Here's my theory: everyone has a cook in their life – the person whose recipe you'll turn to if you want to cook a great lasagne or fish pie. Mine is Jamie Oliver and I've kind of grown up with him.
Last weekend, I was rifling through my cookbooks, trying to find the recipe for a chilli. I came across a signed copy of The Naked Chef, dusty with flour and ring-stained with coffee. I'd not picked it up for years, although it was significant, as it was the first cookbook that had inspired me to learn to cook. It was the late nineties when I bought it; Jamie was just starting out and I’d found myself at his book launch.
And there started my slow-burner love affair with the chef. As I grew up, so did the things I cooked. His recipes are like bookmarks to my life. Moving into my first house with my boyfriend, we made his Perfect Lasagne. During my years with young kids, I swore by his Pasta With Ragu. And I made his Winter Bombe the first year I cooked Christmas dinner for the in-laws.
And that same recipe for the bombe – scary to look at, bloody easy to make – you can find in his new cookbook, a compilation of his greatest festive hits over the years. It's the reason I've been asked along to interview him today.
"So, you obviously like Christmas?" I ask as we settle down to chat.
"God, yes, love it! All the planning. I have a big chalkboard in the kitchen to write stuff down on, as there's so much to remember. Like ice – I need a lot of ice because I fill my kitchen sink with it. It's where I put all my beer and wine...”
I ask him if he has a lot of people round for Christmas. “Yeah, normally, though this year we’ve decided not to do such a big thing. It's going to be just me, Jools, the kids and the new baby – seven of us, seven! We’re going to have everyone round for Boxing Day instead and do a buffet lunch. It’s going to be different this year; dunno what it’s going to be like, but we’ll have to see.”
And you’ll take charge of the cooking, obviously? “Yeah, it’s really not that I mind Jools getting in there and doing stuff, but I just love cooking...”
Surely Jools can get in the kitchen some of the time? “Oh, yes, of course, and she’s a demon at the kids’ food, although, oh God, there’s one thing that that pisses me off...”
And that is?
I see a twinkle in his eye: “She’s always cutting out recipes from magazines and sticking them on the bloody board. I wouldn’t mind, but they’re always recipes from other people! I mean honestly! Obviously, they aren’t as good as mine!”
And what about the washing-up? Do you do that, too? Or is that Jools’ responsibility?
“No, I don’t wash up. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not for want of trying. I used to years ago, but Jools is so bloody hygienic… She’s like...peooooow, kapowwwww...boooshhhh, sandpaper everything clean. I’m never up to her standards. I used to do the dishes and then she went in and washed them up again after me…”
We chat about how easy it is to fall in the habit of taking responsibility for certain things, how we all do it, especially at Christmas, and how things have changed for the better on the domestic front over the years: “I talk to loads of the public every day and I’ve seen it happening. Years ago, in The Naked Chef days, women would come back after a hard day at work and the blokes would come in and ask them, ‘What’s for tea?’ and these girls would point to the TV and say, ‘See that hyperactive little blonde shit, right there? Be more like him, please. Get your arse in the kitchen. I’m not cooking tonight – you can!’”
So, if the Christmas chores are split, do the Olivers have any Christmas family traditions they do together? “Er," he says scratching his head, "um, oh God, I wish Jools was here; she'd remember... We always go as a family to buy the tree – and Jools always feels sorry for the crappy spindly one in the corner and there I am, trying to persuade her that the big fat bushy tree is better. And we always have to sit in the same place at the dinner table.”
And what about the kids?
“Well, obviously we always put something out for Santa. But you know, being Jamie Oliver," <he says this with an ironic eye roll>, "I *do* have to lay on something a bit more than mince pie. You know, something fancy like an amuse-bouche with all the extra trimmings…”
I mention that his annual food special is a Christmas tradition in our house and he tells me how 14 million people go to his website for Christmas recipes and how he and his team really try to listen and take everyone into account: “Christmas is so personal, you know – everyone does it differently, like some Italian friends of mine always have fish, some people will do a curry and a turkey.”
“But the essence is that it’s all the same – it’s all about coming together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Neither would we, Jamie. Neither would we.
Christmas dinner troubleshooting by Jamie
I asked Jamie “for a friend”...
How do you get EVERYTHING HOT TO THE TABLE AT ONCE?
“Oh, I’m the worst at this, too! The trick is to make sure you plan it. Do lots in preparation and freeze ahead. Do loads of stuff you can do ahead, so you don't have to do too much on the day.”
AND, IF YOU WERE VERY SILLY, AND DIDN’T FOLLOW A JAMIE RECIPE TO COOK YOUR TURKEY AND IT ENDED UP BEING DRY AS A BONE?
“Well, first of all, I think you should pour yourself a drink. Then add some liquid to your gravy and give your meat a lick of it. People are scared of undercooking turkey and go the other way and overcook them, but it’s not hard – you just have to get the timings right. Work back from when you want to eat. You need two hours’ resting, the right ratio of weight to cooking time – and make sure you take the turkey out of the fridge an hour before you put it in the oven. It needs to be room temp”
WHAT'S THE secret to Christmas ENTERTAINING?
“Delegate to guests – if you think you need to, show them a recipe and ask them to follow it. Cocktails are a great icebreaker (especially if you have a tricky guest coming) and you can make them ahead; all you need is a big jug and plenty of ice. And, finally, turn your kitchen into a restaurant kitchen. What I mean is clear all that clutter you’ve got on your worktops (you know, the stuff creeps in from the rest of the house, like books, cookie jars). Clear them all off and put them in your garage or whatever for the day, so you have space to work.”
So, sprouts – surely, as Jamie Oliver, you can get everyone to like them?
“There’s actually a very small percentage who are super-sensitive to the bitterness in sprouts. But I’ve got loads of recipes in my book using things like honey and maple syrup for everyone else.”
Jamie Oliver's Christmas Cookbook is out now (£26, published by Penguin Books Ltd)