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TV Review: Jamie’s Money Saving Meals

September 10, 2013


Poor old Jamie Oliver does come in for a lot of criticism and bad press these days. One wouldn’t blame him for packing his £millions and retiring well away from it all, even though he’s not yet 40. But there he is, still determined to set us on the right eating path; an evangelist of the kitchen. He’s taken schools to task for their meals, shown us how ensuring a diet rich in fatty acids will improve the behaviour and learning of our kids, and fought for animal and fish welfare. Now he’s showing us how, in these financially challenging times, we can cook good meals cheaply. Or is he?

I’m a fan of Jamie. I have a lot of his books and think he’s one of the good guys. He has got a little serious, though. I saw him on a chat show a few months ago and he seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I wanted to tell him to lighten up, not wear himself out. Thus it was good to see some of the cheeky chappy Jamie back on TV when I decided to watch his latest series, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals. But the real problem with Jamie is he’s overextended himself. He’s everywhere. A bit like IKEA, you could fit your house out with Jamie-ware. And of course that makes it hard for him to keep his eye on all that bears his name. I was, for instance, a fan of Jamie’s Italian when they first arrived on our high streets but of late have found them expensive and disappointing. The only exception being the one in Gatwick North Terminal – a terminal that must be one of the dreariest places to spend a couple of hours. Now it’s even worth getting there early if you’re flying around lunchtime to eat at Jamie’s Italian before you board the plane. But that one aside, I’ve had some dire meals. Some branches are OK, some not. I did a cookery course at Recipease earlier this year which was less about teaching you to cook than getting you to chop vegetables to add to their stock, or whatever, that they’d made earlier. So, one wonders, how well does Jamie really understand the needs of … to put it bluntly! … the poor. Those people struggling to feed families on benefit or low wages.

I caught up on the second episode of Jamie’s Money Saving Meals (Mondays, Channel 4 at 8.00pm) last night. It was immediately obvious that Jamie wanted us to know he’d done his homework; his research. The setting was more like a laboratory than a kitchen. We were introduced to a large team of helpers; people like nutritionists. Was this supposed to reassure us that although we might be cooking cheaply, we wouldn’t miss out on necessary nutrients? There was little intimacy. I thought if you’d just walked into the room and didn’t actually catch Jamie’s famous face you might think you’d come in while the advertisements were on.

You can eat cheaply and like a king, he told us, as he rushed into his first recipe: Dim Sum Buns. But to begin, you had to spend £29 on a shoulder of pork. Yes, £29. Well, of course, Jamie told us that this wasn’t just for one meal; we could make lots of meals from the meat. But Jamie, have you any idea how a person with little money would feel about going into a butcher and spending £29 on one piece of meat? It would give them palpitations; a panic attack. It’s not enough to argue that you need to spend money to save money – as Jamie did – you have to understand how people feel about putting their hands into their purses and handing over such a large sum of money. People on the breadline live meal by meal. Then we saw Jamie splashing on the olive oil (yes, olive oil, extra virgin of course) and fennel seeds. Later, he added bay leaves, dipping sauce, soy sauce and bunches of fresh coriander. Jamie told us that it was worth spending money on these extras to spice up our food, but my guess is that for people really struggling financially, a jar of fennel seeds and a pack of fresh coriander are luxuries.

Jamie then goes off to visit a woman who buys halves of lamb – yes a half of a whole lamb! – and then wastes it because she’s worried about keeping it in her freezer and doesn’t know what to do with the various joints. Jamie, this is so unreal. Who the hell buys half a lamb and hasn’t a clue what to do with it. It’s usually the privileged middles classes or people living in the country near farms who buy whole or half lambs. Not your average town or city dweller. And not your average Mr & Mrs Joe Bloggs on income support.

Next he makes a meat loaf. Well, if money is tight, there’s a lot to be said for a meat loaf and his did look pretty good. Whether Mr & Mrs Income Support would buy nice jars of fine passata rather than supermarket economy tinned tomatoes, I’m not sure. Whether they want to open a whole pack of feta cheese to add about a quarter because it adds to the flavour, I’m not sure either. Probably not, I think. But in essence, meat loaf was a good way to go. And to be fair, what is the point in him showing us a really boring meat loaf. The idea is to show us how to spice up cheaper food – like his final recipe of a sweet potato korma curry. Why spend money on a takeaway, he asks us, on a Friday night when we can cook up our own curry for a couple of pounds rather than twenty. But Jamie, the whole point of a takeaway is it’s a treat; you don’t have to do anything other than ring in your order. And believe me, Jamie, I’m a pretty good cook but I can’t make curries like my favourite (and the only one I use) takeaway – Tangawizi restaurant in Twickenham.

