Jamie Oliver strides menacingly towards me from the far side of his office, eyeing me with more than a sprinkling of suspicion. “Have we met before?” he asks, in a manner that suggests we most certainly have. We’ve never met.
He lounges at the huge boardroom table in casual T-shirt, shorts, hoodie and sandals. We’re at Jamie HQ, a couple of large, airy converted warehouses in London’s trendy Shoreditch, with meeting rooms called Chili, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.
The reason for his caginess is that despite his best intentions, and however noble his projects, the amiable Essex chap seems to get filleted and flambéed by the critics at every turn.
Does he feel that whatever he does, people are looking to knock him? “Oh, people will always knock me,” he laughs. “In this country, if you have an opinion or you’re even just a bit enthusiastic, you’re halfway to being bloody annoying to a lot of people. And I do both. Often.”
His new show follows 2010’s hugely successful 30-Minute Meals, which also became the bestselling cookery book of all time, shifting 1.7 million copies in hardback. So why the need to prepare dinner in half the time? “With 30-Minute Meals, there were four or five elements in every meal, so it was more of a Friday or Saturday-night dinner,” he says, slouching into his chair.
“15-Minute Meals is super quick Monday-to-Friday cooking. It’s addressing those people who buy expensive pre-packed processed food during the week. It’s saying, this is actually less expensive and you’re not going to get fat eating it. It’s all about enabling people to get some speed up, and fit a quick, fresh and tasty nutritious meal into a busy weekday evening.”
This 37-year-old father of four and the head of a business empire worth £150m knows all about busy. Is it age or pressure of work that’s making him grumpy? “I am turning into a grumpy old man where the Government is concerned,” he says, straight-faced. “I’m not one of those people who fart around outside the UK to avoid paying tax. I’m actually proud to pay my whack. But I’ve met Government and education secretaries and I’m just so bored and underwhelmed by them. And every year when I’m doing my tax return and putting that figure in the box at the bottom, I can’t help thinking: “I wouldn’t give it to them. I wouldn’t even employ them. So I’ve sort of given up on them, really. All I do now is say how I feel and that’s it. I’m just concentrating on work.”
He admits that trying to create jobs and staying positive in the eye of a recession has been hard. But with the Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain alone now up to 30 branches, he’s doing better than most. “Thankfully, we’re ridiculously busy,” he confirms. “But I have noticed things in this recession. Like people nicking the linen napkins from our restaurants. We now lose about 30,000 a month. And there’s another thing: every restaurant of mine has the old-fashioned Thomas Crapper toilets because I’ve always thought they look wicked. But they’re really expensive and we’ve had to have the handles and flushers welded on because people were unscrewing them and nicking them. Honestly, some people were coming out for a meal and going home with half a toilet. Bonkers!”
So what next for Jamie – has the zenith of kitchen clock-watching been reached? “I won’t do time again,” he laughs. “I’m confident I’ve got it down as fast as possible, because I’ve worked so hard on the recipes, and nothing gets on the show or in the book without rigorous testing.” Nevertheless, I press him for the quickest thing he can rustle up. “Right, get a decent bit of cheddar,” he says, instantly warming to the challenge. “Drizzle a bit of honey over it, then smash up a coffee bean and sprinkle it over the top. It sounds mental but see what happens in your mouth. It’s absolutely phenomenal.”
He’s not wrong. In fact, it’s that good, another series surely beckons. 15-Second Meals, anyone?
Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals is on Monday-Friday this week at 5:00pm on Channel 4