Jamie Oliver on his new cookery school (Evening Standard)

Jamie Oliver
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Profiles & Interviews

One cookery school, two new books and a fifth child on the way – Jamie Oliver has his hands full. Victoria Stewart hears how he does it.

Jamie Oliver is making a Thai green curry and things are heating up. He’s showing me how to “bruise” garlic and “bash the crap out of some kaffir limes”. Just three weeks shy of his 41st birthday, and with an estimated £160 million fortune from the seemingly endless book and TV deals, the Naked Chef’s still got it.

And that boundless energy is going to come in handy — earlier this year Oliver’s wife and childhood sweetheart Jools announced she was pregnant with their fifth child, due in August. He’s thrilled. “I’m REALLY excited. She’s seven months in. She’s good… I’m secretly surprised at the size of our family but it keeps me honest and grounded and it’s very funny.”

Is having a large family a status symbol? “Nah. It’s… colourful,” he says simply, before laughing loudly when I ask if he is considering a vasectomy.

“The problem with being a celebrity is that… when you have your balls out to have the operation, there’s going to be seven people there and I’ll get a bit shy, funnily enough. And it scares me a little bit! And I don’t want it on Snapchat so I don’t think I’ll be doing it. But definitely I need to be, er, restrained.”

Oliver looks good. He’s more streamlined now, thanks to three years of what he describes as “looking into nutrition in a slightly different way — it’s all about knowing what the gears are” — but he seems tired. He’s nostalgic, describing his 1999 TV series The Naked Chef as “honestly like being in One Direction. I was young and happy-go-lucky and had no responsibilities. But now I’m vintage. Ha.”

There’s still one easy way to fire him up, though — get him in the kitchen. I’m here eating his Thai curry as a prelude to the launch of his new cookery school. Situated at the back of Jamie’s Italian outside Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush, this isn’t Recipease — his chain of cooking-café-shop hybrids that closed last year — but rather a straightforward set-up of cookers and chopping boards, with chefs on hand to instruct up to

20 people on how to make anything from South Indian prawn curry to roasted pork belly. Within minutes he’s talking at hare pace about how to chop green chillies.

“We’re trying to give people another excuse to connect to food, you know, getting people from non-cook to proper cook. That’s still the aim of the game, right?” he starts off, before throwing garlic, spring onions and ginger into a pestle.

“As a little white Essex boy, this was a revolution to me. I was 15 and I put this in my gob. It blew my mind. My tastebuds went ‘WOW’,” he continues.

Vintage or otherwise, Oliver has certainly been busy in the 20 years since he was struck off as dyslexic at his Essex comprehensive school. As well as an ever-expanding family, he oversees an empire that employs nearly 4,000 staff and has 18 cookery books to his name, with two more on the way later this year.

Like them or not, there are 62 branches of his five restaurants as well as a wildly successful popular app, the FoodTube channel with 2.3 million subscribers, TV shows (around 1.25 million tuned in to watch his Sugar Rush documentary on Channel 4), the annual Feastival, homeware ranges and even a magazine. Under the Jamie Oliver Foundation umbrella there are now 570 schools signed up to Jamie’s Kitchen Garden Project, which encourages children to learn about growing food.

He’s also a fierce campaigner, and was the driving force behind Chancellor George Osborne’s introduction of the sugar tax in his latest Budget.

“To commit a year-and-a-half to narrate the logic of a tax is probably to most people not the best use of my time, or they might think I’m stupid, but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. It is the first moment in time when the Government has grown some …” he explains.

Has there been a backlash?

“The really crap and pathetic argument is that it’s taxing the poor… but the whole concept of the obesity strategy, of which the drinks tax was a part, was about making sure the most disadvantaged kids had more protection and more support and more access to information and to make it easier to get hold of the right stuff.”

Sugar aside, for a moment I wonder if things have improved since Jamie Oliver Holdings was reported to have run up more than £10 million in losses in 2014, including shutting down Recipease branches.

“We’ve got parts of the business that have always delivered and have grown, and have their consistencies, and stuff that we’ve tried and failed. And, um, some people think it’s a bit weird that one would talk openly about it but I think it’s life. As I get older I’m trying to make fewer mistakes but… I think what was nice about last year was that we put an end to it all.”

Oliver now feels “really clear-headed” about the business, and is “proud of where I’ve got to but I don’t actually regret the things that I’ve messed up. I think I’d have regretted them if I learned nothing.”

He admits that Recipease cost him “a lot of money, and it was a big lesson to learn”, but what “always worked and delivered was the lessons. And actually that was the most important bit… You talk to people and you look at other businesses — I think that’s pretty standard really. But of course because of my name everyone likes to give me a kicking. We get it right most of the time, and when we get it wrong we put our hands up and say, ‘Sorry, we messed up’, and we crack on.”

Does he mind that next to the five-star TripAdvisor reviews are others writing his restaurants off as ‘diabolical’? “With Jamie’s Italian we wanted to disrupt mid-market dining. And we smashed it,” he says, pointing out that “because we’re very busy and we continue to be, it’s ultimately your litmus test”.

I ask if he’s considered the EU referendum and today’s mayoral elections — but if he has, he doesn’t let on: “I don’t think people want that from me. Now ask me how to poach an egg, that’s what I can help with.”

Originally published in the Evening Standard