The cook’s cook Jack Monroe on Jamie Oliver
One of the only books I had as a single mum on the dole was 30 Minute Meals. I had bought a copy at my local Waterstones while I was still working at the fire brigade. It jumped out at me. At the time, cookbooks were glossy, beautiful, aspirational, whereas this was: “Look, you can do this in half an hour or less, what are you waiting for?” And I thought, “All right, I’ll give it a go.”
I’ve riffed off his recipes so often. All the pastas, the quick pizza doughs, the mushroom risotto, tomato soup, the curries. I’d flick through the book, knocking out ingredients I didn’t have and changing them to fit whatever
I could afford at the time. It is a comforting classic.
The puttanesca recipe is still one of my favourites. When I first read it, I’d never heard of the dish before. Jamie uses fresh tomatoes, anchovies and capers, but I thought, I can make that with tinned stuff. I put it all together and it was amazing; it didn’t taste like I was eating “poor person food”. There’s such a stigma around what people in dire financial circustances can eat. And really it was just a tin of tomatoes, a tin of fish, some lemon juice, salt and pepper. But it tasted like actual great food. It’s cropped up again and again in my own books, in various guises.
All Jamie’s early stuff was cheeky but encouraging. It’s how I try to communicate with my readers now: simple, chatty, bish bash bosh, come-into-my-kitchen banter. And you can’t take away from what an impact that had on people’s cooking. It was revolutionary.
I don’t know if it’s because he started out in a pub, or that he’s worked in kitchens, or that he is also raising a family, but he meets it from every possible angle.
His recipes are brilliant. I’ve never made one that hasn’t worked. He’s not prescriptive or obsessive. To be sure, he loves what he loves, and always places a great emphasis on good-quality ingredients, but there’s no condescending undertone that if you don’t have this ingredient, you can’t make this great recipe. And that instils great confidence in a cook. There’s real skill in being able to give people both a set of instructions and the freedom to do whatever they want.
Confidence is important. Lots of people don’t cook because they’re scared to. What I loved about Jamie Oliver’s early work was his little kitchen, the simplicity of it all. His execution might have sometimes been a little clumsy, but his basic message of cooking what you can with what you’ve got is a good one.
If I did meet him, I would love to just cook for half a day with him and see what nuggets of wisdom I could pick up. And I’d also want just to say thank you. His work has had a real impact on me. Even now, if I’m stuck for a recipe or an ingredient, I’ll go on his website and have a little poke around.
Jamie Oliver: ‘His recipes are brilliant. I’ve never made one that hasn’t worked. He’s not prescriptive, obsessive or condescending’