Oliver's Army: Now Jamie has got designs on our dinner parties
From school dinners to healthy snacks, Jamie Oliver's influence is growing. Now he's got designs on our dinner parties, and is employing thousands of troops to help him sell us everything we need to entertain in style
The living-room is abuzz with female voices and laughter. Bottles of wine and bowls of nibbles are passed around as the assembled women pore over the assortment of wares spread in front of them, picking things up to try with the reverence and delight usually reserved for fine jewellery or designer handbags.
It's not the sort of excitement one might expect Kilner jars and mixing bowls to elicit – even these very pretty ones in tasteful shades of almond and duck-egg blue. Then the face that sank 1,000 turkey twizzlers pops up on the television screen in the corner and all becomes clear, as Jamie Oliver personally (well, as personally as possible via DVD) welcomes his guests to their first Jamie at Home party.
Jamie at Home is the latest offshoot of the TV chef's ever-expanding empire. The idea itself is nothing new; if anything, it is a concept that until now appeared rather outdated. In the same way that Tupperware convinced people that selling plastic containers was a good excuse for a party in the 1970s – and was later mimicked by everyone from Ann Summers to The Body Shop – Oliver's new idea relies on women (and a fair number of men) around the country getting their friends around for an evening to shop the contents of his Jme Collection from the comfort of the sofa.
Tonight, Marissa, 40, who gave up a career in marketing to care for her young children full-time, is hosting a Jamie night for six of her friends. It's her first party and something she hopes to make a regular event – initially as a hostess, for which she receives a percentage of the amount her guests splash on products in loyalty points, which she can then spend on the range herself, and later as a consultant, helping other people host parties and earning herself some commission in real money.
"One of the things I miss about working is being around lots of different people," she explains. "This way I get out and meet new people without encroaching on my time with my kids. It's a really social way of earning some money."
While the flexibility, particularly during a recession, is an obvious draw, it's the desirable products (Oliver has cannily brought on board a range of contemporary design talent) and the sprinkling of celebrity fairy dust that seem to elevate the Jamie at home parties above the unglamorous world of direct-selling. "I wouldn't have considered doing this kind of thing for any other company," says Marissa, a self- confessed foodie. "The quality of the products is great, so I knew I wouldn't be selling anyone anything they didn't really want. And everyone loves Jamie..."
Dolly, a senior team member who is acting as mistress of ceremonies, eulogising chopping boards and slipping in juicy, first-hand, Jamie-related anecdotes, agrees that Jamie at Home has successfully established itself as a cut above. "I knew we had Jamie as a personality and that we had good products – but to tell the truth I am shocked about how successful it has been, especially given the state of the economy."
Many of Dolly's team of hostesses and consultants are former high-flyers who have given up their jobs to look after their children, but some do it in addition to full-time jobs in the City. Oliver's appeal is too broad to limit the business to a single demographic: "Last week I went to a huge house in an upmarket area where 20 women spent £1,200 in total," says Dolly. "The next night I was in a little starter home with three couples. And Jamie is a bloke's bloke, so men are often there."
At Marissa's party, Oliver's popularity – and that of his wares – is in little doubt: "I had no idea what the range would be like, but it's beautiful. The kind of stuff you'd want on your wedding list," says Steph, 29, weighing up whether she can afford to buy a chunky wooden carving dish for her boyfriend. Almost everyone buys something on the night, most opting for the old-fashioned glass storage jars given a contemporary twist with pastel-coloured lids (from £2.50). The American oak serving platter (from £15) is another favourite.
Later, one guest quietly confides that she finds the idea of home-selling a little pressurised and uncomfortable, but hers seems to be the only voice of dissent; everyone else is just disappointed that they had to make do with a Jamie DVD rather than the man himself. But, with 2,000 consultants already signed up and 16,000 parties held, Jamie seems – yet again – to be on to a winner. Tupperware is clearly so last century...
For more information, visit www.jamieathome.com
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