Jamie Oliver: ‘How I’ve survived the toughest year of my life’

Despite his heartbreaking year, Jamie Oliver’s passion for sharing good food is undimmed. In an emotional interview, he opens up to Elizabeth Day about failure, family – and the one thing that keeps his marriage strong.

A few years ago, I was given a copy of Jamie Oliver’s cookbook, Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals. There was a recipe in it for chicken pie, served with ‘French-style peas and carrots’ (the peas were deemed continental, as I recall, because they were made with mint and a knob of butter), and Jamie promised I’d be able to make it all in half an hour.

I had my doubts. But then, lo and behold, it turned out to be true. The recipe was quick, convenient and refreshingly free of faff. The results were delicious. I cooked it again and again and again.

When I meet Jamie, I think he is going to be like his 30-minute chicken pie: straightforward and reassuringly easy to follow. In fact, the man I chat to on a sunny Thursday morning in his North London offices seems weighed down. There is a perpetual wrinkle above the bridge of his nose. He speaks in long sentences that loop their way through several iterations before shooting off in myriad different directions. I can sense his preoccupation, as if there are too many ideas in his head at any one time and he’s not entirely sure how to express them all.

Jamie Oliver
Steve Schofield

When I ask what inspired his new book, Veg, a selection of accessible vegetarian recipes, he gives a somewhat convoluted answer involving online trolls, our society’s over-reliance on sugar and the democratising effect of chatting to people you disagree with in the pub.

‘So what’s my point?’ By this stage, neither of us really knows. ‘My point is…’ he says, lapsing into a pause. ‘That’s why I did the veg book in the first place.’

He is 44 but seems to have lived several lifetimes. In person, he is still recognisable as the cheeky, mop-haired, moped-riding 20-something who blazed on to our TV screens in 1999 with his cookery programme The Naked Chef, peppering his conversation with ‘pukkas’ and ‘malarkeys’ and telling us it was OK to rip mozzarella rather than slice it. He still has the dimpled smile, the Adidas trainers and the tendency to light up when talking about food. He is warm and kind, and when he laughs at something you’ve said it’s like you’ve won a prize.

But there are a few more lines on his face, he’s filled out a bit and his hair is neater now: less indie pop star and more harassed overseer of a culinary empire. Since The Naked Chef, Jamie has fronted 30 television series, published 33 books, cooked for the Queen and been awarded an MBE. With book sales of over £174.5 million, he is the UK’s second-biggest selling author of all time, trailing only J K Rowling. His business now incorporates 61 overseas restaurants and a campaigning arm that aims to halve childhood obesity in the UK by 2030. 

His personal life has been busy, too: he and his wife Jools have been married for 19 years and have five children – Poppy, 17, Daisy, 16, Petal, ten, Buddy, eight, and River, three. When he describes his schedule, it’s exhausting even to listen to it.

‘I’m here at 5.30 every day…’ 

In the morning?

‘Yeah. I’m the first one here. Get my stuff done. Have a little bit of me-time to get s*** focused, try to work out how on earth to be a good boss and what my plan for the day is, as well as sort out a few bits and pieces, get in the gym and just start working with people as they arrive. Lovely trainers,’ he says suddenly, looking at my feet.

When he gets home in the evening, riding his moped back from his office in Holloway to the family house in Highgate, North London, he doesn’t talk about his day.

Jamie Oliver family
Jamie and Jools in 2016 with, clockwise from left, Daisy, Poppy, Petal, River and Buddy. Image: Getty Images/GC Images/Ian G. Lawrence

‘I tend to keep work and home very, very separate,’ Jamie says. ‘Which has pros and cons, of course. But mainly pros, I’d say… really it’s much nicer to talk about sports day or what the kids are up to and stuff like that. So I think for us it works. I would call us a normal family.’

The past few months have been particularly challenging. In May, his restaurant group went into administration with the loss of 1,000 jobs and the closure of 22 of his 25 UK venues. It was the devastating culmination of a fruitless search for investment.

‘The past four and a half years have been the hardest of my life,’ he admits. ‘Mainly because I thought I could save my restaurant group.’

He says he tried everything, including putting £4 million of his own money into the ailing business. He never once took a salary. ‘Even when I put it into administration, I still made sure all my staff were paid personally by me.

Jamie was 27 when he opened his first restaurant, with the aim of bringing sustainably sourced fish and high-welfare meats to the average punter. He remains proud of the ambition, if not the execution. ‘If I’d have spent 13 years opening posh restaurants, I could assure you they’d all be open today. You know, Britain has always been very good at nourishing the rich. My obsession – just because I knew it was my audience – was mid-market dining. It was so badly represented.’

He says the problem was not so much the scale of the business as the capacity of the restaurant buildings themselves (‘cathedrals instead of churches’) and the crippling rise in high-street business rates.

‘It is what it is, but I think that’s been very physically, mentally and financially tough… that was a tough one to swallow.’

The sadness is radiating from him like a forcefield. You seem emotional, I say.

‘You don’t have to press too far and I… you know…’ He wells up and his cheeks redden.

Was it like a death, I ask?

‘It was a little bit like someone who was very unwell. We nearly got there. And I thought I could get there, most importantly.’

Jamie Oliver
Steve Schofield

The group sought investment from a third party, but there was no guarantee they would be able to protect the values that were important to Jamie, ‘so it then becomes the best version of bad’, he says. ‘But I don’t think I regret it. If you were magic and you could fix this, you would. But [if the choice were] having done or not doing it? Look, I’ve learnt a lot, I’ve experienced a lot. I think I’ve been the best version of me possible. I know I’ve been a good boss to certainly the very, very vast majority.’

