Jamie Oliver: ‘I just want the next 10 years to be different’
Having left school at 16, Oliver now has restaurants all over the world, a TV production company and a charitable foundation
River Rocket Blue Dallas Oliver, the youngest of Jamie Oliver’s five children, doesn’t know it yet, but he may be about to get a new name. “I think she [Jools, Oliver’s wife] is going to do it without even telling me, but I believe Texas is going in there, so his passport is going to have to be A3,” the campaigning TV chef and entrepreneur says.
“Jools is in charge, it’s nothing to do with me,” James Trevor Oliver says of his five children’s rather exotic names. “Just be aware that I made it the least painful as possible, it could have been 10 times worse,” he says, and he’s not joking.
“I’ve got a pretty good relationship with my wife. I’ve been going out with her since I was 18 and one of the skills I’ve learned is to keep out of trouble, so she’ll tell me when she’s done it. You don’t always go with Plan A though, because some of those Plan As have been terrible,” he says with a wry laugh that suggests River Rocket got off comparatively lightly.
Oliver’s latest TV series and accompanying book, 5 Ingredients: Quick & Easy Food, is dedicated to Poppy Honey Rosie, Daisy Boo Pamela, Petal Blossom Rainbow, Buddy Bear Maurice, and River Rocket Blue Dallas, who range in age from 15 years down to 13 months.
It is his 20th publication in almost as many years, since he was plucked from kitchen obscurity by a scene-stealing turn in a BBC documentary being filmed in The River Cafe, where he was working as a sous chef.
TV producer Pat Llewellyn spotted something in the cocky Essex lad that the camera loved, and the Naked Chef was unleashed, as a TV show and cookery book. The “naked” in the title referred to Oliver’s stripped down, or simplified, non-fussy approach to food. He has said he wasn’t entirely happy with it, but the name stuck through his first three books and their accompanying TV series.
Now, the 42-year-old heads a company that has restaurants all over the world, owns a TV production company, oversees a charitable foundation that trains young chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds, and has fronted campaigns on issues ranging from school dinners to obesity, working with four British prime ministers.
Despite leaving school at 16 after struggling with dyslexia, Oliver has been studying nutrition for four and a half years, and has embarked on a Master’s in the subject. “I’ve just finished my first module of four. I hope and pray I can pass, it’s hard for me because I’m not an academic. I’m not stupid but, like, this is really hard for me. It’s hardcore science. It took me three moths to write my last piece of work.”
And almost two decades on from those “naked” days, he’s back where he started, stripping things back and creating good things to eat, this time using only five ingredients. The irony is not lost on him. “It’s taken me 20 years to write the simplest book I’ve ever written in my life. It’s five ingredients, it’s quick and easy. It’s not rocket science, no one clever came up with that, but why is it it feels so fresh?,” he asks.
The answer, he says is down to luck, tone, energy and timing. “You never know if you’re going to sell another book. You put these books out there, but you never know if it’s going to resonate with people.
“In the real world, for busy, modern day people at work, I think the biggest block to cooking from scratch is a long list of ingredients. It’s a nightmare. I’m not too proud and cheffy that I won’t use a jar or a pack. It’s all about fresh produce and cooking, but we’re using jars, we’re using little chutneys . . . cool, this is normal, this is the real world, right.”
As far as timing goes, “This was never planned for this year,” Oliver says. Last December, three days before Christmas, he made a monumental decision, to delay a project already in motion, set in Italy, and pitch 5 Ingredients as an alternative.
“I knew I couldn’t get a meeting with my boss at Channel 4, so I just did a video, from the heart, and I just said: ‘Look, we’re working on Italy, we’re working on Nonnas, it’s amazing but the reality is, I know it’s the cliché but if you’re going to really do it and get under the skin of Italy and really get into mums and that whole thing, it’s hard, it’s expensive, it takes hours, weeks, years’.
“My duty to that book was to say: ‘Stop. Give me another year, let me have another year with these women. And let me do it properly.’”
After Christmas, Oliver sent his team an email saying: “Guys, you know the year you think you’re going to have? Well, guess what, it’s not happening.
“I wrote this in three months, we filmed this in four months, we had eight programmes commissioned and I loved it so much after four programmes that I commissioned myself to do another 10, and that’s not normal. So this book wanted to be written.”
Having a TV series to promote and a book to launch means Oliver is back on the publicity circuit. Meeting and greeting international press at a preview day in London, he is tanned from a family sea and sun holiday the previous month, and rocking double denim with aplomb.
He is solicitous and warm, asking repeatedly if everyone is alright, and going out of his way to be friendly. There’s a group chat about the book, before he cooks a couple of dishes from it, does a series of round table interviews, and a couple of one-to-one meetings, one of which is earmarked for The Irish Times.
The pow-wow takes place on a tiny flower decked sun terrace at the very top of the studio where the publicity event is being held. “Me and you’ve got the same shoes on today, girl,” he says as he ushers me to the seat that is out of the sun, “so it isn’t in your eyes”.
His feet hurt, he tells me, after an encounter the previous day with a pair of desert boots that “looked really innocent and soft, but they absolutely ate up my feet front and back. I was hobbling”.
I have no such excuse for my choice of navy canvas runners, but as a bonding technique goes, it works.
The charm offensive continues as we reminisce about our last meeting, an interview at Taste of Dublin in advance of the opening of Jamie’s Italian, in Dundrum almost five years ago – “it pissed down with rain, didn’t it” – and he laughs politely when I remind him that on that occasion he was under the impression for the entire duration of our 40-minute chat that I was reporting for Marie Claire magazine.
