Jamie Oliver is calling me “darling”. Nothing wrong with that, of course, because Britain’s most ubiquitous chef has an easy familiarity and a way with names, not least when it comes to his burgeoning brood: Poppy, 14, Daisy, 13, Petal, 7, Buddy, 6, and, most recently, little River Rocket. But it’s a novel approach when you’ve only just met, although right now I’m all for it. There is something irresistibly infectious about Jamie, you forgive him anything.
The man himself, though, is not entirely in forgiving mood, as will become clear. But to begin with his disposition is as sunny as the glorious late summer morning, as we perch on benches in London’s Shoreditch, a stone’s throw from Fifteen, the restaurant he set up with the out-of-work apprentices he took on for a TV series in 2002.
Round the corner is his HQ, where he bases an empire reportedly worth £240million that employs 4,000 staff, and runs more than 50 restaurants across the country.
He is shot through with the pride – and weariness – of a new father, after wife Jools gave birth to River Rocket just four weeks ago. And dad is clearly chuffed – “the little man is so cute it’s unbelievable” – and in charge of the 2am feed, as the 4.9 million who follow him on Instagram can confirm.
For now River Rocket is making do with “a bottle of Jools’s finest” but when he moves on to solids the youngest Oliver will soon discover there are few better-equipped fathers when it comes to feeding the kids.
“Well, I think it is fair to say I’m quite experienced at it now,” says Jamie. “From School Dinners 11 years ago to having five kids of my own, I know children are not born only to react positively to pizza or nuggets. It’s purely an exposure thing. It’s human nature for kids to be a bit wary of something they haven’t seen before.”
So what does he give his kids to eat? Starting with breakfast. “Oh, a million and one things. They normally have cereal to start off with – I am a bit of a cereal hater, so we only have a handful that aren’t full of rubbish – porridge, some version of granola, yogurt, fresh fruit…
“But I’m always doing something with eggs, whether it’s pancakes, or waffles. I invented an egg thing for Petal that’s called a silky egg.” He shows me on his phone a video of him cooking what looks like an omelette. “It’s nothing like an omelette! One egg, a hot frying pan, tiny bit of cheese, pinch of pepper and it cooks in 25 seconds. Looks like a silk scarf. I cooked them for 20 Michelin-starred chefs at the weekend and they loved it!”
Does the family all sit down together? “No, it’s more loose. The young ones are up from 5.30, like me, and the 13-year-old and the 14-year-old don’t come down until nine. I’m doing a master’s in nutrition, so I do understand. You need more sleep and more calories from 14 to 17. I’m ready for it.”
And for lunch or dinner? “Lunchtime at weekends is pretty sacred. My missus loves a ravioli. So I normally go to the farmers’ market at 8am and I’m back by 10 to do pasta for lunch with Buddy and Petal.
“Once you’ve got the machine out and the rolling pin it’s going to be an hour, but it’s the weekend, so it’s more like baking. But when they get to 11 they don’t want to do that sort of thing. Daisy has gone on to baking cakes and now Poppy is 14 she isn’t really doing anything. But I know she knows enough [about cooking] to come back to it in her own time. But Buddy and Petal love it! It’s like making sandcastles, right?
For his new Channel 4 series Jamie’s Family Super Foods, he’s travelled the world exploring the diets of countries that boast more than their fair share of centenarians: Switzerland, South Korea and Italy. Then he comes home and knocks up something similar that busy mums and dads can serve to their kids.
“We’ve spent two years going to places where people have the longest, most productive, happy lives – I mean, it’s completely changed my life. All the campaigning stuff I do, everyone has heard it but they want solutions. So this is what good looks like, if you can get it in your mix a handful of times a week.”
Some of his suggestions are surprising. “One of the recipes is even a chip butty! It’s ridiculous – how can a chip butty be completely balanced and good for you? Well, it took a while but we got there. It’s delicious.”
What does good look like in South Korea, where the national dish is kimchi– otherwise known as fermented cabbage? It turns out the key is to grow it, not ferment it. “They tend veggie gardens until they’re in their mid-80s.
“If you look at gardening, all that squatting and kneeling – it’s an incredible flexibility builder! So you get the best food, and stay flexible – definitely key traits for living until you are really old.”