He points out that although his restaurant group collapsed, the business still turned over ‘probably a billion pounds and we employed and trained well over 20,000 people’. And yet, for all the admirable attempt to put a positive gloss on his darkest days, I can’t help but feel sad that it has turned out this way. Jamie always liked being around the kitchen, from the earliest days when, aged seven, he used to clean out the bins at his father’s gastropub in Clavering, Essex.

He brightens when I ask him to explain the best way to clean out a commercial bin. ‘After weeks of fermenting rubbish, a layer forms which often brings in the birds and maggots and all sorts,’ he says cheerfully. ‘So what you need is a small object to get in there and remove all the crap. Which was me.’ Jamie guffaws with laughter.

He was dyslexic and never enjoyed school. When he left aged 16 with two GCSEs and went to catering college, it was ‘just a really s*** idea… it wasn’t really considered a cool job’. And yet, it was the only thing he ever felt really good at. 

‘I didn’t become a chef because I thought I’d be considered wealthy in any way, shape or form,’ he says. ‘People want to cook because they love it. Or they’ve got no choice.’

His first job was as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant; he was later hired by The River Café as a sous-chef, where he was spotted by the documentary crew who made him famous. 

If there’s one word I’d use to describe the Jamie Oliver who popped up on our screens all those years ago, it was hopeful. Hopeful that he could teach us all to cook delicious food within our means. Hopeful that he could train disadvantaged young people to work in the hospitality industry, as he did with the Fifteen restaurants. Hopeful that he could campaign to make school meals healthier, in spite of criticism accusing him of being ‘middle-class’ and ‘out of touch’ for suggesting eight-year-olds eat broccoli instead of chicken nuggets. Hopeful, in short, that he could make the world a better place.

Jamie Oliver
Steve Schofield

It was a noble ambition and it seems odd that he was pilloried for trying to achieve it. Even now, Jamie says the criticism is ‘constant’ and ‘I just have to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, “Are the things I’m doing… am I proud of them? Have they got a good heart and soul?”… I think actions speak louder than words.’

Has he changed much in the past 20 years?

‘Yeah, totally. I’m a completely different person.’

Really? He hesitates. ‘I am the same but I’m not the same, you know? I mean, generally speaking I think my personality and my moral compass is the same, but, you know, we’ve been through such a lot and you add layers to that person who started off and I think, if you’re lucky, they can be quite interesting layers.

‘Personally, I’ve absolutely enjoyed watching my wife get older. And she’s 45 in November… I’ve enjoyed my journey with Jools, it’s been great. I definitely think I’m more in love with her now than I was then… You know, I saw her yesterday, grabbed her bum, it was lovely! Nice. I even told her so. I said, “Lovely.” She said, “P*** off.”’

He grins. Around his neck is a silver dog tag, and the inscription reads: ‘To J, love J’.

‘If I get blown up, at least they know who I am and they can send me back to my wife,’ he jokes.

Does he love being a parent? ‘Ummmm.’ 

Because, I suggest, he’s done it quite a lot.

‘Yeah. I mean, it’s the yin and yang of enjoyment and pain, isn’t it? And it’s different pain at different stages of one’s life. It just so happens that I have each stage in my life at this moment. I’ve got teenagers, I’ve got eight- and ten-year-olds and I’ve got a just-turned three-year-old. So I still have a child in my bed who sort of rattles around like an electric eel… But yeah… no, look, I love it. We’re a very close family.’

Being the father of teenage girls has, he freely admits, been ‘a struggle’.

Jamie Oliver
Steve Schofield

‘They should have something like The Priory for parents of teenagers. It’s really tough, isn’t it? I’m not sure how good my teenage parenting has been. I think I’m still on a six or a seven out of ten from the girls. Which I think I’m fine with. I know I was a good nine or even a ten [when they were] younger… I mean, what does a nine [out of ten] look like as a parent of teenagers? Does that mean you go clubbing with them?’

He says that, at home, he is the disciplinarian because ‘I just expect certain behaviour, really. And I don’t really care if I’m liked.’

One of his major bugbears is how much time his children spend on their phones.

‘These screens!’ he protests. ‘It’s 24/7… And this idea that their phone is theirs. I like to just re-state that the phone is mine, I pay the bill. Every child seems to think it’s a human right to have one.’

Are his teenage daughters dating? He laughs, a touch uneasily. ‘I would tell you but I’m slightly worried that I might get a massive telling off.’

And with that, he’s off again on a different tangent, asking someone to go upstairs and find me a jar of chickpeas because I said I liked them. An assistant scuttles away, returning with a jar of white haricot beans instead.

‘We’re going to bean you out today!’ he says gleefully. ‘Chickpeas I can talk to you about all day. They’re really nice dusted with seasoning and spice and roasted so they’re like peanuts. They’re delicious. The jarred ones are mind-blowing: big, massive creamy bombs of heaven…’ His energy has lifted, his eyes are gleaming and it’s as if the years of worry and hard work and public criticism have been stripped back until there he is again: the young Jamie Oliver, as enthusiastic as he ever was, simply wanting to share his passion for food. 

(The beans were delicious, by the way.)

The new TV series Jamie’s Meat-Free Meals will be on Channel 4 in September. The fruit and veg used for our photo shoot were donated to Fareshare, which distributes food to charities.