Once upon a time, the Food Network was a dark presence in my home. I am not a proud woman. To sit chain-smoking in the flickering dark and stonily watch Martha Stewart squeezing cream into an absurdly Corinthian cookie is an activity which betrays my desperation. Yet during the self-imposed draconian regimes under which I ate naught but boiled beets and dreams, this ritual offered a sordid catharsis. The Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver’s first television series, was my favourite. Not only did he have less fangs in his smile than dear Martha but his dishes seemed more tangible than those of his peers—nothing cylindrical or tiered or full of whispers. I could smell his preparations from my living room, a gift in my self-imposed era of vicarious eating for which I remain grateful.
That was long ago. Jamie Oliver has in recent years born the brunt of much mixed opinion. No one it seems knows quite what to make of Jamie appearing on television so very often these days. He is, in the eyes of his countrymen and women, equal parts darling and demon. He has yet to be forgiven for starring in the commercials for the UK grocery chain Sainsbury’s, but he is still more or less known as the nation’s “food police,” having earned this moniker in his crusade to improve the nutritional quality of kids’ school lunches (documented in the TV series Jamie’s School Dinners). While his most recent stint—slitting a live lamb’s throat in his new show Jamie’s Great Escape to Italy—may once more cool the fickle hearts of the tabloid-guzzling public, one thing I can claim with certainty is that most are still more than willing—as I was—to eat at his restaurant, Fifteen.
Part restaurant, part charity, Fifteen offers opportunity and training to unemployed youths. It is called “Fifteen” because—as anyone familiar with the documentary Jamie’s Kitchen knows—the venture began with that number of youngsters. An ambitious project, but with the opening of a third location in Melbourne, also an immensely successful one. The Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler claims Jamie should “be knighted for effort, energy, financial risk-taking and genuine empathy.” I will say this much: if Jamie went on television today and, eyes twinkling, guillotined Bambi, I would still go to Fifteen tomorrow and happily twirl my pasta.
tel: +44 870 787 1515
Menu: Three courses for £25;
Two courses for £22.50;
À la carte for £10.50 to £22.50
Wine: £6 to £13 per glass
Veronica’s Verdict: One of the best meals I have ever eaten
I had no problem bribing a stranger to accompany me on my venture. While a woman of my wiles needs nothing but the serpentine meanderings of her own mind for company, there is truth in the Epicurean idea that only wolves eat alone. And I am not a wolf.
The restaurant is divided into two sections: the upstairs trattoria, offering a more relaxed vibe; and the restaurant, featuring a tasting menu for £60 a head. In my strained economic situation (soon to change once someone has the sense to pay me to breathe), I was forced to lower my sights towards the more doable three-course lunch for £25—but I shall be back for dinner. Wild horses, etc.
Outside, Fifteen is an unassuming brick building that looks quite like a loft space. Within, it’s all sunshine and freshly scrubbed ragamuffin. The Doves squealed over our heads as my companion and I waited at the bar, eyeing a counter decked with white bowls brimming with green olives, roasted pumpkin, fresh cut figs and garlic. Out of an eye-corner, I spotted fresh bread—if indeed a wolf does lie sleeping within me, she awoke then.
I and my hired man were led downstairs by an apologetic blonde. Jamie, she cooed, is running a bit late today. Oh how my heart throbbed within me. And there indeed, as we entered the sun-spanked room sploshed with graffiti art, was Jamie himself working in his kitchen—surrounded by his gaping minions, every rosy hue in his cheek gleaming with concentration. Cameras flashed about him. I forgave them for failing to be struck by my presence, but only this once.
A waiter who resembled a lost babe in the woods handed us menus, and another came by offering a variety of fresh breads from a wooden tray, served with a dish of pungent olive oil. There is indeed a wolf in me, and this set her howling. For my starter, I plunged into Jamie’s (fantastic!) salad of smoked prosciutto, burrata mozzarella, clementine oranges, mint and garden leaves. It was like eating the sun. The sweet cold of the clementines against the creamy mozzarella and the smoked saltiness of the ham was nothing short of magic. My companion had the Tuscan pâté with bruschetta and olive tapenade. I feared for him—his was not the most adventurous of palates—but his moans of ecstasy soon soothed all concerns
In the food world, pasta is my porn and I felt the desire to frolic naked in every pasta dish listed on the menu. When the linguine with crab, chili, garlic, parsley, fennel, lemon and olive oil inevitably beckoned however, I heeded the call. Gorgeous. The heat of the chili made the fragrant herbs and lemon burst in my mouth. I ate dreamily. My man had the slow-cooked loin of pork, accompanied by a heap of brightly coloured vegetables and golden potatoes. I stole his carrots. And most of the potato. And another fabulous vegetable I couldn’t identify. I must also report that his pork was unfathomably tender.
For dessert, we desired all but sensibly decided to share one thing: chocolate pudding with orange and Vin Santo crème fraiche. A new item, we watched Jamie demonstrate how to serve the crème fraiche atop the pudding. We had already dug into ours when we heard Jamie warn the next table to wait ten seconds after the cream had been placed atop. Though we receive this warning too late, I don’t believe I would’ve been capable of heeding it anyway. One weak stab with my spoon allowed the molten chocolate within to bleed out into the orange perfumed cream. It was such bliss that the eyes of all the creatures within me closed at once.
Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) is Maisonneuve’s connoisseur of all things culinary and libidinous. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Veronica Tartley.