractors, I’m not one of them.
Without being prescriptive, through his optimistic, chatty, bish-bosh approach Jamie made us more confident in the kitchen – he certainly helped me to be a more creative cook. There’s no condescension, he really does believe that anyone on any budget can cook a meal with just a few ingredients and basic equipment – maximum flavour with a minimum of effort.
And it all started 20 years ago. Sadly (especially for the employees involved) this 20-year anniversary has been marred by the closure of his restaurants, but to concentrate on that is to take away from his other achievements. Besides, the ethos of the restaurants was a sound one – to create mid-priced restaurants with menus comprised from sustainably sourced produce, cooked and served by staff that were fairly paid – and it worked for a time.
The book that started it all – The Naked Chef – is as relevant today as it was in 1999. My copy is dog-eared and opens automatically to those pages I use the most. If I shake it flour comes out – and that’s exactly how it should be.
Ok, a recipe:
Chickpea and Leek Soup
What you need:
- 340g chickpeas, soaked overnight
- 1 medium potato, peeled
- 5 medium leeks, cleaned, trimmed and sliced finely
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Knob of butter
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced or grated
- 850ml chicken or vegetable stock
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Parmesan cheese, grated, for scattering over the top
- Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
What you do with it:
- Rinse the soaked chickpeas, cover with water and cook with the potato until tender – this should take about an hour.
- Warm a heavy bottomed pan, add the oil and the butter, the leeks, garlic and a good pinch of salt. Sweat these gently until tender.
- Add the drained chickpeas and potato and cook for a minute
- Add about 2/3rds of the stock and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Now you have a decision to make – pop it all in a blender and blitz until smooth or puree half and leave the other half whole. I usually just use the stick blender so there’s some smooth and some chunky. Add extra stock as needed, check the seasoning and serve with parmesan, a grinding of pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.