Jamie’s intention is good but he comes from a place where olive oil, bay leaves and a huge assortment of spices and herbs line his shelves and windowsills; where spending £29 on a piece of meat is nothing to him. He comes from a place where he can go out to a fine and expensive restaurant every night if he wants; he’s not one of those people who can’t afford to go to a restaurant on a Friday night and look forward to a takeaway treat once a week. It’s a bit on a par with George Osborne telling us he understands what it’s like to be poor. No, George, you don’t. You haven’t a clue.

Yes it’s a great idea to show people how to shop well, save money and add interest to their cooking. But I’m not convinced that a mother struggling on benefit with hungry children will feel that buying a whole shoulder of pork for £29 and making fresh dough for dim sum is something she has the energy for; maybe a young couple not earning much or a student might. You can cook brilliantly and creatively on a low budget – as the wonderful Jack Monroe has proved with her blog: A Girl Called Jack – and being poor doesn’t mean you have to eat boringly; it doesn’t mean you don’t understand good food and flavours and want to do your best and enjoying eating. But what’s missing from Jamie’s attempt to help people on low incomes is a sense that he really understands what it’s like for them. It would be so nice to see Jamie get down from his soapbox, I think, and go back to his roots for a while and do a nice, fun series about the cooking he does best.

  1. You make so many good points. There are many chefs who seem to go crazy and extend themselves once they become “famous” here in the US, too. But not having a handle on what it’s like to not have 29 pounds is really inexcusable. He should have better advisors.
    I went to Jamie Italian in Oxford a few years ago and it was really good. And last year in Edinborough we at one as well. Sorry to hear that they’ve become pitiful. No excuse, again.
    Great post.

    • Thank you, Mimi. I think there are some good Jamie’s Italians … but unfortunately they’re not reliable and some are poor or just plain too expensive for what they are.

  2. Jane Coles permalink

    I thought this was really full of wisdom. Would be good if Jamie read it. He’s got a lot going for him but he’s lost the way, I think. This would help him get back on track!

  3. Marek Ujma permalink

    Nicely summed up. I am not sure the producers did enough research on who they were targeting for these programmes. I can’t believe that they are aimed at people who are struggling to make ends meet. I like Jamie and he has done lots of good things. He has a massive empire now and he has let himself down as the quality is not there anymore. I think he needs to decide whether he is a chef who can inspire or an entrepreneur. He can’t do both. He needs to take control back.

    The food series that was closer to helping those people who are struggling financially was a few years ago and it was ‘Economy Gastronomy’ with Allegra McEvedy and Paul Merrett. Jamie nicked a few ideas from that!

    • Thank you for your comment, Marek. I agree Jamie’s lost control. You can’t keep your eye on everything when your empire is so big and still, as you say, cook too.

  4. Seriously who buys half a lamb before knowing what to do? My mum, like a lot of women back in the day would save and buy a spice, save again get another one, and gradually build up a pantry. Perhaps if he showed how to build a pantry on a certain amount a week so it doesn’t look overwhelming. Many start with nothing and don’t know what to do. Though I think fennel seeds would be on the bottom of the list of essentials! And maybe show them how to make their own stock which is so inexpensive but can be used in so many things.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’ve actually just used fennel seeds but have only started buying them fairly recently – they’re certainly not ‘essential’ as you say. And a more important point is, he didn’t suggest an alternative. Inexperienced cooks wouldn’t have a clue whether they could use something else or what they could use.

      • We’ve always eaten well even on a very strict diet. So it can be done. It was a rare thing for us to get takeaway or buy premade food. At the grocery store I see people who are obviously on a tight budget wasting their money on junk and it is such a shame. There is a weird perception that healthy food is expensive.

      • I agree. If you have a tight budget you can definitely eat better by cooking yourself and it’s much healthier. But it does require some knowledge of food and cooking. So a programme that really addresses how to cook good, healthy food on a tight budget would be very useful. I’m sure you or I could do better 🙂

      • Certainly sounds like it!

  5. Really good points! I really like the overall point that Jamie Oliver has been trying to make but as you said, perhaps he needs to get a better grip on the reality that some people face.

  6. Outside of onions and carrots, vegetables are quite expensive – especially compared with a 30p tin of ravioli or baked beans.

    I don’t know if any of you watched the James Martin, Angela Hartnett and Richard Corrigan series about people actually on benefits not being able to feed themselves, but it seemed that all the chefs (with the partial exception of Angela Hartnett) didn’t have a clue how to shop on a budget or cook healthy meals for pennies – Corrigan bought half a salmon for Pete’s sake!

    People need to know that if they’ve only got £5 a week, they can buy a bag if carrots and have six servings of soup, they can buy basics spaghetti and tinned tomatoes and get six servings of spaghetti, they can spend £1 on a bag of lentils and make a number of different dinners with or without the addition of meat, from soup to daal to veggie burgers.

