Naked truth on PLANKING
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver ambles into the MasterChef Australia kitchen, looking slightly scruffier than his usual knockabout self, jet-lagged to the eyeballs.
It’s day five of his whirlwind tour of Australia earlier this year, and the pace is relentless.
In the past few days he’s visited his Ministry of Food project in Queensland, cooked with former premier Anna Bligh, then headed for Sydney.
Last night, he made his first visit to his Sydney restaurant, Jamie’s Italian, staying late into the night pressing the flesh with fans and foodies and staff.
You wonder how he’s standing, let alone if he should be trusted with flames and sharp implements.
But he’s as affable as ever, and when MasterChef contestants realise food royalty is in the building, the kitchen erupts with a rousing rock star welcome.
Oliver’s lopsided grin switches to full beam as contestants are told three of them have the chance to cook against him. He looks slightly embarrassed when one of them almost faints.
I was completely humbled by it
Minutes later, as the challenge begins, it’s hard to believe Oliver is functioning on sod-all sleep.
He’s setting a cracking pace, talking all the while, guiding his challengers through the basics, enthusing about the fresh produce, before the clock starts ticking on the challenge proper.
The MasterChef challengers have a 15-minute head-start on preparing Oliver’s antipasti “plank” before Oliver starts work. And once he does, it’s easy to spot the master among the apprentices, despite them having the help of MasterChef mentor Matt Moran.
The challengers frenetically slice, dice, fry and fret.
Oliver appears unhurried. He’s always in motion, but economical in his moves, a lifetime of skills on show. That said, with five minutes to go, when he hasn’t got a single finished item on his antipasti plank, you wonder if he’s dozed off.
Whether it’s enough of a chink in the armour for the hungry challengers to topple the master is revealed on Tuesday – with Oliver saying only that he wasn’t “firing on all cylinders”.
“The jet lag wasn’t too bad at that point, but I was coming out of a bad cold,” Oliver confesses. “I knew what I was doing. It probably didn’t look like it with five minutes to go, but I knew everything was coming together.”
Oliver says he jumped at the chance to join the Australian version of the show – which he prefers to the British version “because it takes it to a different level” – but is still reeling from the welcome he got from contestants.
“I was completely humbled by it,” he says.
As a chef, campaigner, author, businessman and television star, celebrity is something he’s used to – but he never takes it for granted. “I stay grounded,” he says. “I still have the same friends I had 30 years ago, and nearly every weekend the whole family just escapes to our farmhouse in Essex and we close the door on the working week.”
Oliver’s easy approach has gained him accolades worldwide, but he admits it’s the simple things that matter most.
“I’d like to think my way of cooking can inspire people to try recipes at home without feeling daunted,” he says.
And there are times even the master can still feel like an apprentice.
Oliver may have produced 13 best- selling cookbooks, changed the way the UK and the world eats with his Ministry of Food and Feed Me Better campaigns and cooked for President Obama, but it’s still the advice and feedback from his mentor – famed Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo – that matters most.
“He’s my mentor and he works closely with me on all the Jamie’s Italian recipes,” Oliver says. “He has an incredible feel for what tastes right.”
Viewers will see on Tuesday if disaster strikes in the MasterChef kitchen, but even if it does, it probably won’t be as painful as what Oliver names as his greatest cooking tragedy.
“There’s a well- documented mishap involving Valentine’s Day and some scalding in an intimate place,” he confesses.
Suffice to say the man who made his name as The Naked Chef no longer cooks in the buff since cooking a Valentine’s Day meal for his wife, opening the oven door, and steaming more than the sea bass that was on the menu.