There are clouds of flour, a table piled with fettuccine and the aftermath of a pasta-making masterclass when I arrive at the studio where Jamie Oliver is supposed to be having his picture taken.
“They wanted the flour thing,”
says the 42-year-old man-child from Clavering in Essex, explaining the proposed art direction of the photoshoot. “And you can’t … Well, what are we flouring? Do you want me to make some bread or some pasta or some batter? So we made some pasta. It means you don’t have to fake the moves. I’m not very good at that, generally speaking.”
So far, so classican “authentic geezer” Oliver. Minutes later, he’s calling me, “mate”, declaring that, “the public is my first boss — after my wife”, and managing to keep a straight face as he refers to himself as the third-party brand “JO”. As in: “There’s a JO thing, which is that I’m quite mainstream. I do feel like a public servant.”
The impromptu pasta party is indicative of something else: Oliver is completely incapable of sticking to the script. I’d been warned before the interview that it would be impossible to keep him on track, that he would deviate endlessly — whether as an attempt to dodge subjects, or, most likely, because he has spent most of his professional career chronically sleep-deprived.
His fifth child, River Rocket Blue Dallas, was born last August; his eldest, Poppy Honey Rosie, is now 15. But it sounds as if it isn’t the kids keeping Oliver awake at night — he’s quite capable of doing that on his own.
“Just getting into bed is the focus — alarms are set, things vibrate,” he says, describing the strict bedtime routine he has had to impose on himself. “It is funny that you can be 42 and you still need to tell yourself to get to bed, stop working, stop emailing, stop, stop, stop.”
I wonder if he also has a buzzer to remind himself to come up for breath? It is staggering how much the man can talk. He spends 15 minutes responding to my first question — about the idea behind his new book, 5 Ingredients: Quick & Easy Food — and even then I’m not sure I have an answer. The scope of his monologue is epic, breathless, byzantine and occasionally baffling. For example, he extols at length on the subject of “best friends” — “We’re talking about what friends around the world love each other, and always have a party” — before realise that he’s talking about flavour combinations rather than long-distance buddies. How ever do they edit him for television?
Yet, it’s exactly this sprawling passion that makes him so engaging. I’d follow him into battle, if I could figure out where and when it was taking place. The book, I eventually glean, is a tome of five-ingredient recipes, idiot-proof in their simplicity. “Combos that work together, that want to work … so even if you cook it badly, it’s still good.”
He was supposed to be publishing a book about Italy this year,
but it was taking too long, so he whipped up this new one in four months instead. Not that he wants you to think it’s been a rush job, mind.
“This book wanted to be written. It was like an avalanche — and the energy I was getting from all my team was nuts. We have food stylists who test the belt and braces, but then the recipes go off to random people in the company who don’t cook that much. Then it goes out to total strangers — cooks and non-cooks. The failure in cooking, for me, is always in the front of my mind. When people ask, ‘Why do you sell so many books?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, we test stuff five times in the company, twice with strangers. Every recipe I write costs me £1,800.”
He briefly attempts to intellectualise the book’s five-ingredient premise: “The most important ingredient is restraint. Even for great cooks, it’s a problem — just adding another thing, the temptation …” But fundamentally, like all of Oliver’s 19 previous books, it is “trying to fix a problem that the public always puts in front of me”. This time, the problem is “Monday-to-Friday cooking … for busy parents, busy people”. So don’t be surprised if one of the five components comes out of a jar. “I’ll use a Geeta’s mango chutney, right? Because they’re in the supermarkets, they’re a small start-up and they’re the best.”
Speaking as someone who never finds the time to grind my own cardamom seeds, the book’s lack of faddish and fiddly micro-ingredients is refreshing. Still, some of the recipes are beyond basic (scrambled egg omelette, anyone?). Is this because millennials have reached peak hopelessness in the kitchen?
“I’m not sure people are cooking less in the past decade,”
he says. “I think the way we’re consuming and cooking is different. There are loads of types of cooks now. You have component cooks, people that will get a prepacked bit, but knock up a fresh bit.”
