Jamie Oliver hires cultural appropriation specialists to vet his recipes

The  Staff Canteen

celebrity chef and cookbook author Jamie Oliver has hired a team of cultural appropriation specialists to vet his recipes to avoid making missteps when developing recipes drawing inspiration from foreign cuisines.

He explained the decision in an interview with the Sunday Times Culture magazine, saying that when faced with criticism, “your immediate reaction is to be defensive and say, ‘For the love of God, really?’ And then you go, ‘Well, we don’t want to offend anyone.’”

The news comes after multiple incidents in which Jamie put his name to recipes inspired by foreign cultures, in a way that was deemed insensitive to some, and outright offensive to others.

We all remember when, in 2018, he had to defend the naming of his "punchy jerk rice" after Dawn Butler, Labour's shadow equalities minister, called him out, saying that Jerk is "not just a word you put before stuff to sell products. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop." 

Levi Roots, the Jamaican chef behind Reggae Reggae sauce, also weighed into the row, and said: "I do think it was a mistake by his team."

Earlier, in 2014, Jamie's interpretation of the West African dish Jollof rice came under fire; he has also said himself that his “Empire roast chicken” from 2012 would be unacceptable if created today.

Raymond's wisdom

Jamie Oliver is somewhat late to the party when it comes to seeking advice before publishing his recipes; others, like Raymond Blanc, chef patron at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, have always done so.

In an interview with The Times, Raymond discussed the importance of cultural sensitivity, saying that he would always run ideas past people from the relevant country if he developed a dish inspired by foreign cuisine.

After all, he stressed, there is a marked difference between cultural appropriation and cultural enrichment, arguing that “from the moment Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas and all these great adventurers brought spices from across Asia to Europe, food travels and ideas travel... Multiculturalism and cultures have travelled in all sorts of ways, they’ve done that for thousands of years.” 

To his mind, “it is for us professionals to do that in a manner that is not offensive.”

It is clearly a sticky issue that many chefs have fallen foul of, increasingly so in the past decade. 

Why the Change

Indeed, a number of other cooks have faced similar fall-outs: in 2017, food writer Nigella Lawson caused up a stir in Italy after sharing a recipe for spaghetti carbonara - using the untraditional ingredient of cream.

In 2019, Gordon Ramsay was criticised in the press after describing his new Mayfair restaurant, Lucky Cat. as being an “authentic Asian eating house” despite not hiring any Asian chefs and serving dishes amalgamating multiple cultures.

In 2018, MasterChef judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode found themselves at the receiving end of stern words from the Malaysian foreign minister for what he said was a 'whitesplaining' of how to prepare Rendang to a Malaysian contestant on the BBC One programme.

Then, in 2020, Christine Hayes, editor-in-chief of the magazines BBC Good Food and Olive, announced the imminent removal or altering of recipes with unacceptably broad names such as “Asian salad”.

Some of the cooks caught in the crossfires have nonetheless refuted the narrative that they are not entitled to draw on foreign cuisines for inspiration. 

Pippa Middlehurst, who won the BBC series Britain’s Best Home Cook in 2018, was criticised for publishing the cookbook 'Dumplings and Noodles', released in 2020, because she is white and British, and thus should let people speak to their own traditions.

Pippa argued that having trained at a noodle school in Lanzhou, northwest China, she did qualify to share the knowledge she gained there. 

What does this change mean?

Given his wide platform and his many creative takes on foreign specialities, it is unsurprising that Jamie Oliver has found himself at the centre of fierce arguments on more than one occasion.

For Georgina Hayden, a food writer of Greek-Cypriot descent and judge on the Channel 4 show The Great Cookbook Challenge, nuance is key when debating such matters. 

She told The Times: "I’m so glad we are finally having the discussion about cultural appropriation in food. Because it absolutely happens, but equally that doesn’t mean that white writers can’t write about foreign cuisines.”

“You must be respectful and genuine. That is essential,” she explained, "The key is to submerge yourself in a culture. It’s not a two-week holiday then pretending you’re an expert. Or even worse, ripping off someone else’s work."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th January 2022

Jamie Oliver hires cultural appropriation specialists to vet his recipes