Why Jamie's book sold like hot cakes
Published 29/12/2010 | 05:00
Jamie Oliver is just an ordinary bloke, or so he would have us believe. Married to the lovely Jools. Rides around on his Vespa. Knows all the Billingsgate stall holders by name. Loves a pint and a pie with his mates. Says "lovely-jubbly" a lot.
While all that is true, it's not the full story. Yes, Jamie is ordinary, but he's extraordinary too.
His latest book, 30-Minute Meals, is a publishing phenomenon. By the New Year, publishers Penguin expect it will have sold 1.2 million copies in the UK.
Already, it is the biggest-selling cookery book in publishing history, overtaking How To Cook (Book 1) by Delia Smith, which held top spot for the last 12 years.
It has transcended the cookery genre and gone mainstream: it's now the fastest-selling non-fiction book ever.
In the entire publishing industry, only J K Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, has sold more books more quickly.
"30-Minute Meals has sold 50pc more than any other of Jamie's books in Ireland," confirms Michael McLoughlin of Penguin Ireland.
It's expected that over 50,000 Irish readers will have snapped it up before the New Year.
"It's jumping off the shelves," says Liz Meldon of the independent Rathgar Bookshop. "And it's selling to all ages too."
So what's the big deal? Why is it that anyone who ever so much as boiled an egg probably got a copy of 30-Minute Meals for Christmas?
Well, first of all, Jamie Oliver is already a kind of secular saint. In fact, such is his stature that the "Oliver" is now redundant. Like Elvis, he is recognised by his first name alone.
He runs a charity restaurant chain (Fifteen, with premises in London, Cornwall and Amsterdam), persuaded the UK government to improve its school dinners and tried to convince the residents of Huntingdon, West Virginia to kick their fast-food habit.
The TV series based on these projects (Jamie's Kitchen, Jamie's School Dinners and Jamie's Food Revolution) shone with big-hearted optimism.
In January, he will try to persuade kids who left school with no qualifications (as he did) to give education another try in a series entitled Dream School.
"All I want to do is put a bit back because I have been given so much," he says. "It's important, if you make a living out of public goodwill, to give something back."
His previous books -- the extensive list includes The Naked Chef, The Ministry of Food, Jamie at Home, Jamie's America, Jamie's Italy and Jamie Does Spain -- have established him as a purveyor of simple, trustworthy recipes.
He doesn't use fancy ingredients or high-falutin' language. There is little mention of "jus" or "remoulade" in Jamie-world; it's a glug of this and a good handful of that.
And he achieved something Fanny Cradock, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson couldn't: he brought blokes back into the kitchen.
Still, none of this explains the publishing wonder that is 30-Minute Meals. Its success goes beyond mere Jamie-ness. It taps into the spirit of the times in a way that few other books manage.
Jamie established his credentials as a no-fuss chef early on, says chef and writer Domini Kemp, so he's earned our trust.
"Because he never seemed to venture off to work in three-star Michelin restaurants his whole ethos is more relaxed, compared to, say, Gordon Ramsay.
"As a result, when he says that his book is full of 30-minute recipes, we believe him. But when the three-star boys do 'simple', it never seems as genuine," she adds.
"Jamie is simply the best in the business," says Penguin's Michael McLoughlin, who has accompanied Jamie on publicity tours.
"He's the same off-screen as on. He's full of ideas. He's the real deal. His book has hit the zeitgeist wave. It's not posh, it's not difficult, it's perfect for austerity Ireland."
Restaurant critic and food broadcaster Aingeala Flannery points out that many home cooks have grown up with Jamie.
"They have gone from their twenties to their thirties with him. His interests and concerns reflect theirs -- cool food for friends 10 years ago has evolved into healthy eating for today's young families.
"Initially, his matey, mockney approach didn't work for me," adds Aingeala, "but the longer he's stuck around, the more I've come to like him. Crucially, his social conscience appears to be genuine -- he puts his money where his mouth is."
Nutritionist and cookery teacher Dee Daly reckons Jamie is so popular with men because "he cooks food that they generally want to eat. It's big on flavour".
Top chefs are snobby about Jamie, says Dee, dismissing him as a bit basic.
"It can be trendy to slag him off, but there is a lot of snobbery around food and I think he has done more than anyone to get people to give cooking a try.
"I'm more in the Jamie camp than the 'cheffy' chefs camp. I think anyone can cook in the same way that anyone can learn to drive. You might not end up being a Michelin-star chef, but you will be able to put tasty, wholesome food on the table," says Dee.
"Who wants to eat Michelin-star food every night of the week? That's why we have restaurants."