Too often, television producers chuck together two supposed “best mates” in the hope that viewers won’t spot the fact that they’re only good friends when the cameras are running. Well, there’s no fakery here – as is immediately apparent when Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty plonk themselves at a table during a break in filming their new series and start talking. And talking. And talking.
The food fight of the title is a mission to take the best of British food abroad in order to have it judged, by international experts, against the best products from other countries. You might think that the French make the world’s best cheeses – but is this so? And how does a British banger compare to the best German wurst?
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to observe the revolution that’s happened in food here – whether it’s beer, cheese, pies, there are so many beautiful things going on,” says Jamie. He doesn’t want to reveal the results of any of the contests – he thinks we’ll be “astounded” by some of the revelations.
But as the involvement of Gwyneth Paltrow (Jamie’s pal), Jonathan Ross and Alan Carr shows, the food contest is far from the sole focus of the show. Presented from a formerly disused cafe at the end of Southend pier, now kitted out as “Jamie and Jimmy’s café”, it’s the life-long relationship between Jamie and Jimmy that takes centre stage.
When did they first clap eyes on each other? “When we were three,” says Jimmy. “No, when we were one,” says Jamie. And with that, the memories keep tumbling out. How they were cast as two of the three wise men in the nursery school nativity play. The blue and red scooters they played on. Their shared love, as teenagers, of citizen’s band radio. “I plugged mine into the TV aerial, which had an amplifier. And he strapped his to an old hubcap. And we could talk to each other,” recalls Jamie wistfully. “My CB handle was Beefburger 1.”
“We had a lot more freedom than kids these days,” he says. “When we were six, seven, eight, we were riding to each other’s houses. We’d go off for half a day in the summer holidays, build camps. It was proper Huckleberry Finn stuff.”
Jimmy and Jamie grew up in the same village of Clavering in Essex, where Jamie’s parents owned the local pub and Jimmy did the washing up to earn a bit of extra cash. They went to the same primary school, the same secondary school, the same parties. At each stage of childhood, they were pretty much inseparable. “As teenagers we were like identical twins,” recalls Jamie. “There was a lot of mousse and gel. And Kouros aftershave, Lacoste tops and stone-washed jeans.”
“We discovered girls together, often went out with the same ones,” says Jimmy. “After all, we lived in a village – there weren’t a lot to go round. We used to go round to another mate’s house, we had a video club. You’d watch a video and take your girlfriend and have a snog.” He turns to Jamie: “Do you remember that?” Jamie nods.
Did this sharing of the local female talent ever cause problems? Amazingly, not. “We were very close,” says Jamie, “and we’ve never fallen out.”
And what were they like with their teachers?
“We were like angels with pitchforks,” says Jimmy. “We were little cherubs but we loved to run round and be lunatics.”
Jimmy was the more academic of the two; Jamie was “ungraded and useless” and left at 16 with two GCSEs. “School wasn’t the place to have us both together. We had too much fun and I held him back,” says Jamie. “As soon as I left school [for catering college], he became clever.”
“Clever” Jimmy got a degree in zoology and studied for a PhD in entomology. Then, in 2003, he heeded the call of the good life and, with a business loan from Jamie, bought a farm in Suffolk, which turned into his big break when his attempt to make a business out of rare-breed pigs was televised by BBC2 in Jimmy’s Farm.
Jamie and Jimmy returned to their secondary school to film a piece for the new series. “Mrs Jackson, my form tutor, brought out a whole load of my reports,” says Jamie. “They said: ‘Nice lad, needs to try, not particularly academic.’”
Of course, the verdict of a Jamie Oliver school report is just that: academic. Jamie’s success is extraordinary – recently it was revealed that he is Britain’s second biggest-selling author, with total book sales of 126 million.
Yet even this is no guarantee that his voice will be heard where, he believes, it matters. Ask him if he intends to return to campaigning, and he says that it’ll have to take a back seat. Why? Because he is angry and bewildered that the government has pulled back on improvements made following his groundbreaking 2005 series Jamie’s School Dinners. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has torn up the nutritional rules for academy schools – allowing each to set its own food standards.
“This lot are probably not as socially minded and rounded as Tony’s lot. I have always been apolitical, so please don’t think I’m having a rant,” says Jamie, launching into a rant, “but Gove does not understand food in schools. Taking away those nutritional standards is an incredible abuse of policy. For the life of me, I do not understand why he’s done it.”
He is particularly livid that Gove’s department no longer collects figures for the number of school meals eaten – “which basically means that he doesn’t give a s*** about whether numbers go up or down. If he doesn’t know, he doesn’t care… he’s obsessed with reducing red tape. I’ve met him and he’s very nice, very energetic. Sadly, I happen to disagree with so many of the things that he’s done to school food.”
The experience has left Oliver a bit battered. “I’m not going to waste my energy talking to this lot. I am going to put my head down, get through this bloody recession, and in a few years time I’ll be ready to bang on doors again.”
In any case, he says, ministers “are like ships that pass in the night – they’ll all be gone fairly soon. I’ll still be here in 20 years. Mr Gove won’t.”