Ah yes, the component or “assembly” cooks, popularised on Instagram and YouTube, who don’t so much lovingly craft their meals as hurl their daily intake of protein and B12 onto a baking tray and into an oven faster than it takes the rest of us to crack an egg. Oliver spearheaded the trend with his 30- then 15-Minute Meals books. Now he has been overtaken in sales by a younger, snappier upstart. Joe Wicks, aka the Body Coach, is the 30-year-old fitness guru who has amassed an Instagram audience of close to 2m for his daily workouts and “#leanin15” video recipes — 15 seconds, that is. If the older chef is rattled, he’s not letting on.
“Joe’s done in publishing what no one else other than me, or a few others, have done. He’s a phenomenon, [his audience] is 12 years younger than mine. He’s probably doing a better job of getting 18- to 28-year-olds moving and eating fresh than anyone else right now. He’s talking about real food instead of, like, shit in a tray.”
Oliver, of course, has long prided himself on being the number one nemesis of “shit in a tray”, whether through his campaigns against Turkey Twizzlers in the school canteen, salt-laden ready meals or lazy takeaway culture.
He is surprisingly optimistic, then, about the rise of business models such as Deliveroo, which make ordering in easier than ever — and which he says now accounts for 10% of his restaurant business. Obviously, he’d rather the public was cooking, “but my true hate of the high street is filthy little two-bit chicken shops selling the most horrible, hydrogenated, low-welfare, imported, filthy chicken that is full of sat fats. If Deliveroo trumps some of them, I’m really happy.”
He envisages a glorious future
where, instead of getting a ready-made meal brought to your door, a man on a bike could arrive in 15 minutes with the raw ingredients for you to cook instead. Like all of Oliver’s ideas, it’s not about being dogmatic, it’s about whatever hacks and shortcuts it takes to get people eating that little bit healthier. God knows we need to.
One in three children in England leaves primary school overweight or obese, while soaring obesity levels among millennials means they are at risk of dying younger than their parents (nearly 3m 16- to 24-year-olds weigh too much, a million more than two decades ago, according to the latest figures from the. UK, NHS).
Oliver is enraged by Theresa May’s watering down of the anti-obesity strategy, which he helped devise during David Cameron’s government — and which was due to be released when Cameron resigned in June 2016. May’s version, unveiled quietly last August, included a sugar tax, but dropped the two measures that Public Health England said would have the most impact on childhood obesity: a ban on price-cutting promotions for junk food in supermarkets and restricting advertising of unhealthy foods to children on TV, social media and websites.
Oliver has been itching to let rip on the subject from the moment we sat down. Come on then, let’s have it …
“I have never, ever seen …” he begins, so angry he can barely get his words out. “Look, I have met four Prime Ministers. They are all very different, but… May’s government was completely locked down. Her advisors, that have now gone — thank you, Lord — kept all the information away from even their own ministers. It was released at the same time the A-level results came out, with no marketing, no comms, no PR. In code, that means, ‘We don’t give a f***’. It was unbelievable. Blatant. I had been working intimately with Mr Cameron and his group. It could have been a moment of national pride and at least she would have been able to look everyone in the eye and say we are going to get some change in the obesity graph in 10 years.”
Instead, she “completely tore it up. What she did was awful, how she did it was awful. When I saw Mr Cameron running those sessions, he had legit people debating the right thing. It wasn’t all about, ‘Oh, let’s all pat each other on the back.’ But what’s even more scary,” he laughs, “ is that when May released the child strategy that she had ruined, I believe her team were genuinely chuffed with what they had done!”
He was similarly horrified by May’s election manifesto — since dropped — to scrap free infant school lunches for all.
“It’s like something a 10-year-old would do in basic maths to save cash. It’s not strategic. It’s not long- or even medium-term thinking. Given everything we know that you get from the school lunch system — better attainment, better learning, less absenteeism … When we give away three years of free food, it’s basically giving kids and parents a little taster of cheese in the cheese shop. It’s never been about freebies for middle-class kids, it’s about seed-funding the system.
“So to make it a lead manifesto?” he shakes his head in disbelief. “‘We are going to stitch up the old, stitch up the young and we are going to bring back fox-hunting.’ I mean, it was … ‘What the f***?’ ”
So he voted Corbyn then?
“No, I didn’t. I won’t say how I voted, but I didn’t vote Conservative and I didn’t vote Corbyn.”
Oliver has made a point of not voting in general elections since he made the TV series Jamie’s School Dinners in 2005 and had to work closely with the then-Labour government. “I don’t want my political things to sway my ability to make changes. But I did vote this year and I voted because it was a protest vote.”
