Superchefs: The wives bite back

Their husbands are worth £100m between them, so they have no need to work. This week, though, Tana Ramsay was named the face of a new food programme while Jools Oliver is already an author. So, what motivates them? By Ed Caesar reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a food millionaire must be in want of a life. At least, it's true if the woman in question is Tana Ramsay, wife of the fiery maestro Gordon, or Jools Oliver, missus of the mockney moghul Jamie.

They may both talk themselves up as stay-at-home spouses, but Jools Oliver stepped out from her husband's shadow earlier this year, with a diary of pregnancy and motherhood entitled Minus Nine to One: The Diary of an Honest Mum. And this week, Tana Ramsay was named as the face of a new UKTV food programme called The Market Kitchen, building on the success of her cookbook, The Family Kitchen, and her regular column for Grazia magazine.

Why now? The phenomenon of the successful superchef's wife is a very recent one. When the nation watched Keith Floyd, did we care what his other half was up to? Did we yearn to know the details of his children's conception? Now, suddenly, it seems that it is not enough for our television chefs to rule our airwaves and our bookshelves - their spouses must muscle in too.

And why bother? It's not as if either of the families need the money. Jamie Oliver, with a library of best-selling cookbooks, a thriving television career and a restaurant to his name, has a fortune estimated this year at £25m. Ramsay, whose restaurant empire grows seemingly by the day - this week he announced plans to open establishments in Amsterdam, Paris, Singapore and Australia - has an estimated fortune of £67m.

But Tana and Jools, who should by rights be sipping Caipirinhas from midday and having thrice-daily manicures by now, have refused to let their husbands hog the spot- light. Jamie Oliver started it. Remember all those early cookbooks where, in between blathering on about his "absolutely perfect roast chicken" or how he was "doolally about herbs", Oliver would crowbar his long-suffering missus into the story.

Jools's presence wasn't an accident. Much more than a pretty face, Jools was crucial to the image of the Naked Chef as a likeable homebody, a regular guy. The tactic worked. With his wife twinkling in the background, Oliver has sold more cookbooks than any other British chef, ever.

But where does a F-WAG cross the line into being a personality in her own right? Jools's Rubicon was forded earlier this year when she released her book, a graphic trawl through the mucky business of pregnancy and birth. Dostoevsky it ain't. But then Jools, an ex-model, has never claimed any special literary expertise.

"I just wrote the diary because I was kind of bored," Mrs Oliver explained. "And I read it to my mum. She said, 'This is so funny. You're so good.' You think mums always say that... but I read it to a few friends. They went, 'Oh, you should get it published'. And then, obviously - being Jamie's wife, it's a lot easier, so I was very lucky. So I thought, 'Take the opportunity,' and I was lucky enough to do it."

Jools, it would be fair to say, has no plans for global domination and does not intend to write further books. The odd magazine spread, and tabloid titter (of the "Jools ditches Jamie for girlie night out" variety) aside, Mrs Oliver has largely slipped out of the limelight. That's more than can be said for Tana, who has shot from being a Montessori schoolteacher to a media starlet in her own right. Not only has she been creating salads for Peter Jones and writing a cookery book, called Tana Ramsay's Family Kitchen, which made a cameo appearance on the bestseller lists, she will soon, like her husband, be the face of a food magazine programme, The Market Kitchen, which will be filmed at Borough Market and marks a serious step up for Mrs Ramsay.

But what expertise does she bring? By her own admission, Tana did not become interested in cooking until her children were born. If her husband has earned his fame - learning to cook in the hothouses of the continent's kitchens, and building a seven-Michelin-starred empire of his own - Tana has piggy-backed to hers. She once admitted that Gordon bought her Delia Smith books to improve her culinary skills, hardly the confession of a woman desperate to be taken seriously as a food guru.

A lack of talent need not be a barrier to success, and Tana has built on her other qualities - she looks good in front of the camera, and is likeable - that have been fostered by her appearances on her husband's show, The F-Word.

And, like Jools, she makes no claims to greatness. "[My approach] has been... if I can do it, anyone can do it," said Tana, at the launch of her latest book. "I wanted to simplify everything right down. The recipes came from me and my mum, from friends and family, not some home economist."

