Turning up the heat
Roasted, mashed, political – Jamie Oliver has dealt with all manner of hot potatoes as a self-styled warrior waving the flag for a food revolution.
Today he strides amid the culinary landscape like a modern day gastronomic Goliath, but there was a time when he was merely a young David, unknowingly constructing his future kingdom from his parents’ country pub in Essex.
His passion for food began to simmer at The Cricketers and after leaving school at 16 with two GCSEs to his name, he enrolled at Westminster Catering College before bagging his first job as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden.
Then came his big break. During the filming of a documentary on the renowned River Café, a baby-faced Jamie – working as a sous chef and only drafted in that day to replace another staff member who was off sick – caught the eye of producer Pat Llewellyn.
Pat, who discovered and directed the Two Fat Ladies, took the ingredients of Jamie’s raw charisma – cheeky chappy charm, an infectious passion and boundless energy – and turned up the heat.
Before long Jamie was sliding down bannisters and revving up his scooter, shooting the breeze with market traders and tearing at herbs like there was no tomorrow.
Like macerated fruit to a soft sponge, we soaked it up. Jamie, with his disregard for plates and all-consuming love of a wooden chopping board, was the friend you always wanted, living the lifestyle you had always dreamed of.
Single-handedly he made cooking cool again; a culinary rebel gathering groupies jaded by Delia’s paint-by-numbers guide on how to boil an egg.
The Naked Chef – so-called because he wanted to “strip back” the complexities of cooking – was blazing a crumb trail that the likes of a silk nightie-clad Nigella would follow.
Jamie’s dynamic bish-bash-bosh style made him a middle-class rock star, playing out wham, bam, thank you Parma ham as the alternative dinner party soundtrack.
“There wasn’t really a moment I was famous,” Jamie reflects today, his boyish looks belying his 41 years. “But when I did my first book-signing and the queues were absolutely amazing, I thought then that I was doing OK. I’ve never really played the fame game but I do remember that I was able to get into restaurants easier than before.”
There have been endless books and signings since – Jamie is Britain’s second bestselling author of all time after JK Rowling – as well as countless TV series including one that launched his much-lauded Fifteen Apprentice Programme, which has since provided jobs in the kitchen to those who have fallen out of mainstream employment.
Jamie, for all his wealth and fame, has never forgotten to give something back. His campaigns to drastically improve the quality of school meals and latterly, to introduce a sugar tax to help combat obesity, come from an inherent desire to use his profile to make a difference.
The war of attrition, the sleepless nights, the political hounding; these are battle scars that fly in the face of criticism that he’s out to boost his own ego, posing as a so-called man of the people out of touch with the real world.
It’s the third time our paths have crossed for an interview and each time I’m staggered by his bloody-mindedness and unwavering energy. The last time we spoke, in a converted barn in the Cotswolds owned by his friend, Blur bassist Alex James, he was hoping that his sugar tax would go through.
Now that it has been passed, what does he make of the response and how does he measure its success? “Well the tax doesn’t start until 2018,” he says. “But it’s encouraging and I was hugely surprised when it was announced.
“The response, typically, has been constant complaining by the food and drink industry but until they decide to be part of the solution, that’s always going to happen.”
He had hoped the long-awaited obesity strategy would prove a “world-leading game-changing document” but has been disappointed by the government’s “underwhelming” plans, which he believes have “so much missing”.
Jamie accepts that it’s not all on the government to act but believes there are occasions when we have to be “nannied” and this is one of them.
“Leave it up to parents and there will be many parents who do an incredible job cooking from fresh and creating balanced meals,” he says.
“But there will be others who simply won’t put a shift in and let their kids eat anything. I’ve seen lunchboxes full of the remains of last night’s takeaway. I’ve been in houses where the family hasn’t eaten a piece of fresh fruit or a vegetable for weeks. I’ve seen toddlers drinking cola from a baby bottle.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility; government, parents, schools, local government, businesses. It’s going to take a team effort.”
Despite his tireless work for a cause, there has been criticism of his campaigns. Does that become a bitter pill to swallow?
“I don’t really read the press anymore,” he says. “If you’re going to try and change things for the better, you’re always going to get resistance from somewhere.
“It doesn’t really bother me unless it’s lazy journalism, which is just wrong. There was a story about tipping last year and the newspaper in question wasn’t interested in the facts, which are that we have a fairer tipping policy than pretty much anyone else on the high street.”
After a lifetime in the public eye, Jamie insists it doesn’t take its toll. If it has made him wary of the press he certainly doesn’t show it; he’s relaxed, candid, friendly company.
“It doesn’t bother me too much except when the paps [paparazzi] chase Jools, because that sometimes gets a bit scary,” he says.
“She’ll be walking along in her gym kit and some bloke will start following her and so she’ll speed up and then they speed up and only after a few minutes do they pull out a camera. It’s not good.”
Sadly, however, it’s not set to go away anytime soon, with a new son becoming the latest addition to the Oliver household. Family, naturally, is a big part of Jamie’s life and infuses much of what he does; from his politically charged School Dinners campaign to throwing Big Feastival – a three-day family-friendly festival – in the Cotswolds every summer.
While the likes of Gennaro Contaldo, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray have been big mentors in Jamie’s life – generous with both their time and knowledge – his dad’s influence is telling. “He instilled in me a work ethic which I think you need if you’re going to be successful,” he says.
Sage advice came from his granddad too. “He used to say, ‘There’s only two things that will get you in trouble boy; your cock and your wallet.’”
Wise words he has heeded, with a rock solid marriage to Jools, his wife of 16 years, and millions in the bank. But despite his immense success, his famous work ethic shows no sign of slowing down. He’ll soon be launching a second branch of his upmarket Barbecoa restaurant in Victoria, which will specialise in aged meat and rare whiskies.
It joins a spate of new openings in the Nova development and with the vast number of restaurants constantly opening in London, I figure it must be difficult to stay competitive.
“It’s a challenge of course and it’s getting harder,” Jamie concedes. “But you just have to be confident in your offer and make sure that the customers come back because of the great food and great service.”
Social media channel Instagram, Jamie says, has changed the way we discover great places to eat, which he believes is a good thing – “providing people take good pictures”.
But surely we’ve reached saturation point with “concept” restaurants? “No, I don’t think so,” he counters. “As long as the idea is good and the food is great and the front of house is great, then good luck.”
Brexit, he says, was a “huge disappointment” but he’s a little reluctant to enter the political minefield. “I think my feelings were pretty clear,” he says. “It’s strange that most of the major politicians who were pushing for us to leave have either disappeared or been reshuffled.”
I mention there’s a growing view that British workers view the hospitality industry as a job rather than a career. “It’s definitely a challenge to recruit young British chefs and waiting staff. I’ve got chefs in my restaurants from all over the world and I always have done.”
As we part I ask Jamie about his guilty pleasures. “Good whiskey,” he says. “And salt and vinegar Hula Hoops.”
It’s fitting really, for Jamie is the man Rudyard Kipling so famously described. The one who can talk with crowds and keep his virtue and walk with kings and yet not lose his common touch.