Jamie Oliver's journey
PUBLISHED: 00:16 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:57 21 December 2020
Nils Jorgensen/REX FEATURES
From a quiet corner of Essex, Jamie Oliver has gained a global reputation for fun, fine food and giving people a fair chance, explains Dina Burgess
All images: Rex Features
The phrase, ‘the right place at the right time’ could have been invented for Jamie Oliver. The place was The River Cafe in Hammersmith where the young chef was working; the time was when a television crew came to make a documentary about the restaurant.
Although the programme was intended to be primarily about Ruth Rogers and Rose Grey who ran the venue, it was the rooky employee who stole the limelight.
After his appearance, Oliver was inundated with calls from production companies all wanting to give him his own show although, at the time, he thought it was his mates winding him up. This was no wind-up though and The Naked Chef was born.
That first Channel 4 series launched a career that has made this cheeky Essex chappy an international household name, but it seems that the 35 year old was always destined to become a chef. His parents, Trevor and Sally, still own and run The Cricketers gastro pub in Clavering where Jamie grew up learning all about the food industry. By the age of 16, the decision had been made – he wanted to be a chef.
Jamie left school with few qualifications and went to catering college before heading to France in a bid to pick up some more continental tricks of the trade. After returning home to the UK, he became head pastry chef for Antonio Carluccio at The Neal Street Restaurant before taking up the job at The River Cafe where he worked for three-and-a-half years.
A dyslexic, Oliver admits that anything academic was a bit of a struggle for him: ‘It was with great regret that I didn’t do better at school. People just thought I was thick. It was a struggle because I never really had anyone to help that understood dyslexia and who could bring
out my strengths.’
It was in part this experience that inspired him to set up Fifteen in 2002, a project aimed at helping young people who were neither in education nor employment to train in catering. This was the first of his now numerous campaigns and the subject of Jamie’s Kitchen, the Channel 4 series which followed the progress of the trainee chefs as they battled to get a job in Jamie’s new restaurant. The Fifteen Foundation followed and, in addition to the original London restaurant, there are now similar projects in Melbourne, Amsterdam and Cornwall.
In fact, Jamie’s arguably just as well known for his campaigns these days as for his cooking, something which earned him an MBE in 2003. After Fifteen came the famous Jamie’s School Dinners project, again accompanied by a TV show during which the chef vigorously fought to improve the quality of food in Britain’s schools. He met politicians, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and even came up with his own manifesto.
‘It’s all about making radical changes to the school meals system and challenging the junk food culture by showing schools they can serve fresh nutritious meals that kids enjoy eating.
‘What we eat affects everything: our mood, behaviour, health, growth, even our ability to concentrate. A lunchtime school meal should provide a growing child with one-third of their daily nutritional intake.’
Ministry of Food
Two years ago, there was the Ministry of Food Campaign where Jamie set out to educate an entire town, it happened to be Rotherham, on the basics of healthy cooking and eating. Following the campaign, and the TV show, there’s now a Ministry of Food Centre in Rotherham, Bradford and Leeds where families can go for advice and cooking classes.
‘When I set out to re-establish the Ministry of Food, I wanted to dig into some issues which have been nagging at me since the School Dinners project. I wanted to find out more about how people eat at home and why our diet is helping to turn us into one of the most obese countries in the world. I also wanted to see if I could find a way to tackle the problem by getting people cooking again, to give them the tools to help themselves by learning some basic food skills, to feel confident in the kitchen and enjoy eating their own meals.’
However, the campaigns and cooking are really just the tip of the iceberg for the Jamie Oliver brand. He has a huge online profile which inlcudes pages on the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Myspace. There are numerous blogs, a magazine and an iPhone app.
As well as Fifteen he also owns Jamie’s Italian, a range of affordable restaurants across the UK in towns including Oxford, Leeds, Reading, Guildford and Bath, and Recipease a kind of shop/cafe/takeaway/cooking school which he describes as a ‘community hub’ built around food in Brighton and Battersea. Of course, there are also the famous Sainsbury’s TV ads, which see him on our screens several times a day, and numerous cookbooks.
With all this going on, Jamie has to try and juggle family life too, which he admits is sometimes not easy. ‘Right now I’ve never been busier in my life,’ Jamie explains. ‘It’s a complete whirlwind and the only thing I wish I had more time for is my family – my lovely girls.’
The ‘girls’ are his wife of eight years, Jools (former model Juliette Norton) and their daughters Poppy (8), Daisy (7) and Petal (1). But when the family is all together, top of the agenda for making the most of that quality time is rustling up something in the kitchen. ‘I love to cook with my children,’ Jamie explains. ‘And they are getting pretty good at it as well.’
Family and his Essex roots certainly remain close to Jamie’s heart who now lives within a stones throw of his parents’ pub where it all started in a green corner of the Essex countryside.