“It’s a strange time of year,” says Jamie Oliver, ushering me into a private dining room in his Barbecoa restaurant in central London. He’s talking about making Christmas specials when it’s still summer, but he could just as well be describing the past few months.
Recently press reports have declared the 42-year-old’s imminent retirement and predicted collapse for his Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain. Meanwhile, in a Radio Times interview, Gordon Ramsay launched a personal attack that reignited the long-lasting feud between the two chefs. “Yes,’’ laughs Oliver, who has a rare free hour before he must catch a plane to Amsterdam. “It’s your magazine that got it going again!”
There’s been good stuff, as well. In the past three months, Oliver’s latest collection of recipes, 5 Ingredients, became his fastest-ever-selling book. “I’m not patting myself on the back,” he says. “I’m just saying when you’ve done half a million books in three months, that’s not normal. Is it?”
He has also finished a new series of Friday Night Feast for Channel 4, his happy mix of nosh, larking about and celebrities, presented alongside his old chum Jimmy Doherty. “Liv Tyler is lovely,” he confirms. “And Joanna Lumley was like, gangbusters.” Gangbusters? “It means well-run, slick, busy. You know, voluptuous.” And now there’s Jamie’s Italian Christmas, a Mediterranean makeover for the season with Gennaro Contaldo.
The 68-year-old Italian taught Oliver how to make pasta 25 years ago at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant in London (neither Oliver nor I know as we speak that Carluccio has fallen at home and is gravely ill), where both men served as mentors to the young Essex chef who wanted to know everything about Italian food.
“There is something about the madness of Italy that is in the food,” he says. “The traditions preserve a straightforwardness, and straightforwardness equals accessibility and do-ability, and therefore it becomes democratic.”
Hand-twisting pumpkin ravioli in the Italian Alps with one of his best pals for the new show is nice work, but Oliver seldom settles for the easy life. He continues to campaign for the tax on sugary drinks announced in the March Budget, which will direct funds to children’s facilities. “I’m not bright,” he says (though he really is), “I’m ungraded in maths, for God’s sake, but £1 billion of new money going to primary schools for sports and breakfast clubs? You’d have to be an idiot not to believe in that.”
He says his job is “to be at war with processed food and takeaways”, and he admits the task can be overwhelming at times. “The public only see one third of what I actually do for a job.”
The job is made that much harder by the constant fluctuating between hero and villain in the popular press. “The press will beat the s**t out of me until they feel sorry for me. Then they’ll build me back up again. I do things right and I never lie to them. So they look back at what I’ve done over 20 years and go, ‘I don’t like him, but if the s**t hits the fan, I trust my kids with him.’ So you will see me get beaten a bit more because it happens every four years like clockwork. I’ve seen it, smelt it, all before.”
He says the recent reports of the demise of Jamie’s Italian after closing six branches and requiring a £10 million refinance deal are wide of the mark. “I’ve had six closures. Marks and Spencer have had 200, but they put me on the front page with Cheryl Cole. It’s kind of b******s.” He says Brexit, food costs and unsustainable rents have all played a part in the closures, but the real reason has been unethical competition. “I can’t compromise my procurement, it’s like a religion for me,” he says. “I would rather close all my restaurants than sell you intensively reared chicken.
“All those lovely restaurants that look the same as mine, some of the poshest new restaurants that are flying at the moment, they cook and burn-mark their steaks off-site, putting them in a little bit of plastic and regenerating them [in the restaurant] like airplane food. We’re the ones that are selling free-range chicken. Five or six other brands sell minimum standard, intensively reared, never-seen-a-bit-of-daylight chicken.”
Oliver is riled but increasingly wonders if we share his concerns. “To love food, to think it’s important, is considered posh and middle-class in this country,” he says. “You get bundled with the quinoa-and-goji-berry lot. I profoundly disagree with that British attitude. The best meals I’ve had have come from poor communities. Not foie gras, truffles and fillet steak with city boys or traders or tech people; these are real people, real grafters.”
But do Britain’s real people want it? And do they want him? The fear they might not, he reveals, goes all the way back to the TV campaigns that made his reputation, like Fifteen and Jamie’s School Dinners. “What, Jamie Oliver’s in town! Does the head teacher want him in there? No! Parents? No. Grandparents? No. The kids…” He laughs, “Maybe you only do your good work when you’re uncomfortable. When you’re truly happy, I don’t think that you’re pushing yourself. But I’ve been pretty miserable. It isn’t nice. I don’t know if I’d prescribe my career to anyone else. I don’t say I have regrets, but it’s complex.”
He sounds a little bruised by the battle. “Ultimately, I have to create a world for myself to be strong enough to deal with those forces. If you were sensitive you’d cry your eyes out. It’s quite a lonely place. It still does get to me about once a year. I do wobble. I’m pretty tough, but I’m human. I’ve had to ask myself a lot of really honest questions about the next ten years, what it looks like and should I do it? Why don’t I retire? Why don’t I take my kids to school every single day? You know: why, why, why, why?”
