Jamie Oliver has had a year. It was a year that kicked him into a bush then pulled him through it slowly, and he’ll talk about how that felt, yes, but first, he wants to discuss something more important, which is how to save the world.
We are sitting in the grand warehouse of the Jamie Oliver offices in north London, where today’s staff lunch is pappardelle with dried porcini and thyme in a mascarpone and tomato sauce. Their in-house barista is employed through a social enterprise staffed by the homeless, and a huge sign by the door reads “BRAVE”. The atmosphere is more that of a bohemian family home than the headquarters of a multi-million-pound food empire – Oliver has no office, instead he takes meetings here, on the sofa, casual as pizza, a jaunty little scarf around his neck, a tired flicker in his eye.
This week he’s been voted Best Food Personality by the readers of OFM. It’s 20 years since the first episode of The Naked Chef, the show that made a cheeky Essex lad famous for poking anchovies into a leg of lamb, and thus made cooking accessible to people who’d never opened an oven in their life. Thirty-six TV series and one-off programmes followed, and 33 books, the success of which made him the UK’s second-biggest selling author of all time, and more than a chef – he became a walking kitemark, denoting simplicity and health. But there were failures too, the most public being the closure of 22 restaurants in the Jamie’s Italian group in May. Which illuminated something – the gap between Food Jamie, national treasure, beloved for his simple recipes, his “chop and chat” and his campaigning work on child obesity, and Business Jamie, a man of dense spreadsheets, personal losses of millions of pounds, and more than 1,000 redundancies this summer.
Oliver talks hungrily, speeding through complicated ideas before abruptly changing direction again and dropping you off somewhere in postwar Britain with a lengthy aside on rationing. To interview him requires a sharp pencil. But he pauses now, and considers the gap. How will Business Jamie’s failures affect his standing as national treasure? And how will he navigate the tension between these two public faces? “Well, it’s really hard. But healthy, if your heart’s in the right place.” He smiles, remembering. “There was a moment, back when the business started to get massive, and I knew I could change direction, or pull out altogether. It was a conversation that me and my missus had: I either just sort of disappear, you know, or we have a go at making it mean something a bit … extra.” They decided to have a go.
And quickly, the “extras” – his plans to save the world – became the focus. “So whether that’s Fifteen,” the restaurant he set up in 2002 to train disengaged young people for a job in the food industry, “or school dinners,” his 2005 campaign that pressured the government to commit new funds to improve school food, “that’s the real stuff. That’s what we do.” More recently, in 2015, he petitioned for a sugary drinks tax; the government introduced the soft drinks industry levy a year later. In 2018 he persuaded Transport for London to ban the marketing of food that’s high in fat, salt and sugar to children, and campaigned to restrict the sale of energy drinks – supermarkets agreed to stop selling them to under-16s within 12 months. “I find the idea that food is everything quite beautiful. But on the other hand, we’ve never had more food banks in the UK, never spent less proportionally to our wages on food than now. We live in brilliant but peculiar times.”
One result of Oliver and Jools (his wife of 19 years) deciding to “have a go” has been five children, the second youngest of whom, nine-year-old Buddy, came to work with Oliver this morning, rising at 4.30am to make scrambled eggs on Facebook Live. It’s what Oliver did, sort of – he was paid to work in his family’s pub when he was the same age, and now it’s Buddy’s source of pocket money. He slides onto his dad’s lap, and Oliver softens and slows. “Buddy is thus far my big hope.” To take over Oliver’s empire? “Well, I’m not putting too much pressure on him. Although just before you got here, I got the campaigns team to tell him what they do. These are the guys collaborating with NGOs about child health. But I was like,” he points to the large table beside us where a group of studious people tap quickly on laptops, “this dude’s like 007 – he has to go into government, listen to a lot of lies and work out what the truth is. And then, you know Charlie’s Angels, right? So these three go to data and science reports and … I think he got it? But then he said he wanted to go and play on the Space Invaders, so …” Aside: there is an office Space Invaders machine.Jamie Oliver in 2002 at the launch of Fifteen in London. Photograph: Myung Jung Kim/PA
The team keep typing. The following week they will publish a report detailing how the company is to become a “social impact business” focused on the 2030 Project, aiming to halve childhood obesity by the end of the next decade. It announced its intention to be certified as a “B corp”, a status given to businesses assessed on their “social and environmental performance” – other such food companies include smoothie brand Innocent and Divine Chocolate. Is this his way of reconciling the two sides of his public image? Perhaps – but it’s difficult to unpick, because he is so consumed with the “good work” that it’s difficult to draw him on … the work. His meandering mind and pace of thought have obviously contributed to his success – few people could plough such a clear path from pasta bakes to tackling the obesity crisis. And his passion for change is clear and exciting – “I believe the 2030 Project will be my legacy,” he writes. But to talk to him about anything else can be frustrating – which means there are a number of times where I find myself raising my palm flatly, and saying, “Wait.”
