Story by Lucas Hollweg – The Sunday Times
He’s changed the way the nation cooks, now, The Naked Chef has his sights on America as he takes a culinary road trip
First of three part series from The Sunday Times
Ten years ago, just after Jamie Oliver’s first series, The Naked Chef, I was sitting on a train from Derby to London. A few minutes into the journey, one of the men in front of me produced a foil-wrapped tin from his bag and unpacked a rustic-looking chocolate tart. “It’s a Jamie,” he announced proudly to the group of tattooed blokes with him. They all heartily nodded their approval. In the space of a few months, Jamie had become a watchword for cooking that even men with tattoos could relate to.
I’ve seen Jamie Oliver on TV so many times since then that meeting him feels almost like déjÃ vu. He’s one of those people everyone has an opinion about, not all of them entirely positive. For my part, I’ve always thought he seemed like a decent bloke. Even early on, when every dish was garnished with the word “pukka”. I think that, directly and indirectly, he has done more than anyone else in a generation to change the way people in Britain eat.
Most of all, I like the way he cooks. Jamie’s food is unashamedly joyful and generous: big, bold flavours, thrown together in user-friendly lugs and glugs.
So much of the food on telly these days is about a kind of show-off professional cheffery. People watch it, but deep down, they find it intimidating. Jamie took away the fear, gave people confidence, gently guided them towards better ingredients, showed cooking could be fun. He’s still doing it. His campaigns for better food, better chickens, better pigs “” they’re all part of one message. Whatever you may think of Jamie, he has stuck to his guns.
We’re at his east London HQ to talk about his latest book, Jamie’s America, and the accompanying television series, which follow a winding itinerary from New York to LA. “This project was about our love-hate relationship with America,” he says. “Food was a brilliant excuse to get under the skin of the country, the people. What is the American dream? What is real, good American food? They’ve been very good at knocking out a lot of clichés over the past 50 years, and, frankly, a lot of them have not been that strong, from Jerry Springer to Mr Bush. I suppose the point I make is that, yeah, there’s so much wrong with it, but there’s so much right.”
I like the show. It’s more than just food tourism. There’s a poignant sense of the link between food and community, between what we eat and who we are. In New York, he ducks past the hot dogs to meet the city’s more recent immigrants: Peruvians making ceviche in illicit backstreet cafes; Egyptians making new versions of traditional flatbreads. In the Deep South, he meets the custodians of soul food. “I used to think soul food was like ‘Funkay!’,” he says, clicking his fingers. “‘It’s got pizzazz, it’s got flay-veur.’ But its heart is so sad.”
It feels as if Jamie has become more reflective with age. He seems to have been not just inspired but genuinely affected by the experience. “America was tough,” he says. “We went to some scary places. My old man always says, if there’s an easy way and a hard way, I tend to pick the hard way.”
His next crack at America sounds as if it’s going to be even harder. He is about to start work on a series for the US network ABC, which aims to do for American eating habits what he did here with Ministry of Food. The healthy-eating message is still clearly top of his agenda.
Jamie has come a long way since the cheeky chappy who scootered onto our screens in 1999. Now 34, he has achieved more than most could hope for in a lifetime: he was awarded an MBE at 28; he has cooked for world leaders, including Gordon Brown and Barack Obama; he has become a people’s politician, with a matey enthusiasm that strikes home on council estates and with cabinet ministers alike. It’s probably only his relative youth that has prevented anyone from calling him a national treasure. And the rewards have been sweet: the Sunday Times Rich List puts his worth at Â£40m.
A lot of people would have simply grabbed the fame and pocketed the money. But Jamie has used his celebrity to try and make a difference, taking risks “” and considerable flak “” in the process. It started with his 2002 series, Jamie’s Kitchen, which followed the launch of Fifteen, a charity foundation that has now trained 140 young people from deprived backgrounds to work as chefs. Then came Jamie’s School Dinners, which shamed the government into addressing the state of food in schools, followed by Jamie’s Ministry of Food, in which he set out to improve the diet of the nation by the simple tactic of teaching people to cook.
I ask him where he gets such a strong sense of social responsibility. “It’s a good question,” he says. “I think I have fairly normal opinions and views on things. I’m just in a unique situation where I have the ability to express it, and, therefore, there’s a bit more pressure on me to get involved.”
Despite the positives, there have been times when it looked as if the tide might turn. Shortly after he signed an advertising deal with Sainsbury’s in 2000, there were mutterings that he was overexposed. He says he has learnt to let the criticism go, but some of the more personal stuff has clearly hurt. You wonder what it is that makes journalists give him a hard time. Saying “lovely jubbly” is hardly a crime. “I’m quite a goodie two-shoes,” he says. “They haven’t found me snorting things, or playing with animals, or shagging other people’s wives. I’m quite boring really. And I do lots for charity. Basically, by the time I’ve gone through the list of nice things I do, you want to throw up.”
Virtually the whole of Jamie’s adult life has been played out in the media. He says the public scrutiny no longer bothers him, though he worries about “the girls”. “I took them to the Harry Potter premiere recently,” he says. “Harry Potter’s the don in our house. My kids had never seen me in that situation. They weren’t scared by the film “” they were scared by people screaming ‘Jamie, Jamie’ and getting squashed. They’ve got to see it ultimately, but it’s their dad, you know.”
The girls are Poppy Honey, 7, Daisy Boo, 6, and Petal Blossom Rainbow, born in April this year. He clearly adores them. I ask him about the groovy names. “I have a groovy wife. End of story. Jools has a very floral approach to names.” The family was hard won, with gruelling rounds of IVF for Jools, who he describes as “an amazing mum, rock solid”. During the week, he sees the children in the morning, but not at night. Weekends are sacred. But you wonder if, sometimes, he doesn’t just wish he could stop, spend more time with his family, have a barbecue with mates that wasn’t being filmed or photographed. “We do plenty of that, but when I do it, I feel guilty about not sharing.”
So what next? “I don’t know what’s going to be around the corner. I fall in love easily “” I don’t mean with women “” I mean with ideas. I’m more than happy to chase a great idea and not get it right. There might be something that happens next week and you might not see me in England for months, ‘cos I’ll just do it. I still like that slightly reckless side of me.”
See the video of the interview at Timesonline