Oh Cook! review: James May plates up true kitchen entertainment

James May makes cooking relatable on Oh Cook!
James May makes cooking relatable on Oh Cook! Pic credit: Amazon Prime

There was a great deal of quiet regarding major content from the Top Gear/Grand Tour trio throughout the pandemic, as the shutdowns delayed the release of their most recent special, A Massive Hunt, for months. If you’re wondering what they’ve been up to, James May, at least, has been in the kitchen.

May has been active on Foodtribe, an offshoot of the trio’s online venture, Drivetribe. He offers cooking tutorials on likes of Spam, cheese sandwiches, and anything that can possibly involve curry. That led to the making of Oh Cook! on Amazon, and that led to the publication of his new book, Oh Cook!: 60 Easy Recipes That Any Idiot Can Make.

He comes by what little kitchen cred he has honestly. May has in fact triumphed twice over celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, first in a fish pie cooking contest. He also met a challenge of manfully downing various repulsive delicacies— bull genitalia and rotten shark—while Ramsey wound up with his head in a bucket (“I’m disappointed in you, Ramsey,” May said serenely over the retching.)

If you’re wondering how a cooking show featuring one of the hosts of Grand Tour/Top Gear might go, the answer is: Wonderfully well. There are no explosions, faux incompetence, or irritated locals (besides, occasionally, May himself.)

May cooks Asian fusion, pub food, pasta, curry, desserts (pudding), breakfast, and a roast dinner with the help of a professional chef, Nikki Morgan. She is summoned when May has questions, needs advice, wants her to confirm whether or not he’s screwed up, or is simply excited to share what he’s done.

Nikki lives in the cupboard

Nikki lives in the cupboard behind the prep space, May tells us, which I suppose could be interpreted as a slap at women’s autonomy and equal rights, etc., but Nikki apparently has her phone and also plenty of wine back there, so living in a cupboard while someone else does all the prep work and cleanup sounds like a solid life goal.

“I think secretly, politely, she thinks I’m a half-wit,” James says as Nikki disappears behind the door again, glass in hand.

Like a good casserole, Oh Cook! is a mishmash of comfort food, comfort television, and a comforting voice referencing, in no particular order, Thomas Aquinas, Chuck Yeager, Botticelli, PJ O’Rouke, Benjamin Franklin, Federico Fellini, and Beyonce (but only to say he doesn’t care what she thinks about pasta.)

In this way, this show becomes far more about the joy of cooking than the actual “The Joy of Cooking,” because it focuses on the indisputably human aspects of cooking.

James May can’t cook, as he says at the top of the show, and that’s exactly the point. In an Instagram era of immaculately shaped fondant and carefully placed parsley sprigs, all presented at the end of a high-speed  tutorial, it’s somewhat affirming to see May scrape his failures into the trash and fail to cleanly extract mushroom soup cleanly from its can.

This is the type of program only a man in May’s stage of life could conceivably host without coming off as laborious and over-framed for social media. “I’m 57 years old. I no longer give a s**t (about people thinking I’m weird),” he says while contemplating the great pleasure he derives from sharpening his vintage potato peeler.

The viewer is reminded of the larger community of language even as he or she sits on the couch. This is a cooking show for writers and lovers of writing: May wonders aloud what the proper term is for multiple pairs of scissors, instructs the viewer to cut a prep item into “chunk-shaped chunks,” and refers to a food chopper as “a chopper upper-er.”

Oh Cook! isn’t like other cooking shows

The philosophy of Oh Cook! parallels that of May’s other recent solo effort, Our Man in Japan, in the sense that the crew is quite literally in the shot much of the time. In this way, the production is much more enjoyable and intimate than if the usual Wilman-crafted artifices were present. We overhear stage direction, absorb advice given from Nikki which is then immediately parroted by May, and share in his irritation when the need to take photos on a rotating plate prevents him from actually eating what he’s created.

Like Our Man in Japan, Oh Cook! reveals May as a man who simply enjoys learning. Richard Hammond’s soul is ignited by adventures in adrenaline, and Jeremy Clarkson’s by his own opinion, but the musings of James May, even when forced into reporting the likes of “I’ve wiped my nose, but I’ve got my finger in the chicken,” elevate the program above slapstick and snark.

Philosophical musings as “I will never again be a person who has never cooked a pie. Once I’ve cooked this pie, I will be a person who has cooked a pie,” issue an invitation to meditate upon the most mundane kitchen tasks which inhabitants of first-world countries tend to take for granted, even the perplexing British tradition of cramming a cacophony of ingredients into inedible-looking pies.

By placing a camera on the cameras, then, Oh Cook! simultaneously underlines fan criticisms of Top Gear/Grand Tour’s sitcommy scripting while gently mocking the Martha Stewart genre of perfectly perfect homemaking perfection, edges straight in every way.

Creations from a TV kitchen are pretty but hardly realistic, and rarely reflect most people’s experience with cooking. Seeing May brandish a leftover piece of cheese from a grating session while proclaiming, “…and that’s yours,” holds up a mirror rather than an ideal, and there’s plenty of room for that in the home economy genre.

Even the directions avoid such non-technical terms as “folding” and “tempering.” “I now push the leeks around the pan for a bit,” May says—that’s just good old-fashioned middle-class food-mashing. That’s how most of us do it. We dump in the chicken; we push around the leeks. We might be sautéing, but we might not necessarily know the technical term of what it is we’re doing, and few basic cooks are motivated to find out.

It’s refreshing to be met on our own level, particularly in our current state of death by YouTube kitchen tutorials. Some hardy citizens are knitting artisanal beard balm cozies with organic needles and yarn they’ve made themselves out of recycled plastic bottles and steel-cut oats; meanwhile, James May points at a heating pasta shell, saying happily, “That one almost looks like Pac Man.”

However, Oh Cook! never swerves into criticism of those who might enjoy the challenge of conquering a homemade croissant or two.  “I’m simply having a go in the hope that it will encourage you to have a go,” May says.

Despite the wine glass May totes around the prep space, the kitchen weathers some mild emotional storms. “This is the most bad-tempered dessert…” a producer says when May twice chafes at retake request and later a correction from Nikki concerning a finer historical point concerning custard.

But, as May points out at the end of the final episode, this is a normal process when cooking with a group. As the series was filmed in the waning days before COVID-19 shutdown, seeing the crew crowd together over their plates without masks is a poignant reminder of what we’ve lost, and what we hope to see again—even the uncomfortable moments.

It’s all part of cooking… and life. Oh Cook! is the experience of teaming on any specific task with a friend or family member, which is rarely conflict-free. And so perspective always returns; after fretting over the lumpiness of one of his meals, May says, “It’s a pie. It just goes in your face.”

“You fall out,” May reminds us, presiding over a shared meal with the entire crew, and reminds the viewers to not only attempt cooking, but cooking with friends. And that brings us right back around to the origin of pubs and restaurants; the term “pub,” May tells us, comes from a community sharing in a batch of beer. (Nikki encourages him to open a pub of his own; “Can you imagine?” May mutters into his wineglass–and then of course proceeds to opens a pub.)

Reality television is at its best when it neither preaches nor manipulates, but inspires, entertains, and uplifts without resorting to triteness. Fortunately, the only cheese in Oh Cook! is dumped into the shepherd’s pie.

Oh Cook! is currently streaming on Amazon.

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