But here’s the thing, Jamie Oliver is a genuinely nice guy, and there is nothing false or staged about his manner, with one exception. He says he was a bit anxious about the press day, but you’d never have known. “I get a bit nervous. But I’m really happy and relaxed now because this is nice, you’re lovely and I’m proud of what we’re doing,” he says, dialling up the charm again.
“Honestly I’m really proud of having any kind of relevance in Ireland. Where I come from, I never thought I’d have a book one, this is book 20, are you kidding me? For me it’s a bit wow. I pinch myself.”
Jamie’s Italian in Dundrum, part of a global franchise, is run in partnership with Gerry Fitzpatrick of the Fitzers Catering family. “Dublin’s doing really well, we’re just really lucky with the partner we’ve got,” Oliver says. “ We want to go into Dublin city and I’d like to think we can do that in the next couple of years.
“We were thinking about doing a diner in Dublin and I guess the twist would be what does a modern day contemporary Irish diner look like, and I really like that debate. So, if my partner keeps pushing that, I’m going to support him all the way.”
Business hasn’t been been all plain sailing though. Oliver has had a few bruising business encounters too, and is wary now of mixing business with friendship. His current net worth is estimated at £150 million (€161m) by one “Rich List” compilation, down from £240 million (€258m) in 2014. But he says that money has never been his motivator.
“If it’s about connecting people with food in some way, shape or form, I just do it, and as lovely as that is – and it is very empowering – I am a lunatic. And so at 40, I’d had massive successes but also massive failures – financial as well – and the creaks of being responsible for 5,000 people in a recession, you know, I think it was just a bit overwhelming for me.
“In the last sort of year and a half I’ve reordered and restructured myself to really just focus on what I’m passionate about and brilliant at and f***ed off everything that was a drain.”
He says he “had a moment” when he hit 40. “I was asking myself lots of questions. I’ve got five kids, and this balance between work and kids . . . I could be retired, why am I not? Why don’t I take the kids to school every day? What is the balance, what is good?”
So has he found the answers? “Yea, I’m good. I didn’t like being 40, but I’m happy at 42. For me, the next 10 years has got to be about amazing things in food, telling more stories, connecting more people connecting more cultures, doing more documentaries, more campaigns, fight the good fight, have a laugh, celebrate food, hopefully show the next generation that you can have a 30- or 40-year career on telly, don’t just chase the money, go from the heart.”
His hope is to continue “keeping it creative, about heart and soul and people, and really trying to put more love and care into a smaller number of better, more incentivised people, and just focus on things where I can look people in the eye and say I can promise you I’ll do that, instead of I’m going to guess, I’m going to have a go.
“I just want the next 10 years to be different and I’m really excited about it.” Recipes See three delicious recipes from Jamie Oliver’s new book, 5 Ingredients - Quick & Easy Food, here
Gimme Five: Five fast questions for Jamie Oliver
What five ingredients would you use to create an Irish recipe?
I think we would do some Irish lamb with beautiful wild mushrooms. You’d have to do potatoes, and I think I would take some lovely herbs, and a little Irish beer, and I would make an Irish shepherd’s pie,with the most delicious beer gravy, and it’s going to be lovely.
What are your five desert island ingredients?
My five desert island ingredients would be extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, chilli, fresh herbs – can’t really choose one but if I had to I would probably pick rosemary or basil – and fennel seeds.
What five cookery books or authors have you found to be inspiring?
Patricia Wells, she wrote a great book on the Mediterranean, Italy and France, she’s amazing, number one.
An author called Ambrose Heath, he did some great British cookbooks and was an amazing writer. No one’s heard of him, he’s genius .
I would go for Georgie Hayden’s Stirring Slowly, it’s about the emotion of cooking, and cooking to make you feel a certain way I think it was sensitively done and made you think and that’s really really nice.
I have to say River Cafe Book One because that was like a groundbreaking book graphically, visually food wise, the fact that women that weren’t trained were just smashing it.
Last but not least Naked Chef, it’s my book – that might be cheating – but I looked at it the other day and that’s not something I do loads and it’s still a good book, still from the heart, still relevant, the food still feels contemporary, but I was a baby. I’m really proud of it and it’s important to me.
What are your five favourite places to eat?
There’s a little wood that I go to with my family, where we have picnics, that’s really special. I love the idea of a picnic, packing things up, creating a lovely little world and a nice little meal.
The River Cafe in Hammersmith, that’s where I became famous, that’s where I was in the background of a documentary and it’s still to this day the most incredible Italian food, amazing location.
I’d go back to Passione restaurant which was Gennaro my mentor’s restaurant, it’s closed now but I’d go back there because it was so good, proper old-school Italian.
I would go back in time to the Indian restaurant I used to go to when I was a kid, as a little Essex kid that food just blew my mind
And I’d go to hotel San Pietro where I went on my honeymoon with my wife and I’d have spaghetti seafood, in a bag, a big puffed up bag with shellfish and lovely bits of red mullet and fennel, white wine and tomatoes.
If your house was on fire and you had to grab five things, what would they be?
I think I’d grab all my manuscripts for the books that I’ve written.
I’ve got an old handwritten cookbook from like the 16th century that I always go to – it’s nuts because it’s that whole blend of kitchen and food meets pharmacy and ointments and I just love the fact that there’s no difference between the two; it’s a one off.
I would definitely take my wedding suit, although I don’t fit into it anymore, it was a Paul Smith light blue cord number and it just means such a lot to me.
My pestle and mortar that I’ve used for all my cooking for all of my life.
Last but not least I’ve got a picture of my wife that a guy called Johnny O painted for her 40th birthday. That’s sort of one of the luxuries that I did for myself and it means a lot to me.