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Jamie Oliver’s ‘Great Cookbook Challenge’ Takes a Step Backward in Episode Two

An emphasis on difference and “standing out” leads to flattening of authors and ideas alike

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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 second episode went down.

How to solve a problem like lasagna

One of the most oddly instructive moments of the series so far came when contestant Sarah came to pitch her “festive lasagna.” It was a hit for the judges, but then debate turned to whether or not the concept was a book or not. Soon discussion turned to “layers,” which incorporates quite a lot more foods than lasagna, and even veered into finding a “sexier word” than lasagna.

A lasagna cookbook already exists, and iterative recipes on the form have proven to be hits (Ixta Belfrage and Yotam Ottolenghi’s mushroom lasagna a notable one.) Adaptability is clearly prized on the publishing end of this challenge, and in the end Sarah made it through — but the vast gulf between idea and suggested tweak was likely eye-opening for viewers at home.

Won’t someone think of the chefs

For the second time in two weeks, a contestant ran afoul of being too “cheffy,” despite there being an awful lot of restaurant cookbooks. Moore even outright said that their books “don’t sell” all that well, and returned to a key focus of judging concerns throughout: accessibility and usability. If a book doesn’t meet what a publisher wants, it won’t be published, so the same is naturally going to be true when swapping book for book idea. But these contestants didn’t appear on this show out of thin air, so why are the “cheffy” ones under consideration at all when they’re starting a losing race?

Memories really, really are cookbook currency gold

At the heart of London chef and author Elizabeth Haigh’s Makan plagiarism scandal were not just recipes, but the memories, experiences, and other living cultural artefacts that come with them. The facts of the case fed into a larger discussion of the expectation placed on cookbook authors “trafficking in ‘authentic’ memories and stories that are asked to tie the personal to sweeping generalisations around culinary traditions and sociocultural histories.”

This show is no exception. Oliver talks about Suki’s butter chicken as “what we have already but from an authentic place”; Dominique’s half-Thai background makes a country the canvas for a book that presents recipes from the entire continent of Asia. Perhaps Oliver’s team of infamous “cultural appropriation” advisers weren’t hired for this show; perhaps the cookbook industry just isn’t ready to truly break out of these restrictive frameworks that flatten authors and cultures alike.