    If this show is aimed at these people, it’s way off the mark, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s aimed at the people who can afford to eat at Jamie’s restaurants and buy his books, but still haven’t quite got that kitchen common sense down – ie buying half a lamb a week for two people and having no clue what to do with it. That woman obviously has more money than sense. Unfortunately, I think this show was always going to divide those of us who know food because any knowledge Jamie is trying to pass on we already have. It’s not one of his best moments, but I’ll keep watching nonetheless.

    • Thank you. I didn’t see the Angela Hartnett etc show. She’s half Italian and should know how to put a good, cheap, hearty meal together. I do wonder if Jamie thinks he’s getting it right but I doubt he’s ever had to struggle to eat well. Even as a kid brought up in a pub with a good kitchen he would have always eaten well and had loads of ingredients to hand. It’s the researchers of the programme who have to take some of the responsibility for failing to get it right. You clearly understand how to go about putting together good meals on a budget and it would be good for people to know how to take these basics and do something interesting with them.

      • Agreed. Maybe all us commenters should write a show for Jamie to show him how to really stretch a budget! I remember reading that when the Angela Hartnett show was on people were rallying for A Girl Called Jack to tape her own show. I think it’d be a massive hit.

      • I think a Girl Called Jack show would be great.

      • Dean permalink

        I think saying that this show is inappropriate for people on benefits misses the point. As ‘acrusteaten’ said, it’s not aimed at them. JO at no point suggests that highly marginalised people – “Mr & Mrs Income Support” – will be able to afford these ingredients or cook these meals. As with all his shows, it’s aimed a much larger cohort of middle-class people with an interest in food but without significant home-economic knowledge.

        Each of his shows has sold an idealised view of cooking to this same primary audience; the only difference is the ‘virtue’ of cooking that has been idealised. It’s been sold as something fun and hip (Naked Chef); as something we feel should be healthy for kids (School Dinners); as something that should be fast (30 Minute Meals); faster (15 Minutes Meals); or as part of a holistic, agrarian lifestyle (Jamie at Home).

        Money Saving Meals is simply another idealised view of cooking sold to the same group of people, this time targeting the virtue of frugality, and specifically the many people who believe that eating well is unachievably expensive – whatever the truth of their financial circumstances.

        If he was interested in producing a show for those on income support, he would be visiting them in their homes rather than a group who look – surprise, surprise – like middle-class people who can’t manage their pantries.

        By all means encourage him directly to make a show for people who are actually financially desperate, but he knows they can’t buy his cookbooks, kitchenware, or eat in his restaurants. Assuming he’s out of touch is naive. He has been phenomenally successful in marketing to a large, specific group of people, and knows exactly what he’s doing.

      • Fair comment and I’m sure many would agree but it’s not really clear who he’s aiming it at. We shouldn’t have to assume it’s the middle classes given his evangelical shows these days about ‘eating right’ so I think it’s reasonable to assume the programme is aimed at people struggling financially. I still don’t think it’s a good show and the half lamb scene was a farce.

  7. This was one of the best articles on Jamie O I have read in a long long time and although I can not see any of his programs here or read the english papers every day I have to agree with you, “Jamie clearly lost it!”. Unlike you I have never been a great fan of his (when he started I found him far too cocky – his parents pub was not too far away from our place). Yes, he came across like a fresh breeze of air at that time, but it became quickly clear that the big money was one of the main attraction. Nothing wrong with trying to make money but…. do keep your feet on the ground; and his are not – he is flying high. When I now visit London (from India) and see the prize of pork (for a nice vindaloo) and fish (which I get fresh from the sea into my kitchen) – amongst other items – I always wonder how a single mum or a pensioner can afford to have this at least once a week. And all those wonderful spices, herbs and extra virgin olive oil!!! which are needed in his recipes – a person on a low income can not afford to stock these. But then, how would he know, he comes from a quite well-off background. He should change his advisory team and come back to earth again. Carina 🙂

    • Many thanks, Carina. My blog post seems to have stirred quite a bit of feeling. I wonder if Jamie’s lack of understanding of what it’s really like to live on low income – and it seems some other TV chefs – touches on the strong feeling in the country that the government also don’t understand what it’s really like for those struggling on little money. Fish fresh from the sea straight into your kitchen sounds wonderful!

  8. I couldn’t have said it better myself, and have in fact been ranting at the TV and anyone in my house that will listen. I too love Jamie and think he is a really inspiring chef but this programme is just ludicrous. I just chuckle at the beginning when he says he has researchers looking in to the pricing etc, who the hell are they? They could be buying much cheaper. I have a feeling though that he is buying ethically sourced, free range, organic but within a high street supermarket. Don’t get me wrong, I do the same with eggs (I can afford to care about free range eggs) but my budget cannot stretch to organic and free range meat, it can barely stretch to meat at all. The use of Dove’s organic flour in his pizza pie base, switch quickly to a basic supermarket brand. I CAN be done for much, much less. He’s got it all wrong this time and its a real shame, its a nice platform for a programme in this economical climate.


