Jamie Oliver’s ‘offence adviser’ leaves a bad taste in my mouth

Have you got yourself an “offence adviser” yet? This new breed of professionals are trained like sniffer dogs to detect even the faintest whiff of explosively un-woke material in anything that might be publicly shared, from company reports and social media posts to university lectures, early drafts of books, songs, screenplays and art works.

Not that offence advisers should be limited to the professional domain – their expertise doesn’t stop there. No, like bomb disposal experts, these guys (and gals, and agender, bigender and cisgender identifiers, I’ve been advised to add) will zoom in and short-circuit any “problematic material” before it detonates. So those with Generation-Z age kids (born between 1997 and 2012) would do well to have their own personal OEs perched upon their shoulders at family get-togethers, there to step in with the red wire snippers before any casual “denial of lived experience”, “misgendering” or airing of a Churchill quote (racist, imperialist brute that he is) sparks a domestic blast.

Jamie Oliver doesn’t just have the one “offence adviser”, he revealed on Sunday, but “teams of cultural appropriation specialists” who go through his recipes with a fine tooth comb. The 46-year-old TV chef is all too aware of the woke minefield we’re now forced to navigate daily, after having stepped on one back in 2018 when he started peddling Punchy Jerk Rice in supermarkets. This prompted Labour MP Dawn Butler – the daughter of Jamaican immigrants – to tweet: “I’m just wondering do you know what #Jamaican #jerk actually is? It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products. Your jerk rice is not ok.”

And although both Oliver and his £2.30 microwavable rice survived the ensuing furore – one that largely confined itself to the digital universe specialising in “fauxffence” – the country’s best-selling non-fiction writer is no longer taking any chances. Especially not with his new Channel 4 series, The Great Cookbook Challenge, starting in less than a week’s time.

Oliver has learnt a lot about inanimate foodstuffs’ powers of offence over the past four years. He knows, for example, that his 2012 “empire roast chicken” – seasoned with turmeric, cumin, coriander and garam masala – would be unacceptable, if not career-ending today. And as for cultural appropriation, he says in an interview at the weekend: “Your immediate reaction is to be defensive and say, ‘For the love of God, really?’ Then you go: ‘Well, we don’t want to offend anyone…’”

Oliver is not the only food writer to launch an anti-offence offensive. Nigella Lawson has been on her best behaviour ever since she upset Italians in 2017 by suggesting that cream be added to carbonara instead of the traditional raw eggs, and two of the world’s leading food publications – the BBC Good Food magazine and Bon Appétit in the US – were forced to make “linguistic changes” to some of the tens of thousands of recipes in their archive, after accusations of “stealing” dishes from ethnic minorities.

“No one is suggesting that it is wrong to cook food from another culture,” one newspaper recently pointed out. Yet isn’t that the loud and clear message? Indeed, crediting those other cultures only seems to make matters worse. Had Oliver named his punchy rice “Jamaican Jerk”, his jovial little head would have been served up on a platter (using only traditional British seasonings).

As it was, his defence only inflamed things further. “I’ve worked with flavours and spices from all over the world my whole career,” he protested at the time, “learning and drawing inspiration from different countries and cultures to give a fresh twist to the food we eat every day.” Just as Gordon Ramsay’s defence of his Lucky Cat restaurant did back in 2019, after the central London “Asian eating house” opened to a slew of derogatory comments on social media.

Ramsay’s crime was to call Lucky Cat’s cuisine “authentic” – which was, granted, inadvisable, in a pedantic and pedestrian climate where authenticity could only be guaranteed by an 100 per cent Asian-staffed kitchen. Certainly, the word would now have any “offence adviser” whipping out his snippers.

But if “inspiration” had been a problematic concept throughout history, then the OEs would have shut down Thomas Gainsborough (for being inspired by Rubens), and Rubens (for being inspired by Caravaggio), along with Charles Dickens (for being inspired by Victor Hugo). Most importantly, chicken tikka masala would not exist. Because, according to many culinary sources, the nation’s favourite dish only became what it is now after migrant Bangladeshi chefs here played around with their traditional “butter chicken” recipe. And in an ironic inversion of history, British companies now export that dish to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

Does this mean everyone should be offended – or no one? I’m losing track. But one thing I am sure of: whatever the origins, whatever the recipe, there is no greater insult to any chef than calling a dish “inoffensive”.

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