Jamie Oliver might be forgiven for stepping out of the limelight, but instead, he’s championing Italian cooking and stepping up his campaign against child obesity
By Richard Smirke
“I have to put up with a lot of silly bollocks,” says an exhausted Jamie Oliver, his voice a mixture of resigned acceptance and sulky irritation, made hoarser by a persistent and painful-sounding cough. The comment comes at the end of a short moan about newspapers that have a “really robust legal department” but often don’t have a nutritionist on their books, “so there is a lot of miscommunication about food and a lot of nonsense about ‘Jamie says this and does that.’”
It clearly frustrates him, although his dismissal of “silly bollocks” in the press seems to encompass more than simply accurate nutritional reporting. On the day we meet at his Manchester Jamie’s Italian restaurant, the 43-year-old chef is once again in the headlines, accused of cultural appropriation for his range of microwavable “punchy jerk rice”, which contains few of the ingredients traditionally used in a Jamaican jerk marinade.
“I’m not cynical but after a 20-year period you do become battle-hardy.”
Just a few weeks before, his admission of being a “weekend parent” to his five children was picked up by all the dailies, while his years of health food campaigning have seen him labelled as the “fun police” and accused by former health secretary Andrew Lansley of “lecturing people about what to eat”. Two years ago, he came under fire for what waiting staff at his Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain said was an exploitative tipping policy – claims the company vehemently rejected. Even after two decades in the public eye, being on the receiving end of such criticism still rankles.
“It affects me in the sense that it’s boring – that the [media] machine just continues running and my trust is challenged,” he explains. “You try and build relationships with newspapers but that’s a hard one because I work for them and then I get kicked up the arse by them. It’s like being in an abusive relationship. It’s very tough. I’ve been food editor for newspapers that have done stories that are a) not true and b) that they’ve been quite happy to splash all over the front cover. I’m not cynical but after a 20-year period you do become a bit battle-hardy.”
In person, Oliver comes across exactly the same as he does on the telly: friendly, polite, engaged, affable and with the same down-to-earth boyish charm and energy that first made him a star as the Naked Chef back in the late 1990s. He talks quickly in long sentences, peppered by the occasional swearword, and tacitly steers the conversation to where he wants it to go (not jerk rice-gate), while giving the impression that no subject is off limits. Most of all, he’s highly committed, driven and convincing when it comes to his twin passions: food and healthy eating.
“Food is a lot about history but it’s more about soul. I used to be a drummer and you can play a beat or you can play a beat,” he says, stressing the word play. “It’s the same with food. You need soul. The fake illusion that everything is forever, whether it’s a seed variety or a farming method or in Italy the family-run business – they are all very fragile. You’ve got to keep them alive.”
As part of that process, Oliver’s latest Channel 4 cookery show and tie-in recipe book, both called Jamie Cooks Italy, follow the chef and his long-time mentor Gennaro Contaldo as they travel around the country learning traditional home-cooked recipes from the nonnas (grandmothers). For the first time, those recipes will also form the basis of a new special menu at every Jamie’s Italian – an accidental act of synchronicity that the chef says was down to the TV show and book going “over budget and a year and a half over time”.
Despite the setbacks, he remains extremely proud of the work. “I think we did the nonnas justice and I think we did Italy justice. To then bring it alive in a building like this,” he says, looking around the grandiose interior of his King Street restaurant, “feels really appropriate.”
The launch of a major new TV series, cookery book and tie-in menu comes at an important juncture for Oliver’s flagship restaurant chain. In January, the business announced that it was to close 12 of its 37 UK branches, as part of a rescue deal with creditors. Oliver, who is estimated to be worth around £150 million and lives with his wife Jools and five children in a £9 million home in Hampstead, personally invested £3 million of his own money into the business, which, like many other casual dining restaurants, has struggled in the face of intense competition, rent rises, higher business rates and increasing food prices.
“The high street is harder than ever. No one is making money out of the restaurant industry now. Now it’s just survival – stay alive, stay relevant, work on all the things that you normally have to work on but also do more,” concedes Oliver, who doesn’t shy away from the difficult task he faces.
“I think it’s going to be survival of the fittest. Everyone has been affected. Certainly for us in Jamie’s Italian, the original overriding concept was how do you democratise homemade pasta that’s made fresh on site every day and make an eleven quid chicken dish with an amazing free-range chicken, while everyone else is mucking around with horrible stuff that I wouldn’t feed to my kids. That was always the point and to continue to do that we have to be as clever as possible to survive. None of us can operate in the same way we have anymore.”
His belief is that introducing an element of storytelling, such as the culinary history of the nonnas to the restaurant, is one that customers will like. “My instinct is that this is a really nice way to talk to the audience and, actually, is a restaurant a restaurant or
is it a theatre?”
The challenge of balancing the business’s commercial needs with the ethical and transparent practices that Oliver promotes adds an extra level of pressure, he says.
“It’s very hard. I won’t bullshit you. What you pass on to the customer for welfare or ethics or quality is margin. So I have a smaller margin because we give more. Now anyone can say that and if you go and talk to Ask or Zizzi or Carluccio’s or Côte about their ingredients they’re all going say everything is great and fresh, but I can prove [we use] a free-range chicken.
