A televisual study of multiculturalism and the ethnicity of modern British food? Sounds heavy, but not when it’s presented by Jamie Oliver. “I loved going up to Brits and saying, ‘You know your fish and chips? Down the seafront – newspaper and a nice bit of cod? Well, you’ve got the Portuguese to thank for that. The chips come from the French. And the apple pie? That’s down to the Egyptians. Aren’t we lucky? They’re ours now.’”
The idea of looking at the “Britishness” of our food came from a conversation with his mates, with talk turning to the Olympics. “In 2012,” he says, “the whole world will be looking at this country. But the only work I’ve done in Britain has been about what we’re bad at. So I wanted to make a show that was a bit of a pat on the back. We deserve it. The way our food has changed in the past 15 years is phenomenal.”
Part of that success has been down to our willingness to learn from other cultures, says the man who recently discovered his own immigrant roots – he revealed in Radio Times in 2009 that he’s sixth-generation Sudanese. “Go to Italy, France or Spain, and you won’t see a Greek restaurant next to a Turkish restaurant next to a Chinese, an Indian, a Japanese and a Moroccan. You won’t see waves of new immigrants doing their thing, like the banh mi [Vietnamese] sandwich people on London’s Whitecross Street. Never, never.”
Over the six programmes of the series, Oliver visits Yorkshire, the Midlands, Essex and East London, Bristol and Somerset, South Wales and Scotland – travelling in an ex-military 4×4 done up like a pub called The Cock in Cider. The old Land Rover has undergone significant modification, and now has a pizza oven on board. But it still only goes 55mph – downhill. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. The machine-gun emplacement certainly makes for an interesting talking point.
The series has changed Oliver. For a start, he’s eating Yorkshire pudding again – and not just with roast beef. “For most of history,” he says, “Yorkshire pudding was a starter. To fill the kids up before they brought out the expensive meat. So I’ve started doing that at home. My potted smoked trout works well as a filling, but at home we like less of a moulded pudding. More a tray one – where you tear some off. Like a cross between a naan bread and a Yorkshire.”
As always, Oliver’s cooking tips are simple and easy to remember – like the way he makes batter with a single cup of milk and a single cup of flour. No scales. And he presents these tips in the language we can all understand. When he makes a dressing to “pimp” his salad – “to spank it and wake it up in the morning” – he comes across as a down-to-earth cheeky chappy who would be a lot of fun on a night out. For one of the world’s richest chefs, that’s quite an achievement.
And he is always respectful. He never confuses his passion with a need to shout, or put people down, even though he grew up in the heat of a kitchen. It wouldn’t fit with his celebration of food. “I don’t like chefs that go round shouting and swearing,” he says. “If they treated my students like that they’d get pans round their heads. You can’t do it. Working with kids who have had a difficult time, you can’t bully them, because that’s all they’ve ever had. You’ve got to make it as fun as possible.”
He doesn’t miss working in restaurants, although he admires “the Michelin-star boys”, as he calls them. “They’re pioneers in so many ways. But I don’t know how long I’d survive in those kitchens. I love Heston. And I enjoyed my time with Ferran [Adria, the celebrated Catalan chef ]. But everything I’ve devoted my efforts to is about trying to break down walls. I ask myself, ‘Can people engage with what I do or not?’ Or are we scaring them away – leaving them thinking ‘Shall I just get a microwave meal instead?’ ”
He engages people like no one else. He has a real instinct for TV. “It started on Naked Chef,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to be in my flat with my friends and family because I was nervous. I tried to look into the camera, but I was rubbish, so I looked to one side. I wanted the series cut to the music in my record collection. And I wanted the camera to keep up with me.” People complained about the rough feel of the series. But it worked. And, in a small way, it changed television.
“I don’t suppose it looks radical now,” he says, “but I was 21 back then. I’m 36 now. Back then, a lot of my counterparts on TV were in chef whites. We respected them way too much – the way we respected doctors or nurses. And that made the information [they were imparting] more exclusive.” Oliver was just a mouthy kid, bouncing off the walls. He was skint. Genuinely. But loved what he was doing. And it felt like the information he had was for everybody.
Over the years his opinionated style has brought him friends, and enemies. He knows that. “I annoy a lot of people,” he says. “Being enthusiastic, daring to question the status quo [with shows such as Jamie’s School Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food], and being a bit of a s***-stirrer. The funny thing is that those people still buy my books. They might not like me – I know they don’t – but they would probably still let me babysit their kids. They trust me. And that’s more important.”
Jamie’s Great Britain starts tonight, 9pm, Channel 4.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 18 October.