When I first saw Emmanuele Beart in Mission: Impossible I immediately thought of Jamie Oliver. She didn't look like a typical French actress. Rather, she resembled a Hollywood starlet who'd been surgically-enhanced to make herself look like a French actress. That is to say, she seemed fake even though she was the real McCoy. The same is true of Jamie Oliver. He appears to be an ex-public school boy trying to pass himself off as a bit of a lad--much like Guy Ritchie--yet in reality he was brought up in Essex, his parents own a pub and he left school at 16.
At first, the fact that he was such a caricature of a cheeky chappy worked to his advantage. In contrast to all the other celebrity chefs, he was down-to-earth and unpretentious, a "diamond geezer", as he might put it. In fairly short order, however, his lovable cockney routine got very tired. He was less like an informal version of Nigel Slater than a younger, more irritating version of Nigel Kennedy. Even if he was 100% genuine, he seemed completely inauthentic.
That's where Fifteen comes in. As an exercise in re-branding, Fifteen is a PR masterstroke. I'm not talking about the fact that it enables Jamie to present himself as a public-spirited humanitarian, anxious to "give something back". That's just a fig leaf. What's great about Fifteen--both the restaurant and the accompanying TV series on Channel Four--is that it provides Jamie with a perfect excuse to be a bit of a bastard. He can admonish and chastise his trainee chefs because, after all, it's for their own good. From being the man everyone loved to hate, Jamie has transformed himself into a master of tough love. He no longer seems like this annoying little puppy, over-anxious to be petted and taken for walks. Suddenly, he's a grown up.
Is the restaurant real, though? Or is it just a cleverly-constructed façade designed by Jamie's team of TV producers, press agents, image consultants, etc? This answer is that, like the man himself, it's both. It serves real food and there's a real waiting list to get a table--three months at last count--yet there's something weirdly inauthentic about it. I kept turning round, hoping to catch a Channel Four cameraman darting behind a pillar. Almost without exception, the customers are day-trippers anxious to sneak a peak at a place they've only seen on telly. They look about in wonder, not quite believing they're there, as if they'd stumbled across a real-life version of the Bull, the fictional pub in The Archers. Fifteen isn't located in Shoreditch, as Channel Four would have us believe. Rather, it's in Jamieland.
So what's the food like in this restaurant equivalent of Madam Tussaud's? Pretty good, as a matter of fact. I had a crab and linguini starter that would have passed muster in one of Gordon Ramsay's establishments followed by an excellent fillet of beef poached in Barossa Merlot. But then again it wasn't cooked by any of the trainees Jamie's supposedly got working in the kitchen. On the day I was there, only three of the trainees were in situ. The rest had gone on a fact-finding trip to Chiantishire. Far from being an amateurish, charitable affair, Fifteen is a professionally-run restaurant with properly qualified chefs. Yet it's not a compete con job. When I asked the Manager to tell me exactly who had cooked the meals my friend and I had just eaten, he said that one of the trainees "might have" produced my companion's starter.
On balance, I quite enjoyed my trip to Jamieland. The staff were "triffic", the food was "blindin'" and it was cheaper than a trip to Florida--but only just. On the strength of its success, I recommend that Carlton build a real Crossroads Motel and the BBC set up a genuine pub called the Queen Vic. With a bit of luck, they can even get Jamie's parents to run it.