“I’m not saying that we don’t make mistakes. Of course, little chinks happen here and there, but only through human error. Not through my error. But we’re pretty rock solid. I have developed software that doesn’t get used by any other company on the planet that makes us procure in a sustainable, ethical way and meet welfare standards. When the horse meat scandal happened I had a press release out in three-and-a-half minutes because I could [trace where the meat came from]. There were organisations that didn’t do anything for two months because they couldn’t.”
For all his success, Oliver is the first to admit he’s not immune to failure. The chef has previously stated that he messed up around 40 percent of his business ventures at a cost of approximately £90 million. Among the flops is Recipease, his chain of cookery shops, and his short-lived chain of British-themed Union Jacks restaurants.
“I’m good on clarity. I’m often proficient. But I’m not the businessman everyone says I am. I’m absolutely not and I think my history confirms that. But I do know my heart is in the right place and when I follow it I’m bang on every time,” he passionately states. In the past year, he says he’s restructured the business of Jamie’s Italian “in every possible way: management, structure, reporting systems, where people are physically. Before it used to be almost a completely separate business. Now it’s all under my roof.”
He says that the biggest lesson he’s learned is to trust his instinct. “It’s only since I turned 40 that I’ve started tuning into it and realising ‘those things that didn’t go well. Be honest – you knew. Why didn’t you confront that person?’ And that’s all to do with age and seniority and respecting someone that’s cleverer, better trained and older than you and believing their bollocks when you should have just followed that,” he says pointing to his heart.
“Tuning into that is possibly part of the joy of getting older. If there is any,” he adds, bursting into a big hearty laugh. “If I look at my media work team, we don’t have ups and downs. We’ve had a banging 20 years and we’re global and proficient and we’re getting better and better all the time. So we need the restaurants to come into that.”
He goes on to loosely describe the future of Jamie’s Italian as becoming part of a wider “operations content” business, “almost a bit like Disney. It’s curated space. I ain’t got parks or cinemas, but I have got restaurants.
“The child obesity picture is really bad. It’s not getting better. I can only apologise.”
“The British public have always followed me loyally on my content journey, because I’m either working for them or I’m following my curiosity and they like both.” He points to the success of last year’s 5 Ingredients cook book, 2017’s biggest-selling book. “That was about tone and timing. It’s almost like going to a party with a good PA system and good tracks. That’s not what makes a good party. It’s the DJ. So I’m just trying to fathom out what the hell that looks like in a moment when we’re seeing the Über-isation of every flipping industry.”
Outside of his family and business interests, Oliver’s primary focus continues to be the issue that he’s doggedly campaigned about since Jamie’s School Dinners in 2005 – children’s health. He refers to the latest Public Health England figures, which show that the proportion of severely obese boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 11 has reached record levels, as evidence that the problem has now reached crisis point.
“The picture is really bad. It’s not getting better. It’s got worse. I can only apologise,” says Oliver regretfully. “We need everything to change. Instead of single initiatives we need a holistic joined-up national approach. We need to make it easier and cheaper for families to thrive and do well. There needs to be reformulation [of unhealthy and convenience foods] so even if you don’t do anything and continue eating the same shit you always did, the fact that there is 20 or 40 per cent less fat and sugar is phenomenally powerful.”
He does, however, believe there are glimmers of hope on the horizon and praises the government for its revised childhood obesity plan, published in July. “Mrs May’s government has done a good job, which is contrary to what I very openly said was a terrible job on chapter one.”
Included among the plan’s proposals is legislation about calorie labelling for restaurants, cafes and takeaways, and a 9pm watershed on advertising high in fat, sugar and salt food products. “Now we wait and see if there’s steel within the government. Are they going to do what they say or are they going to get battered by [businesses] who just want to make a few quid making people really unhealthy?”
For his part, next year will see the formal launch of Oliver’s 2030 project – a hugely ambitious long-term plan to halve child obesity within the next 12 years that’s already got the backing of Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon. “It’s a life’s work but it’s the most profoundly important thing for Britain,” he solemnly states. “This is not a romantic project for me. This is a horrible time-consuming upsetting thing. There’s no romance or glamour in me talking about this as a challenge.”
To illustrate the point, he recalls the less than enthusiastic reaction of his own team several years ago when he first suggested the idea of “spending 18 months doing a documentary convincing the British public why they need another tax in their lives. Can you imagine what their reaction was?”
The fact that 2015’s Jamie’s Sugar Rush documentary helped bring about the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, more commonly known as the sugar tax, was both vindication and reward. He now wants it extending to milk shakes.
“These are really hard things to do,” he explains, ignoring his publicist’s attempts to wrap up the interview and usher him to his next engagement. “It’s not just about the tax or the money generated being ring-fenced for breakfast clubs and school sports. Symbolically, it says to industry if you don’t stop taking advantage we will do something about it. So for all the crap that I got, I very smugly know I’m right and I know it is full of love and is a tax for good that has got the most disadvantaged communities at the heart of it.”
Jamie Cooks Italy, on Mondays Channel 4, and All 4. Cookbook Jamie Cooks Italy (Michael Joseph, £26) is out now
Main image: Howard Barlow
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