clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘The Great Cookbook Challenge With Jamie Oliver’ Can’t Get Beyond the Front Cover

With an expansion of recipe challenges and forays into photography, things are hotting up — but intrinsic problems remain

The final six contestants on The Great Cookbook Challenge With Jamie Oliver.
The final six contestants on The Great Cookbook Challenge With Jamie Oliver.
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 fourth and fifth episodes went down.


The cookbook challenge expands its recipe remit

Having tested the budding authors on their basic concepts, it’s time to see if those concepts actually have the legs for a book. After being tested on “weeknight” and “weekend” recipes (which duly fell into the infantilising pitfalls of such language) Sarah’s lasagna cookbook fell by the wayside thanks to an underwhelming tikka masala version and a venison lasagna that was really a venison and potato gratin.

USP! USP! USP!

It’s understandable that the judges — particularly publishing boss Moore — are banging on about USPs every five minutes. The cookbook market is saturated, standing out is as important to the publisher as the author. It’s where the money comes from. But given the USP for the winner of a cookbook challenge run by Jamie Oliver is somewhat self-fulfilling, it’s beginning to feel like the show is running into its fundamental contradiction once again. It needs to show the cookbook world is hard when its entire promise is, for the winner, to make it a whole lot easier.

The contestants have to do it for the ‘gram

That was episode four; episode five was all about eating with eyes. Instagram has undoubtedly changed the way people consume cookbooks, not just photographically but in its potential for expanding a written text into videos, reels, and more. First, Jamie Oliver’s followers judged their photography; then, a professional cookbook photographer took the reins of their recipes with the authors directing the shoot. Aside from a particularly weird moment when one cook was told “you better do what we tell you” in not so many words, it was more proof that the cookbook world is worth televising.

Cookbooks might be televised, but the revolution won’t be

Five episodes in, it ought to be possible to conclude whether or not The Great Cookbook Challenge With Jamie Oliver is a good food TV show. From an entertainment perspective, it works: the competition and contestants are compelling; the challenges are varied; the judges and host are gregarious, supportive, and needle when needed. The final four of Rex, Dominique, Ian and Zena is more diverse than many U.K. food shows manage in an entire season.

But where cookbooks — at least the kind being sought by this programme — see function and quality as going hand in hand, the same can’t be said here. Every time it feels like it’s expanding repertoire a bit (thank you to Zena for the “naan bread is bread bread” line) things fall back into references to “authentic” this and that; more often than once contestants are implicitly told to rethink their entire idea (the one that got them through in the first place.)

Perhaps this is an accurate portrayal of a cookbook industry that sticks to its statuses quo and asks authors to be accessible, unique, and remarkable all that once, individual avatars for entire cuisines they could never really hope to understand. But then that asks bigger questions the show can never answer: is that a cookbook industry people should want?

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater London newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world