Jamie Oliver: dyslexia was the making of me

The Naked Chef also talks about his new Channel 4 series Jamie's Quick and Easy Food

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“Now that is a super-slick, tight, beautiful book, right?” Jamie Oliver is showing me the new hardback edition of his 20th book, 5 Ingredients – Quick & Easy Food, a collection of recipes offering every rushed metropolitan’s dream: great, simple-to-knock-out meals made from only five elements. Nirvana without a shopping list.

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The food, mainly low-carb finger-lickers like chilli crab silky omelette and crispy squid and smashed avo, looks fantastic, but 5 Ingredients has another, greater asset, the unstoppable enthusiasm of the man who wrote it.

“Sometimes in any trade or craft, in art or music or books, everyone wants to know how experienced or how qualified you are,” says Oliver, in the London HQ of a personal publishing, broadcasting and catering empire worth some £150 million. “But, ultimately, what really matters is energy and connection. Are you connecting with anyone?”

Oliver connects. His television series are worldwide hits and he can still lead social campaigns that have the power to nudge politicians into doing the right thing. Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about the 42-year-old is his success as an author.

In 2015 alone UK sales of his 20th book, Everyday Super Food, were £7.3 million. In the same year, Oliver became only the second British author, after JK Rowling, to sell more than £150 million worth of books.

Like his fellow big-unit shifters, Oliver doesn’t offer a wildly revolutionary approach, but he does carefully target his market. “Every book I write is for a certain type of person. Save with Jamie was the middle of the recession, so everything cost around 80p a portion. Ministry of Food was about the basics and 15-Minute Meals is about time.”

He admits that as he has got older the pressure to find a new angle has increased. “Five ingredients sounds slightly cheesy”, he says, “but people want and expect a certain twist. Just giving you a good recipe is not what I do. It’s got to have a little slap, a little kick, a little surprise. I started off with six but I didn’t think I was doing my job, so I reviewed all the recipes and realised five was the magic number.

“So there is a really commercial kind of pop side of the book, but in writing it became something different, like a masterclass in restraint. Of course, all good cooks and all chefs never cook like this. Ever. No one does that.”

No doubt it will still sell, just as all Oliver’s books have been selling since The Naked Chef was published in 1999 to tie in with the series of that name. “The show was such a success. It was like being in One Direction – nuts in so many ways,” he says.

But then the book went bonkers. “We did two million copies,” Oliver says, wonder still in his voice. “I was 24 years old. I was a special needs kid from Newport Grammar in Essex – it wasn’t a grammar school, it was a free grammar, a comp – how do you explain that?”

It turns out his dyslexia explains it. Oliver claims the condition, which affects his ability to read, gives him a unique perspective when he embarks on projects, especially a major book (And 5 Ingredients is pretty chunky, you get 136 recipes for your money).

“If I’m in a meeting I just see the problems differently and I obsess about things differently,” he says, picking up the book again. “Some bits of work need to be dyslexic, sometimes, when it requires a load of stuff to be done, I just do it. It’s like I’m a massive ten-tonne boulder rolling down the hill.”

It doesn’t mean he gets everything right. His first attempt at filming The Naked Chef was a disaster. “It was really laborious and painful. And there was the pizza restaurant we opened and then closed, we f****d that up massively with the best pizza-maker on the planet,” he says.

“I’ve made lots of business or financial mistakes. But painful as many of them can be there’s always been a massive amount of learning that I’ve taken on, so I’m quite philosophical about those things.” And he even credits his dyslexia for contributing to the fact that he’s still on television nearly 20 years after he slid down a spiral staircase in The Naked Chef. “I genuinely think that when someone says to you, ‘Johnny’s got dyslexia’, you should get down on your knees, shake the child’s hand and say, ‘Well done, you lucky, lucky boy.’

“[Long-term success is] about finding something that you’re good at. Because ultimately, what do we all need? We need to be fed, hugged, shown a bit of love, and to be safe. Everything else on top of that is gravy, really.”

Interview by Michael Hodges

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Jamie’s Quick and Easy Food is on Monday 8.00pm C4