Naked truth on PLANK­ING

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - TV Guide - - Cover Story -

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.

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