She is also sanguine about her current foray into the media world. "I would be stupid if I thought that Gordon wasn't the reason I'd been asked to do it," she admitted. "But I can either dwell on that, and worry what people are going to say, or I can get on with it."

In different ways, then, both Mrs Oliver and Mrs Ramsay claim the same defence. They have been offered a chance to sell some books or front a television programme because of their husband's fame, and the transferred glow that sharing a name brings, and that they would be stupid to pass it up. And that's all very well - but how long will the public buy it?

"This is a relatively new thing, and I think it's going to be very hard for [F-WAGs] to have any real impact," says Max Clifford, the PR guru. "If you're a fan of Gordon Ramsay, why should you care what his wife does in the kitchen? So, success, or failure, will lie in the promotion. If [a chef's wife] can get a lot of television, a place where they can really sell themselves, then they might do well.

"What their husband gets them is a start, a shop window. If you can use that shop window well - national press, television, and magazines to show yourself off - and people respond to you, and think you really know what you're talking about, then that's the path to success. It can happen, but it's going to be incredibly difficult. The hard bit is maintaining any kind of interest - in fact, the wives will have to work harder than their husbands at promoting themselves.

"They can use their husbands as a starting point, but they have to move on quickly and become personalities in their own right. The first year will be the easiest - because, if you're Gordon Ramsay's wife talking about food, you've immediately got an audience - but the next three or four are much more difficult, because that's about sustaining the momentum. That's when people are going to work out whether you're a gimmick, or for real."

Only the passing of years will determine whether the F-WAGs are a flash in the pan, or here to stay. But until the moment of truth, it seems worth crossing our fingers for Tana et al to become global icons, if only for the moment when Gordon Ramsay is introduced as Tana Ramsay's husband.

The husbands behind the chefs

Michael Wynn Jones

Mr Delia Smith has been married to the queen of television cheffery for 35 years. They met, and fell in love at the Daily Mail, that well-known cradle of romance, when he was a deputy editor and she was their thrusting young food writer. Since those heady days on Fleet Street, Wynn Jones has largely stayed in the background.

His biggest contribution to Delia's post-Daily Mail career was to introduce her to Norwich Football Club, of which he is a lifelong fan. Between them, the power couple now own a 57 per cent controlling stake in the team.

It is not known, however, whether Delia sought her husband's advice before launching into her infamous half-time "let's be 'aving you" rallying call to the bemused Canaries supporters.

Johnnie Cradock

Poor old Johnnie Cradock. He must have thought that when he left the British Army - where he rose to the rank of major - his involvement in major conflict would be over. But, as the fourth husband of Britain's cleaver-wielding high priestess of television cuisine, Fanny Cradock, he saw his fair share of action.

Johnnie Cradock, who met Fanny in the 1940s, is best remembered for his handlebar moustache, monocle and pressed blazers. He would appear, got up like a pantomime villain, at the back of the studios when Fanny Cradock was showing the nation how to make rhubarb crumble, only to be barked at by his redoubtable better half at frequent intervals.

Someone obviously thought that seeing the Cradocks' testy kitchen relationship was must-watch television, and having presented the BBC's Kitchen Magic, the pair were snapped up by ITV to present Fanny & Johnnie. The couple also wrote a restaurant column for The Daily Telegraph for five years, as well as collaborating on numerous books. They were only married in 1977, but Fanny had long since adopted his name for her writing and broadcasting work.

Charles Saatchi

Charles Saatchi, the Baghdad-born advertising genius who made Saatchi & Saatchi, and, when forced to leave, made M & C Saatchi even better, is perhaps better known as patron of the YBAs (Young British Artists). A self-professed art shopaholic, he has sparked the careers of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and has been a leading player in putting British art back on to the world stage.

But he is also the husband of the domestic goddess and Britain's yummiest mummy, Nigella Lawson. When asked in a recent Independent interview, what it was like to be "married to the most desirable woman on the planet", he replied: "Unbelievable - literally. Women are all a little deranged, everybody knows that, but why Nigella would wish to be with me is beyond human understanding. My bleating gratitude perhaps, surely the world's most effective aphrodisiac."

Comments