I’ve got a really amazing job, in that I live on your shelf in your kitchen
Because there are some questions I want to ask him, and some are related to his campaigning, yes, but some are not – some are about his politics, and his family, and his failures. How did he feel, for example, about Boris Johnson dismissing what he called “sin taxes” on sugary drinks? “When you start to understand the code, the rhetoric, as you become battle hardened, you realise that was just a message to his own people.” He shrugs. “It’s a messy business, politics.” Now he understands the code, is there anything he wishes he’d done differently? He huffs a little – he doesn’t like the concept of “regret”. But, “You know, there’s no way I’d do Fifteen today. Because I would be thinking about it wrong. Fifteen was about being the right age at the right time.” He’s 44 now. “And that’s why I’m trying to work with as many young people as possible, because they’re not corrupted. It’s still one of my most proud moments, but it happened because I was green and just romantic enough, and just stupid enough. And honestly, when you get older, when you get methodical, you quickly get boring. And when you get boring, who gives a shit?”
He is working hard to stay interesting, which means – and he grabs Buddy again as he talks – listening to people who are still naive, still romantic. “We need some magic, and I think magic comes from kids. The kids who are talking about the environment and climate change, well, there’s no gap between that and the food system. My dream is to make a Blue Planet, David Attenborough-style epic explaining all this. Can you imagine? Yeah, big, bold, fantastical clarity – complicated stories in really simple ways.” Does he see himself as a David Attenborough figure? He laughs, almost embarrassed but not quite. Is it important to him to be liked? “It’s so nice to be liked. It’s lovely. But if you’ve got an opinion in this country, you divide people. I’ve got a really amazing job, in that I live on your shelf in your kitchen. It’s not bad.” He is reminding himself. He leans into his son and inhales his hair.Jamie and Jools Oliver and family in 2016. Photograph: Ian G. Lawrence/GC Images
His family life is so traditional it occasionally appears to have been fed through an Instagram filter. The seven of them live between two mansions in London and Essex, in listed homes with Agas. His eldest children watched his youngest son’s birth. His teenage daughter will be the first Oliver to go to college. The New York Times reports Jools is angling for a sixth child. Is his family life as perfect as her social media suggests? “The only thing I’ve really learned about being a parent is you can’t always have what you want. In the nicest possible way, it’s carnage. Parents don’t talk enough. If you do, you quickly realise that the nutty psycho you think you’ve raised is actually quite normal. Which doesn’t make it any easier, but does mean that maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”
Which brings us suddenly back to things that are as bad as you think – his recent, very public, very noisy failures. When the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group went into administration this spring it owed creditors nearly £83m. Oliver injected £26m into the company but finally had to close 22 restaurants. As the company burned around him he batted away criticism, both on the controversy of his lucrative deal with Shell petrol stations and gloating stories about his fall from grace. (After we meet he makes the headlines again for paying himself £5.2m last year, down from £8.6m the year before.) Returning with a camera crew to Fifteen after its closure, he wept. Today he talks about the press reaction with an ancient weariness. He wasn’t surprised at the glee. “I’m just like a character in a movie, you know. When you work in the public eye you’re fodder. But I’m still human and actually unbelievably sensitive and quite shy, weirdly. But … tough shit. We just have to crack on and make the best of it. And I think we do.” How is he feeling now? “I’m a bit battered and bruised. But I’m being optimistic.” Buddy is almost asleep in his arms now, white-blond and puppyish. Oliver kisses his head, and repeats a sort of mantra: “The only thing that really matters is this.” Another rare pause.Photograph: Perou/The Observer
“When things get bumpy it can’t be in vain, you know? You’ve got to learn something, you’ve got to use it.” He already seems to be making a mental list. He’s learned, for instance, that if your business model isn’t “bendy enough to take stormy times”, you fail. “But you dust yourself down, and you evolve. I would be upset if I couldn’t sit next to you in 20 years and show you how the story’s continued, right?” I wonder if it’s brought the two Jamies together. I wonder if it’s helped define him. He chews his lip thoughtfully, as a dark realisation dawns. “You know what, I was never really a businessman before. But the irony is, I am now.”