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"I never expected this, you know?" Jamie Oliver, the host of England's wildly popular The Naked Chef cooking show, said. "I never expected to be on TV. Then the books, the restaurant, the travel..." It was 7:30 in the morning, or some barbaric hour like that, and Oliver had been pulling 18-hour days since he arrived in New York the week before to tape a Christmas special. But he was remarkably relaxed, sitting loose-limbed in an armchair as though he'd been poured there, his trademark blond tousle hinting even more of the bedroom than usual. "It's all really about the food..."

That statement was a perfect bridge between publicity and fact. After all, that's Oliver's Naked Chef persona right there: He is billed as the regular bloke's TV chef—young Britain's own affable laddo of the culinary arts. He never wanted to be a celebrity, but it's all a bit of a laugh, innit?—and anyway, it's the food that's important. You get the impression he's said that sort of thing a thousand times—but that each time he says it, he means it.

Oliver has been called a culinary rock star because of his looks and slangy, Cockney delivery, and the cinema verité feel of his show (the cooking segments are filmed at his house in London, in real time with a handheld camera and a cool, Britpop sound track)—and also because of his quick ascent into celebrity. In 1998, he was a senior sous-chef at London's River Cafe when he appeared in a documentary on the restaurant. The day after it aired, the telegenic Oliver found himself blizzarded with offers from TV producers, and the smash BBC series that resulted has since burgeoned into an empire. Oliver's second cookbook is out in the United Kingdom (his first recently came out in America), and he holds gigs as a restaurant consultant, a columnist for the Saturday Times of London and a contributing editor at British GQ. He took over the kitchen at Monte's, a private club in London, in July. Most recently, his show debuted in the U.S. on the Food Network in November. Plus, Oliver—and there are no doubt people who hate him for this—is only 25.

His youthful energy came in handy for his whirlwind Manhattan itinerary. In a single day, he managed to make the rounds of the Today show, Live with Regis and National Public Radio, do an Us Weekly photo shoot and sit for an interview with the Associated Press. For the week he was here, it seemed like half the people you saw on the street were Jamie Oliver, rushing in every direction at once. Point a camera and there he'd be, smiling his lopsided grin in the center of the frame. Switch on a radio and you'd hear his cool, slightly lispy voice saying, "I never expected this, you know...?"

But even on this full-speed tour of New York, he took time to check out the food scene, with meals at Babbo, Ping's and Chicama. And he cooked for a party his book editor Will Schwalbe threw in his honor at the loft of designer Marco Pasanella. There it was the clearest that beyond the hype, Oliver really is all about the food. That evening he made dishes that capture his Naked Chef style—northern Italian, reduced, as the name indicates, to the essentials. His farfalle with Savoy cabbage and pancetta was not masked by a complex sauce. His grilled pork chops he simply marinated and livened up with a minted bread sauce.

That's not to say that Oliver didn't also charm the guests, who included author Naomi Wolf and film producer Lisa Cortes. Oliver happily talked about anything—his preferences in Italian motor scooters, playing drums in his band Scarlet Division. But he really lit up when the conversation came around to food—Italian charcuterie, his experience eating "cod's bollocks" at a Japanese banquet ("Awful, claggy stuff—stuck to the roof of me mouth"), how to pick the proper polenta for the biscuits he served with chocolate pots for dessert. As Schwalbe says, "Jamie's a bit messianic. He doesn't want people to be scared of good food." But Oliver is also grounded. As he explains, "The difference between other cooking shows and The Naked Chef is like Beethoven versus Nirvana...Nah, wait, that's a stupid analogy." Or maybe not. Nirvana's message, much like Oliver's, was that art is something ordinary people should create, not just consume. And that's something food and music fans can agree on.

Gavin McNett is young America's laddo of the literary arts.

Published February 2001
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