Skip to main content

A little over a year ago, while he was vacationing in Australia, Jamie Oliver flicked on the BBC World Service and felt his stomach churn. In what one London newspaper facetiously described as "a stirring reminder of the indomitable British spirit," a pair of mothers had mounted a rebellion against Mr. Oliver's attempts to deprive children of "scrotum burgers," Turkey Twizzlers and various other cafeteria goodies of dubious provenance. A television crew had captured the women running an impromptu take-away service through the fence of a South Yorkshire schoolyard, dispensing burgers, chips and soft drinks to a delirious throng of young junk-food addicts.

"My heart stopped, and I got the cold sweats," Mr. Oliver recalled. "And then I thought: That image, of big old birds handing these charging kids that greasy shit, with all the hands poking out. I almost sat back slightly - not in a cocky way, but kind of in a thankful way - and said, 'You know what? In 30 seconds of visual, you've said everything that I've worked for for two years. That is the fucking problem.' "

These are the salty words of Jamie Oliver, Activist Chef, not to be confused with Jamie Oliver the Naked Chef, the Travelling Chef, or, most recently, the Social Worker Chef.

Story continues below advertisement

Each of these personae, with their various causes and passions, were on display this week in New York, where Mr. Oliver made a brief stopover to promote his seventh book, Cook with Jamie, and provide a plug for his sixth television series, Jamie at Home, now airing on the Food Network.

At just 32, Mr. Oliver is already a greybeard in the swelling cult of celebrity chefs, and on this afternoon, slumped into a leather-backed chair at a Soho club and swilling a bottle of beer, he feels it. He is outfitted in typically casual attire - a blue-striped hooded sweatshirt, jeans and black running shoes - and he has that rumpled comportment that will be familiar to anyone who has watched one of his recent shows: bleary of eye, tousled of hair, and, more often than not, foul of mouth.

"I was feeling a bit shit about 12 o'clock, because the third day of jet lag sort of kicked in a bit," he confessed. "But I just did Martha, which was good."

Yes, as in Stewart. Even in Las Vegas, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more bizarre example of culinary fusion.

Martha, with her pinched countenance and tyrannical exactitude, carefully levelling off her measuring cups beside Mr. Oliver, effervescing in a fizz of apparent anarchy and improvisation.

This is the shtick that cemented his popularity 10 years ago, when, as a 22-year old sous-chef at London's River Café, he was discovered by a documentary team and offered his own show. Thus was born The Naked Chef, a show in which Mr. Oliver stripped away the "bollocks" of formal cooking, whipped up meals at warp speed, and then invited his mates over to gorge. The message, helped along by Mr. Oliver's manic energy and populist charm, was a comforting one: that making tasty, healthy fare is not only easy, but fun.

That was a decade ago, but looking at Mr. Oliver today, it seems even longer. He is fleshier now, and while he still likes to carouse and joke there is a measure of gravitas - the result, no doubt, of reinventing himself as a chef bent on tackling social issues.

Story continues below advertisement

There are calluses, too. Sudden fame invited public barbs from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, a rock-star-like chef who detailed his sordid rise through the culinary ranks (and took some shots at celebrity cooks like Mr. Oliver, before becoming one himself) in the bestseller Kitchen Confidential.

It still rankles, especially considering this is the only book Mr. Oliver has ever finished. He is dyslexic, which makes compiling recipes, much less inspecting his own cookbooks, a laborious chore. He says he falls asleep after reading 15 or 20 pages.

"I wasn't saying I was the best chef in the world, and I still don't now, and I wouldn't dare," he shrugs. "Before Gordon [Ramsay]did much telly, and Anthony Bourdain, they hated TV chefs. And the reality is, they turned into them. Gordon and Anthony have done more telly than I've ever done, and I've been doing telly longer than them. I spent two years doing four one-hour documentaries on school dinners. ... I guess what's slightly upsetting me, is when you rate someone [like Mr. Bourdain]and then they think you're a bit of a pussy. It's not very inspiring."

Part of what makes Mr. Oliver different from these television chefs is the elasticity of his relationship with food; he has been able to bend it to his service, using it as a conduit not merely to realizing his culinary or financial ambitions (he is, after all, very, very rich) but his social ones as well.

Six years ago, he opened a training school called Fifteen for unemployed kids with a history of drug use, criminal records and assorted other problems. A documentary crew tracked him as he selected candidates, grappled with recalcitrant students, established a charity, and generally attempted to maintain his sanity on the show, Jamie's Kitchen.

It is the project of which he is most proud, and also the one that has been the most difficult.

