Jamie Oliver's Great Escape

From the moment my inner ear first caught a bit of Jamie Oliver's East End, London, accent, with its gargled consonants and street urchin patois (he's the Artful Dodger with a frying pan) I was hooked.

I've always considered Oliver to be a cut above most of the air-brushed, Pepsodent-polished television chef-stars simply because he's never attempted to conceal his working class pedigree. It also doesn't hurt that he's not only a hyper-talented chef -- one of the English-speaking world's biggest proponents of rustic Italian-based fare, and original garden-to-table avatars -- but he has a highly commendable history of bringing the virtues of the culinary profession to the underprivileged.

Oliver also happens to be an incredibly winning television presence, with every ounce of that natural, unpretentious persona on display in his latest show, Jamie's Food Escapes. After only two episodes, it may be, with all due respects to the original food-travel guru, Anthony Bourdain, the best marriage yet of the culinary and the touristic on the tube.

Any great cooking-travelogue must have two essential elements in order to have legs: A host you want to tag along with, and gorgeous production values. Oliver is, if anything, more amusing to be with outside of his home country. He's exceedingly good company whether we catch him strolling the back-canals of Venice, floppy hat protecting his cottage cheese complexion, or motoring his trademark Vespa through the serpentine streets of Athens, before donning a mask and snorkel to spear his own fish off a Greek island. The latter is part of a James Bondian underwater sequence. "The name is Oliver, Jamie Oliver." Hilarious.

Over the course of Food Escapes' first two episodes, as the camera offers us postcard shots of gondolas plying the Venetian waters, or the rough and tumble of a Greek or Italian market, to sensual close-ups of any number of spices, herbs, and just-caught fish, the camera-work on Oliver's latest should be up for an Oscar at this year's Academy Awards.

But like any great dish, striving for that elusive balance of agro and dolce, smooth and textured, Oliver's Food Escapes is a brilliant blend of two distinct ingredients.

At first, we meet Oliver the vaudevillian character actor, prepared to make a total arse of himself in the name of mixing with the local foodie and agro community of his destinations -- so far, he's landed in Venice, Athens, and a few assorted Greek isles. In this guise, Oliver squirts black ink all over his hands and shirt as he rips open a cuttlefish in a Venetian market. The camera follows him to a Venetian Carnival shop where Oliver engages in the time-honored montage of clowning around behind a dozen masks.

In the show's second installment, Oliver is decked out in apron and ridiculous hat, in an Athenian market where he labors mightily to churn out a proper souvlaki sandwich in fast-food time. Oliver then walks among the crowing roosters in the yard of a Greek priest, whose ZZ Top-worthy beard does not detract from his abilities as a "wicked" cheese maker. Under the prelate's skeptical eye, Oliver milks a goat or two, despite their braying objections. Soon enough, Oliver morphs into Dudley Moore, ca. 1968, as we find him in a bee keeper's outfit, wearing that mouth-breathing expression of slight bewilderment as he collects oozing honey from the freshest comb.

Intermingled amongst these mini-adventures are Oliver's cooking segments, where he is nothing short of brilliant. There doesn't seem to be a spot in any city, countryside or coastal area to which Oliver can't lug his butane-powered burner, trusty mortar and pestle to fashion the most appetizing food. In Venice, he makes carpaccio (while providing some fascinating history behind its painterly name) and a Bellini on a hillside overlooking the city, before repairing to a halfway house where he makes a lusty minestrone for a couple of hungry residents. Then we follow Oliver to a balcony, all but clinging to an old Venetian palazzo, where he creates the most lady-finger-luscious tiramisu imaginable.

While in Greece, Oliver establishes his kitchen on a boat for a rustic fisherman's stew (whose salt-to-taste comes courtesy of the lapping sea), on a dock for his "perfect Greek salad" (topped with a brick of feta), to a roof-top overlooking the Acropolis where he grills lamb kebabs and serves them on pita with a lemony tzatziki sauce, all showered with his latest Greek infatuation: wild, dried oregano.

But, Oliver is at his most outward bound while carving up tuna steaks (from the fish he personally caught that day), and grilling them on one of his make-shift contraptions in the sand along a deserted strip of Greek beach.

"Brilliant," along with "now you're laughin'" are both Oliver-isms he emits as he takes the first bite out of one of his successful dishes -- conceived and cooked on Escapes well beyond his familiar British kitchen.

Well, Jamie, now we're "laughin'" at the brilliance of your latest show.

Jamie's Food Escapes airs on the Cooking Channel, Wednesdays at 7 p.m.

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Andrew Marton