  9. Hear, hear – such a good article shame you can’t get it into one of the daily’s.

  10. Helen permalink

    I’m a bit late commenting on this but have only just watched this programme on catch up.
    I completely agree with your points made about the programme; I feel it’s out of touch and not realistic for those on a tight budget- why not use dried herbs instead of fresh? Why spend £30 on a shoulder of pork for a week and not £3-5 on a good piece of gammon or roast chicken to do the same job? And I now have to go out an buy a bamboo steamer to make the pork dumplings? Not to mentioned the cost of cooking said shoulder of pork (having the oven for 5 hours in one go for one meal does not sound very economical to me!)
    My last weekly shop came in just under £12 and it was all veg, staples (e.g pasta) and some meat and I made enough food for the week.
    Jamie needs to wake up and see what people can really do in the kitchen without cooking for 5 hours or buying huge cuts of meat!

    • Thank you, Helen. It seems a lot of people feel this way. I hope Jamie takes note.

      • Marek Ujma permalink

        This is what the Telegraph had to say on 2nd September “He’s easy to mock, but ultimately Oliver delivered the goods. He made what looked like absolutely delicious food at impressive budget prices.” A bit shallow, methinks.

        This is what the Guardian said on 7th September “Jamie’s Money Saving Meals was an eye-opener, and genuinely intriguing, though possibly not for those not possessed of a local fishmonger or a life removed to Tuscany. Sort it, Jamie. He probably could.” I am not sure what this really means.

        This is the Mail on 31st August: “But his new austerity cookbook, which promises ‘exciting food that’s not hard on your wallet’, might not quite provide the low-cost answers hard-pressed households need.

        Home cooks wanting to try all the ‘money-saving’ meals in Save With Jamie would need to spend more than £500 on kitchen utensils and food ‘staples’ before buying a single main ingredient.
        In the book – which itself costs a wallet-straining £26 – Oliver lists 47 items of equipment needed for the recipes, including a griddle pan, a pestle and mortar and three different kinds of grater, which would cost at least £360.” This about the only time I can remember that I actually like what the Mail but I do except that the book can be bought for a lot less and I think he has given copies to lots of libraries as well.

        One final point watch are the demographics of the people who watch cookery shows and Jamie Oliver ones in particular? I suspect that people who struggle to make ends meet would not be a high percentage of the viewers.

      • Many thanks for your comment. Yes it is a little hard to agree with the Mail 🙂 Seems like the Telegraph doesn’t understand the word ‘budget’ either. I agree that watching Jamie is pretty middle class and monied, yet what’s the point of him doing a show like this, pretending to help those with little money, if he doesn’t get it right.

  11. Kate permalink

    Thank you for this excellent, common-sense review. You are absolutely right about Oliver being out of touch with people who really struggle on low income (an ever-increasing number, unfortunately). And yes, it does smack of Osborne’s ‘we’re all in this together’ propaganda. I like Jamie Oliver’s recipes and I think he’s a really inspiring cook, and I also think he’s well-meaning, but he clearly has no real insight into what it is to struggle to feed yourself or your family and to worry about where your next meal is coming from, or where the money for your gas or rent is coming from.

    I’d rather give Oliver the benefit of the doubt, but it is possible to see this programme as really quite insulting. He should think on: a multimillionare lecturing the poor about thrift smacks of the kind of Victorian morality emanating from the current Tory party – shades of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, perhaps.

    • Many thanks for your comment, Kate. I’m giving Oliver benefit of doubt still but I think he needs to start taking more responsibility for things that are put out in his name.

  12. Brilliant article Kay and yes to the point. Now if he had shown you how to do three meals with economy packs of pork chops that would have been more realistic.

  13. brendan permalink

    I think you have really nailed it in your review, that despite his good intentions Jamie’s world is totally different to most of the poor.

    My mother particularly hates Jamie’s approach for different reasons that might be worth outlining. Jamie’s focus on “cheaper cuts” has just created more of a demand and hiked prices on things like lamb shanks, ham hocks, oxtails, even “flat irons” are now lining supermarket shelves, all bad news to the thriftier cooks. It’s her generation, but also the fact that her father was a butcher in Ireland, so she has a broad knowledge of the more obscure bits of meat and how to stretch them. Apparently her dad sold all the prime cuts in the shop so they really only had the cheaper cuts to eat.

    Apologies if this point has been raised but I didn’t have the time to read all the comments.

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