When Oliver turned 40 a few years ago,
he gave a magazine interview in which he described feeling “deeply inadequate … Am I good enough? Am I clever enough?” Is he out of his early midlife slump?
“Three to four years ago, I wasn’t in a great place. I woke up one day, like, ‘I just don’t feel very happy,’ and that was a first. It’s because I’d had five years with 3½ hours’ sleep. Working in the food industry, not going to the gym enough, zero time for myself. I’m in a much better place now. I try to get to bed at 11pm and I’m up at 5am, but that’s still three hours more than I was getting.”
Oliver left school at 16 with two GCSEs, before getting an NVQ in home economics and working as a sous-chef at the River Café. The BBC discovered him by chance — he was standing in for a chef who was off sick on the day the film crew rolled in to make a programme about the west London restaurant. As a child he had helped out at his parents’ pub — washing the bins aged five and chopping veg by the time he was eight. He is keen to knock the same work ethic into his kids, starting with his two teenage girls.
“I want them to work in Dad’s pub, like I did,” he says. “It is ingrained in me to worry about common sense, being polite, sweat, graft, knowing the concept of tired feet, accomplishment. But at the same time, my kids love school and they work hard there. The other day, I thought I would jump in the room and catch my eldest daughter out because
I thought she was on Snapchat, but she was talking to herself in Spanish. I never did that. I never applied myself at school, so at the moment I am trying to back off the slave-driver instinct.”
Oliver and his wife, Jools, who designs a children’s wear and nursery range for Mothercare, have a combined wealth of £150m, according to The Sunday Times Rich List 2017 — down £90m since their peak in 2014. He remains one of the wealthiest chefs in the world, but this year has been tough. In January, he announced he would be closing six of his 42 Italian restaurants, blaming “a tough market — and post-Brexit the pressures and unknowns have made it even harder”. He was an outspoken Remainer, “but I am over it now and focused on the future. It’s what the country wanted.”
Does he think we’re headed for a recession?
“I don’t think it’s not going to have bumps. It puts interesting challenges on you. We’re now looking at all our cured meats coming from Britain. Look, I’m passionate about making it work.”
The Italian restaurants may be closing, but his empire is expanding elsewhere. His latest venture is a branch of his Diner restaurant at Gatwick airport, selling hot dogs and burgers. It sounds a long way from the current foodie trends for clean eating and vegan. I expect him to be dismissive of both, but having recently studied for a masters degree in nutrition (“best thing I’ve ever done”), he can confirm the herbivores are onto something.
“The vegan diet tracks better than anything on longevity, health and lower cases of disease,”
he says. “I am split these days because vegans do annoy me, but I also do care for them. And the clean-eating thing really annoys me, but it is an energy that is coming out because the government and businesses lie a lot and because, while we are confused on packaging, we do not know what the f*** it is that we are eating.”
Not that the vegan lobby appreciates his endorsement. His restaurants are often subjected to raids, involving “20 scruffy, weird-looking fellas putting iPads of slaughtered animals in front of kids having spaghetti bolognese on a Saturday lunch”.
“They hate me,” he explains, “because we do stories about higher welfare meat, which I am deeply passionate about, but for them it is on or off — there ain’t no stepping stones, whereas I’m all about stepping stones.
“I have done more to push plant-based diets than any of them,” he adds, citing the fact that in most of his books at least 65% of the recipes are vegetarian.
He bemoans the fact that “one of the best bits of work I’ve ever done” is an entirely vegetarian book that he can’t get published. Or rather, that he won’t publish it “until I can do the TV series, but Channel 4 do not want me to do the TV series because they did a veggie show once and it bombed. But I wrote that book because the public told me to — the data tells me they want it.”
Our time is up, but Oliver can’t stop talking. An increasingly agitated publicist has been hovering at the door for the past 10 minutes. Midflow, he is eventually marched out of the room and down the stairs while I trail after him. There’s another project he wants to tell me about, focused on nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life “from pregnant mothers to primary-school age”. The UK, he notes, “has the worst breastfeeding statistics on the planet”.
If he thinks vegans are sensitive, just wait until he wades into that debate.
“It’s a nightmare. Even I am scared to go there,” he shudders. Really? I can’t see him being able to keep his mouth shut.