Editor’s Note: Anna Sulan Masing is a writer, editor and academic based in London, with a focus on food and drink, she explores issues around identity, equality and sustainability. She is editor in chief of Cheese magazine and Sourced Journeys, and co-host of the podcast At The Table. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s recent Sunday Times interview in which he said he has “teams of cultural appropriation specialists” to make sure he doesn’t get into hot water over his recipes, has caused a stir – as the topic of cultural appropriation always does.
The public reaction was swift. We saw the usual, tired responses throwing around the word “woke,” as if it is an army of people flying a woke banner, hellbent on destruction. There was an all-caps Twitter post about “HOW SICKENING THAT WE HAVE TO DO THIS IN OUR COUNTRY.” This was tempered with amusement elsewhere that a grown man, an expert in his field, would need to be monitored for being a bit insensitive. And that he required not one, but teams, plural, to stop him from calling a recipe Empire Chicken (as he did in 2012).
Jamie Oliver is two things: a person, but also a business. What is pervasive though, and probably the key to why his comments got such a huge response, is this idea that he is an individual that is doing it all. It is an identity that is performed with precision in The Sunday Times article (“I still get the sense of a one-man Jamie juggernaut,” writes interviewer Laura Pullman).
Who is Jamie Oliver? The man, the myth, the well-oiled machine of a cookbook and recipe empire. Like every generation since the release of The Naked Chef, I went off to university with a Jamie Oliver cookbook under my arm. I have a few of his books and find them useful – reliable recipes (tried by a team of recipe testers), enticing photos (created by a team of photographers and stylists), easy to navigate instructions (honed by a team of designers and editors).
There are 29 different types of chocolate cakes, 214 ways to cook eggs and 51 roast chicken recipes on his website alone. Even a deep love for Sunday lunch could not come up with that many variations without some help. And so, like any business that creates content, there will be editors, fact-checkers and researchers. These teams of “cultural appropriation specialists” are just another editorial team. The Jamie Oliver empire is run by many.
Jamie Oliver, the brand, is the everyday lad who grew up in front of the nation’s eyes – from carefree Vespa riding to tackling school lunches and sugar in drinks. The concept that he has a team of cultural advisers seems a natural evolution of simply growing up. I am sure that Oliver, like most people, doesn’t want to upset people, and when faced with criticism has tried to find ways to address the situation. And he is doing it in the very unremarkable way of gathering a team to help.
But this isn’t just about having a specialist advisory team – it is about the topic of cultural appropriation. In 2018, Oliver was criticized for a recipe called “punchy jerk rice,” when jerk marinade is specific to meat. And in 2014, he faced backlash over his “jollof rice” recipe which contained many elements not found in the dish. Indeed, author Reni Eddo-Lodge tweeted that: “Jamie Oliver’s jollof rice hurts my soul.” In these cases, Oliver is both appropriating dishes, and inaccurately conveying their essence.
Oliver is not the only celebrity chef to find himself in hot water over cultural appropriation, as Gordon Ramsay discovered when his “Asian Eating House” Lucky Cat opened in London in 2019. And that’s why this topic is worth a little more investigation when talking about Oliver specifically, and in general when thinking about celebrity chefs.
The issue central to cultural appropriation is power. Therefore, no matter how many people Oliver is surrounded by, he is always going to be veering into the arena of cultural appropriation. He can, as can anyone, cook whatever cuisine he wants to. He can do this with respect, with research and with correct accreditation (which in the recipe world includes naming a dish correctly). But when someone is making money, or gaining recognition and kudos, off the back of something that is not their own – and therefore off others’ work, histories, talents, techniques, culture – that is an appropriation. The teams that Oliver has, to watch out for cultural faux pas, are presumably non-White. In which case the responsibility of a White chef’s professional conduct is left to the shoulders of brown and Black people; an appropriation of knowledge, albeit one that is attached to a salary or consultancy fee.
If we lived in a world where there were Chinese chefs, Black Caribbean chefs, Sri Lankan chefs all with the same footing and cookbook empire as Oliver, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But we aren’t, and as Oliver points out in the Sunday Times article, he is a phenomenon – very few people sell the number of books he does. Why is that? Foods from the Global South are not considered with the same value as the Global North, unless touched by a White hand – aka a Jamie Oliver. He brings perceived value and accessibility to these foods.
Cultural appropriation is also about the multiplicity of stories. There are many Italian chefs winning global awards and talking about their grandmother’s handmade pasta/ragu/bread made in their kitchen/country house/dining room table, that we don’t think a twist on a lasagna recipe is in any way authentic. And we will still pay good money to eat at a fancy Italian restaurant, even if our non-Italian mothers make an excellent carbonara. We know that there are many, many ways to cook, eat and be Italian.
We don’t have many stories from award-winning Jamaican chefs telling us the personal and familial variations of jerk, and the labor of love and the heartbreaking history of these recipes. We do have 11 recipes on Oliver’s website with “jerk” in the title. Therefore, bearing in mind the size of his readership, the predominant story of jerk (one of escaped enslaved people and Indigenous knowledge) is told to a wide audience by one Jamie Oliver, as a list of ingredients and a method to put them together. Recipes devoid of context.
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The path that Yotam Ottolenghi is on seems a possible road to take. He openly co-authors books and has a diverse group of chefs that have benefited from their collaborations with him, and are now seeing successes on their own – Goh Helen, Ixta Belfrage, Ramael Scully, to name a few. Maybe this is what Jamie Oliver is looking to achieve with his new show, give exposure to new voices in cooking. But until his brand is not all about the lovable lad, the boy-done-good – the individual – there is no room to truly share space, and all we are left with is faceless teams on hand to explain that “Empire Chicken” is a truly terrible idea.