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Jamie Oliver’s New Show Entertains While Caught in a Cookbook Catch-22

The Great Cookbook Challenge proves that the publishing world is TV entertainment, but the presence of its star is a constant reminder of its limits

Jamie Oliver stands at a kitchen island next to Callum, a Cookbook Challenge contestant
Jamie Oliver with Great Cookbook Challenge contestant Callum.
Channel 4

The Great Cookbook Challenge With Jamie Oliver is the TV chef’s newest show on Channel 4, in which budding cookbook authors compete to win a deal with his publisher, Penguin Michael Joseph. They must impress Masterchef judge and Evening Standard critic Jimi Famurewa; PMJ managing director Louise Moore; and Taverna cookbook author Georgina Hayden. Here’s how the first episode went down.

Cookbook challenges do make good TV

The Great Cookbook Challenge joins British television’s recent clutch of shows that turn craft into entertainment — particularly the Great British Surfeit of Bees and Bake Offs — in part because of its natural intersection with other channels, like Instagram and YouTube. And it works, blending the food judging of Masterchef with a window into the worlds of food styling, recipe development, and publishing itself — which most viewers will only ever have experienced as finished products. Famurewa, Moore, and Hayden make a strong and more complementary trio of judges than, say, the Paul-Prue dynamic on Great British Bake Off or the Gregg-John push-pull on Masterchef, offering rounded insight.

It’s a challenging, conservative category

Though called The Great Cookbook Challenge, it’s not really representing the field’s extraordinary breadth. There’s a clear through line in the judges’ comments, and of course Oliver’s presence, in what PMJ is after — marketable; bright; “accessible” — but the question of “to whom” is never quite answered beyond invocations of the “average cook,” whoever that is. As the series develops, this may change.

Jamie Oliver looks back on form

Cookbooks and a television legacy have been Jamie Oliver’s moneymaker and saving grace over a few years in which his restaurant empire crumbled to the ground, and The Great Cookbook Challenge combines them to immediate effect. Oliver wears his experience lightly and offers quick tips to the contestants, as well as the usual “cheeky humour” that Channel 4 deems to require a content warning. (He calls one person a bastard for referring to him as their dad.)

But his presence is curse as well as blessing

So Oliver is an affable, experienced mentor, a natural host. Most crucially of all, the biggest selling British non-fiction writer of all time. His presence is a boon to the contestants, living proof that this saturated, cut-throat market can provide fame, fortune, and a living that spans books, TV, and online video.

His presence is also reminder that often, it doesn’t. In the run-up to the show, a Times report presented a staggering statistic: “More than 5,000 cookery titles were released into the UK market in 2020, but only 556 sold more than 100 copies and only 48 sold more than 5,000.” Oliver himself said, “You can’t look at me and think that’s normal because it’s so far from normal.”

This means that throwing his weight; Moore, Famurewa, and Hayden’s expertise; and a whole TV show behind one deal neatly expresses the catch-22 of the Great Cookbook Challenge. It presents the opportunity of a lifetime in a world countless authors would love to crack, while revealing the myriad barriers and inherently conservative dynamics that force those authors towards rolls of the dice like this one. When Oliver calls it “the opportunity of opportunities,” it’s both a celebration and a warning. This is it.