Jamie, now 41, would no doubt love to live to 100, but says he’d be happy to make 90 – and he’s certainly got the vegetable patch for it, as glimpsed in his Jamie at Home series.
But where to begin? “Herbs are a really good start. Honestly, 14 years ago I planted my herb garden. I’ve done bugger all since – they’re just like weeds, they’re perennial, they keep coming back, you get the flowers, you get the sprouts, you get the regrowth, you get the actual herb, you know? Salads turn around in, like, three to four weeks, amazing!”
And if you’re not lucky enough to have a sizeable chunk of Essex to garden? “There’s all sorts you can grow on a windowsill, from tomatoes to chillies. And did you know that apart from military land and the royal parks, you are allowed to prune herbs from any park in Britain? No one is going to throw you in jail for it. And in actual fact, I’d love to stick up for you if anyone tries to put you away for respectfully pruning a herb.”
Of course, it’s one thing growing veg, and quite another to get kids to eat it. So how does he do it? “Well, for under-eights who struggle at dinner time, you give them a bath, put them in their jim-jams, and they are immediately already trying to blag an extra half an hour to stay up late.
“If you go out and pick some stuff, they’ll eat it. My kids will eat anything when it’s bedtime. It’s an interesting weapon to have up your sleeve.”
Talking to him, sometimes it seems you can trace his life in television series, from the t ousle-haired lad who slid down the banisters in The Naked Chef to the alarmed parent fighting the mighty Pepsi and Coca Cola in last year’s Sugar Rush.
And in many ways he has grown up on screen. His first series began in 1999. “That’s nearly 20 year s ago. Hurts a bit, doesn’t it?” he says with a grimace. “At the time I was only good at a very small number of things. If you analyse it, what was I really good at at 23? It was roasting, salads and pasta. That was pretty much the whole three series of Naked Chef.
“Because I was born into the industry – my dad was one of the early gastropub pioneers I felt totally legitimate, but the other chefs were shocked. I remember a certain chef saying to me ‘You’re making a mockery of our industry saying anyone can cook’. And it ended up in a pub brawl. But definitely I did think – and I still do think – anyone can cook.”
Which brings us to his latest punch-up: his campaign for the government to adopt a hard- hitting approach to childhood obesity. Last year it seemed he was making headway when the then chancellor George Osborne announced as much as a 24p sugar tax on litre bottles of fizzy drink.
But last month the new prime minister abandoned her predecessor’s plans to curb junk food advertising and ban sweets from supermarket checkouts. And Jamie is livid.
“Everything about the childhood obesity strategy that’s just come out is a complete stinking herring. It’s a terrible job Theresa May’s done there. Unforgivable. She’s completely let every child in Britain down, let parents down, everyone has been let down.
“The stuff on the shelf with her predecessor was going to be much more robust. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not slagging her off for the sake of it. I wanted her to act not like a politician but a parent.”
Interestingly, she isn’t a parent, I tell him. “I didn’t know that… But if you look at the strategy, the only thing that’s mandatory – and I can honestly tell you that I put that there – is the sugary drink tax.
“I spent two years building a narrative and backing it up with science, having it ring-fenced – George Osborne will tell you I built it. I forced debate in the House of Lords by getting over 100,000 people on the petition and brought their website down. The only [mandatory] thing wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t done the things I’ve done. Take that out, there’s nothing.
Oliver meeting then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2005
“It’s the same old bull. And the same old bull hasn’t worked for 20 years… I’m happy to see her at any point. But her people have locked down all communications. And it was done when they were all on holiday, in August. It just means, ‘Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care, get it under the radar’. It’s a travesty.”
But maybe it’s his next opportunity, a chance to campaign? “I don’t know if she’s going to want to talk to me because I’ve nothing nice to say. Nothing. What we’ve got to do is dust down, regather our thoughts and be really, really annoying for the whole term.
“But I do think British parents don’t want to just hear bad news all the time. People just want stuff to be fixed.” His smile has faded as he gets up to leave. There’s work to be done. It’s fair to say that if Mrs May does pick up the phone, Jamie won’t be calling her “darling”.