Story continues below advertisement

Proceeds from his new book, which is based on this training regimen, will go toward the Fifteen Foundation, which now has programs in four cities.

"It never gets any easier," he says wearily. "You put months into young people, and quite a few times you'll get kids who go bad. And we're not God. We can't save everyone. We do our best, and most of our kids have had a fucking rough time, and generally have awful parents. ... But you get good ones that go bad on you again."

The show was captivating, if not cringing, entertainment. Disasters befall kitchens at the best of times, but given the problems of some of these students, Jamie's Kitchen at times felt like watching a train wreck. This Sunday, the Food Network will begin airing the sequel to this show, Jamie's Chef, in which a handful of graduates compete to own their own restaurant. Oliver is as blunt about the program as he is with his assessments of the students, saying that the winner of this contest probably didn't deserve it.

"I guess the shame about it in some ways is that it had the construct of a typical reality show, which obviously makes me want to throw up. But it was a real reality show."

Of course, his other foray into reality television was Jamie's School Dinners, a four-part series that followed his national campaign to overhaul the squalid state of school meals in Britain. The effort pressured the government to commit an extra £280-million ($566-million) to combat the problem, although the progress since then (2005) has been fitful and gruelling - and not just because of renegade mothers lobbing chip butties over the school fence.

"It's going to take me like 10 years to get it where I want it," he admits now. "And I've got to put up with sloppy politicians and bureaucracy and red tape, which aggravates the hell out of me, but we'll get there."

Mr. Oliver, by his own admission, has always been obsessed with food - eating it, cooking it and talking about it. When the school campaign is mentioned, he sits up in his chair, sets his beer on the table and turns suddenly serious, launching into a lengthy discussion about the sorry state of British chickens. Then, lowering his voice, he confides:

"There's going be some controversy coming out in the next three years about what animals are fed, and the health connections of that to humans, and the connection to cancer and stuff like that. You wait," he says, with a conspiratorial air. "There's a lot of people who don't want it to come out, but it will."

This is a far cry from the carefree exultations of the Naked Chef. While he still cooks religiously at home (he likes being able to experiment in private, just in case something fails miserably) his success has in some ways taken him further away from the food. There are his social projects and the television shows, not to mention the magazine writing, the books, the advertising endorsements for cookware and supermarkets, and plans for a new chain of Italian restaurants.

He claims he has no misgivings, portraying his evolution as a "super-amplified" version of what any aspiring chefs undergo as they navigate their way up the kitchen hierarchy.

But he doesn't deny the fatigue factor, and admits his penchant for seven-day work weeks was both "selfish" and disruptive to his family life. He credits the (not so gentle) prodding of his wife, Jools, with whom he has two young daughters, for helping him to find a balance.

"She said, 'I don't give a shit what you do Monday to Friday, but weekends are mine now, and the family's. You have six weeks off and this is when I want them. Do what you want, but don't touch my time.' And that was basically tough at the start, but I love it now. I feel like I'm happy, I feel like I'm a good dad, I feel like I'm a good husband - or try to be anyway."

Oliver's choice

Toronto or Vancouver?


Lager or ale?


Parma ham or Serrano ?


White eggs or brown?

I know loads about eggs and there's no difference. If the

chicken's had a good life, it will produce a good egg.

Bordeaux or Burgundy?


Arugula or Boston Bibb


Boston Bibb. I'm bored of rocket now.

Rib-eye or strip loin?

Rib-eye for me. Better flavour.

Hilary or Obama ?


Le Creuset or Emil Henry?

The brand new Jamie Oliver cast iron at 10 per cent cheaper.

Basil or oregano?


Heston Blumenthal

or Ferran Adrià ?

Blumenthal. He's a good friend and I love him to bits.

Guardian or Telegraph ?

Neither. The Guardian's a bit


Cast iron or copper?

Cast iron.

Julia Child

or Elizabeth David?

Elizabeth David.

Ramsay or Nigella?

Ramsay. Wait ... to shag? Or to do what?

Sinclair Stewart

Where Jamie likes to eat in...


Tojo's and Vij's.

New York

The Spotted Pig, Prune,

Momofuku Ssäm.

London (pub fare)

The Eagle, The Anchor and Hope, Portobello Fish Bar.

London (expensive)

"I'm not into the whole 3-star stuff. It's a mother-in-law thing.

I like to go to places where I feel comfortable." However, he does single out Eric Chavot at The Capital Hotel; Gordon Ramsay's

eponymous restaurant; and

Michel Roux Jr. at Le Gavroche.

Sinclair Stewart

Report an error Licensing Options

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