He knows one answer is the good things he has achieved, like the Fifteen restaurants and giving underprivileged teenagers apprenticeships, or the beneficial effect his campaigns have had on the national diet. “There’s a lot of people that talk the talk,” he says. “But walking the walk involves more than just a gob and a one-liner and a press statement.” When Oliver wrote The Naked Chef, people told him, “‘You can’t put sundried tomatoes in your book, no one can get it in supermarkets.’ Now, you can get them in a corner shop. When I started Jamie’s School Dinners, there were standards for dog food but not kids’ food!”
Thirteen years after Jamie’s School Dinners he is “the CEO of a company that employs 8,000 people internationally. We broadcast in 120 countries, there’s social media, the conversation is very global.” He won’t say how rich it has made him, though he earned £10 million alone fronting Sainsbury’s adverts between 2000 and 2011. Gordon Ramsay has called this “label-slapping for Sainbury’s”. Oliver frowns.
“That’s a strong thing to say. I didn’t ‘label slap’ at Sainsbury’s. My job with Sainsbury’s was to promote British and fresh produce, and take a business that was in bad times to good times, which I did. And I haven’t really squirrelled away money, so I’m not some cocksure dude with a bank full of cash. I’ve always invested it in ideas or people.”
None of his success would have been possible, Oliver says, without a particular kind of help. “There’s nothing good I’ve done in 20 years that hasn’t been because of women. We’re about 85 per cent women in my business. Most of my senior managers are women. The CEO will be a woman in the next five years.”
What about the men he works with? “I need my boys and I’m not anti-men. I think women need to take a few things from men if they want to thrive, like a bit more cockiness and a bit more confidence, because they earn it. Normally, women hold back when they should be pushing forward. Men push forward when they’ve got nothing to say.”
But aren’t you a man, Jamie? “Yes, but I’ve tried to be more feminine about my sensibilities. A lot of the stuff I talk about, like the tax on sugary drinks, is quite romantic, and I can only make that vision and dream come true with my girls, my team. They love me, and I love them back. I really mean that and it’s quite deep.”
How does Jools, his wife of 17 years, feel about that? “It’s not sexual at all, it’s more like they’re sisters. And Jools is just unbelievably good with me. More and more, as time goes by, I feel I definitely punched above my weight there. She’s 43 this year, we’re starting to get old, but when she came to the office yesterday she had a pair of grey jeans on and I thought, ‘Wow! She’s lovely.’”
The couple have five children, Poppy Honey (15), Daisy Boo (14), Petal Blossom (8), Buddy Bear (7) and River Rocket (1). Jools revealed recently that she had suffered a miscarriage and the latest round in the ongoing bout between Oliver and Gordon Ramsay appears to have been sparked by Ramsay’s feelings about his own wife Tana’s miscarriage. In his Radio Times interview with Emily Maitlis, Ramsay said, “Jamie turned around and said, ‘I’ve got five kids, he’s got four kids…’ Tana was mortified, I mean really mortified.” It was a strange reaction as, rather than taunting Ramsay, Oliver was simply suggesting they should stop squabbling, as they were supposed to be adults.
“What I said was fairly grown-up and reasonable,” he says. “I don’t want personal spats in public with someone that, to be honest, I don’t even really know any more.”
Why does it keep happening? “I don’t think he liked me taking the high ground. I think that’s basically it. So, I’m going to take the high ground now and say I wish him all the best, and all success. Good luck to him. But we have both got kids, and I don’t know what sort of example we’re setting if we’re arguing like we’re in the playground.” That’s that, then? “Well, I don’t want to put petrol on the fire, but it’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? If you’re in a fish tank, there should be plenty of room for Nemo and Dory.” Are you Nemo? “No, Gordon’s Nemo.”
What did he make of Ramsay’s documentary about cocaine use in British restaurant kitchens? “All my experience with students from starting Fifteen is that most of the pain, anguish and destruction [we saw] were driven by either drugs or behaviour connected with drugs,” he says. “But I don’t think chefs are leading the charge now.” What about his own wild days? “I was always too tired at the end of a shift to go out on a heavy razzle.”
He has that plane to catch for Holland, and another round of interviews and events. It’s only when Oliver is on board that he discovers his old mentor Carluccio has died, and he posts from the plane, “Viva Antonio Carluccio… such a charismatic, charming don.”
But before he leaves our private room, Oliver has time to consider his own reputation. “If you’re on a pedestal, you think you’re excellent. Well, six months later, guess what? It smells of s**t.” He stops at the door. “Now, I’ve probably just scared you away from what looked like the rose-tinted world of Jamie Oliver.”
Jamie’s Italian Christmas is on Tuesday 19 December, 8pm on Channel 4