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Jamie Oliver is not a man you expect to be difficult. But as he bowls into the white-tiled, pine-decked kitchen-cum-office that serves as the base for his recipe book empire and the recording studio for his YouTube channel, FoodTube, he’s not sure he has time for me. Is it okay if we chat while he has his make-up done, I ask. ‘Not really, mate, no,’ Oliver says, gesturing to his phone. ‘I need to send emails. I’ve just got too many people I need to get off my back.’
It’s hardly surprising he’s pressed for time. Despite Jamie Oliver Holdings now employing 8,000 people across the globe, he’s still very much involved in all the various arms of his culinary empire. He personally writes all the recipes in his books, taste-tests all the dishes in his restaurants and picks the presenters for FoodTube (which is dedicated to emerging culinary talent). He’s also editing a series of FoodTube mini-magazines – with the first in this issue of Time Out. On top of that little lot, as we meet, he’s hurtling into organising Food Revolution Day, an annual day of action for local groups to lobby about ‘the importance of food issues’. Last year, it saw 10,000 events happen simultaneously in 123 countries, broke the Guinness World Record for Biggest Cookery Class and generated more than 1.4 billion Twitter impressions (by comparison, the 2011 Oscars got 1.6 billion). He’s obviously incredibly busy; it’s just a shame I’ll now have almost no time to talk to him. Or maybe I will.
‘Come on then, mate!’ he says, bounding back into the room five minutes later. ‘I did it all quickly so we can have a proper chat. You know me: I never let anyone down.’
How do you find the time to do everything?
‘My life’s like Tetris: constantly trying to fit everything in. Especially with these [holds up his smartphone]: you’re so contactable. For years I’d go to bed at 2am and get up at 5.30am. I was just knackered all the time. So nowadays, sleep’s my biggest focus. It’s really uninteresting and boring, but as an adult, I just try to get into my bloody bed.’
Do you ever cringe at the banister-sliding, scooter-riding antics of your first TV show, ‘The Naked Chef’?
‘Yeah, constantly. No one likes hearing their own voice or watching themselves. I cringe a lot, but it is nostalgic. I’m 40 this year; I was 24 when I started “The Naked Chef”, acting like a 24-year-old because I was a 24-year-old. It’s interesting seeing yourself evolve. You realise when you start showing your kids. They’re like: “I can’t believe you did that!”’
Did you ever actually cook naked?
‘Yeah, once. I was cooking a whole sea bass, attempting to be romantic. I don’t advise it. I ended up burning my penis on a jet of steam when it came out of the oven.’
Your YouTube channel, FoodTube, always pops up when you’re searching for meal ideas online. Are you trying to become the Google of recipes?
‘I don’t know about that, but I know that I trust us and I don’t really trust others, because the quality control on the internet is shit. I come at internet recipes the same way I do my books: I’m very, very careful about making sure I don’t abuse the trust people have in me. I’ve seen bad publishing in previous jobs and I don’t want to damage my relationship with people.’
‘I won’t say who, but someone I worked with had done some books. I’d be the one taking calls from people who’d just spent £50 sourcing all these clever ingredients and they were pissed off that what they’d made was shit. That affected me, so when I wrote a book I was very conscious that this was people’s money. Forget the cost of the book, we’re talking about groceries. Fifty pounds: that’s a lot of money.’
Is it nice working with other presenters?
‘Oh God, it’s really fun! I’ve done everything alone for 15 years and I was always a bit jealous of Ant and Dec. I was like: “Lucky bastards, you’ve got each other to bounce off!” Now when we do our quarterly live shows [for FoodTube] with ten of us and we’re just throwing links to each other, it’s like our version of “Live & Kicking” from back in the day!’
'I had an opportunity to cook for Fidel Castro'
Last September, the government agreed to make food education compulsory in schools. Do you feel like you’ve finally won your fight?
‘That’s really positive and a little “yay!” for the last six years of campaigning. But last year, diet-related disease overtook poverty and hunger as the biggest killer. For the first time, more people are dying from eating the wrong stuff rather than eating too little. So now I’m looking at food education internationally and I’ve created a global petition to lobby every G20 country to sign up to compulsory food education in schools. I believe it’s a child’s right.’
You think you can actually change the policies of the 20 most powerful nations in the world?
‘Well, I haven’t met anyone yet who thinks it’s a bad idea to teach kids about food. Only an arsehole – and a dumb one at that – would think it wasn’t a great idea. On May 15, for our Food Revolution Day, which is the big push, we’ve got events happening globally. We’ve written an anthem with Ed Sheeran. We’ve got 13,000 quite active ambassadors around the world, and we’re arming them with the tools and the rhetoric to get that petition to the head of education, to the prime minister, to the key news teams and stuff like that. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it a big ask? Yes. Is it quite bolshy? Yes. Is it the right thing to do? Yes. Absolutely.’
Russell Brand has also been calling for a revolution recently. Are you both coming from the same place?
‘I’m loving what Russell’s doing at the moment. He’s really tapping into something. Sometimes the biggest problem is people not talking about things. It’s like TTIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a controversial free-trade agreement between the US and the EU]: I’ve been trying to talk about it for a year, but it’s only in the last three months that people have started to talk about it. But Russell’s on it and I’m on it, because there’s so much to lose if it goes wrong.’
What political leader would you like to cook a meal for and what would be on the menu?
‘I once had an opportunity to cook for the Cuban president Fidel Castro. I couldn’t do it. Gutted. I’d love to be able to say I’d cooked for Fidel Castro. I could be like: “Fidel, I’m doing a food revolution, you did an actual revolution, you got any tips?” Yeah, I could! Sadly, all the tips would probably be against the law.’
You once cooked for Silvio Berlusconi, didn’t you?
‘Yeah, and Barack Obama. They were both lovely. Obama’s cool, isn’t he? He’s just a dude and his wife’s really nice. Berlusconi is… Italian.’
A couple of years ago, you told The Sunday Times that you ‘loved’ the fact Ukip were ‘stirring it up’. Given some of the things that they’ve said since then, do you regret saying it?
‘All I said was they’ve changed the conversation, and I don’t regret saying that. Politics is really hard for a lot of people if everything’s spun, and I definitely think any political group that makes the conversation change a little bit is a healthy thing. I’ve never said I’m a Ukip supporter. We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks.’
Do you ever think that instead of spending so much time lobbying, you should just become a politician yourself, so you could change things directly?
‘I don’t know, really. I genuinely feel like my boss is the public, which sounds a bit weird but it’s just the reality of how I feel about my job. But I feel like I can be more dynamic on the outside. Also, the minute you go, “Mate, I’ll have a go at being mayor!”, everyone’ll go, “You !@*!” Ultimately, I don’t think I’m worthy of a political position.’
Read Jamie’s first FoodTube supplement out once a month in Time Out magazine and view recipes online at www.youtube.com/user/JamieOliver.