How Jamie Oliver became the Teflon chef

 (Laura Macias/Yes Chef)
(Laura Macias/Yes Chef)

To call Jamie Oliver busy goes comically beyond understatement. Look at his 2023: there is a new restaurant opening in Covent Garden this autumn, Jamie Oliver Catherine Street. There’s a new online course next month, as he becomes the first Brit to teach on YesChef, the worldwide series of cookery classes. On top of that is the sequel to his bestselling children’s book, Billy and the Giant Adventure, slated for spring, which was written as soon as his latest cookbook was put to bed (5 Ingredients Mediterranean, which dropped last week). Oh, and there’s his 50th birthday looming. For a man whose entire existence looked on the verge of collapse not so long ago, Oliver knows how to pick himself up, dust himself off, and carry on.

In fact, over a lunch at his Essex home of quiche and salad — Oliver, who’s been cooking all day for his new online classes, doesn’t make it himself — he is philosophical, contemplative and relaxed. He seems not to be worried, though he was once. In 2018 and 2019, his restaurant empire crumbled, with all but three restaurants closing: gone were his two Barbecoa steakhouses, gone was the Jamie’s Italian chain, and gone was passion project Fifteen, the not-for-profits that trained disadvantaged young chefs. And, for a reported 1,000 of his staff, gone were their jobs. The Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group went into administration with a reported debt of some £80 million, a move he said left him “devastated”.

 (Laura Macias/Yes Chef)
(Laura Macias/Yes Chef)

No surprise, then, that Oliver admits he feels “super nervous” every time he puts out another project — regardless of what it is. “I feel very, very vulnerable,” he says. “Billy and the Giant Adventure was a by-product of me reading to my kids at night. I did it in my private time, and I felt really shy about sharing it. I felt very vulnerable putting it out in the public domain because I thought it was good, but what does that mean?”

A book’s one thing, but how about a new restaurant? “I thought, I’ve got to get back on the horse at some stage or stay away forever,” he says. Last week, reports came out that he felt “naked” without one. “Without [a restaurant] I’m not fully happy, I’m not fully complete,” he said recently.

The new restaurant will open next to Theatre Royal Drury Lane in Covent Garden in November. Oliver calls it “a pivotal moment in my career”. Interestingly, rather than being focused on Italian dishes, the menu is set to be more of a homage to the pub classics he grew up cooking as the son of Essex publicans. Opening it now wasn’t exactly the way he thought things would go.“I’m super excited,” he says. “I wasn’t planning on doing this for another two or three years, but... when I saw it, I was 100 per cent in.”

It’s some space: a Grade I-listed building seating 130 inside and 30 on the terrace. Having had four years to, as he puts it, “do an autopsy” on his failures, Oliver says he feels ready for the new challenge, adding: “I think positivity is really important.”

It is not the only restaurant on the horizon. Around the time his London sites were closing, Oliver moved out of his Hampstead home and returned to Essex, moving into a grand Elizabethan house called Spains Hall, reportedly worth £6 million. He says there are parts of it he wants to develop. “In theory, we will run a restaurant from here and a bakery,” he says. “We’re building a studio for production and a new cookery school and I want to eventually open it up to the public in some shape or form. The big question is, ‘how do I keep working on producing good stuff for another 20 years?’

“This place is big enough to handle that and, as much as we love having complete privacy, houses like this need to be kept alive by being part of the community. I’m really conscious of that.” Additionally, he smiles, “time is in very short supply, so working at home saves me a lot of time”.

“Vulnerable”: Jamie Oliver admits to nerves over new projects (PA)
“Vulnerable”: Jamie Oliver admits to nerves over new projects (PA)

Oliver’s project with YesChef, offers cooking tutorials and a documentary on his life at home, featuring his (usually press-shy) wife Jools, and “surrogate Dad and best mate”, Gennaro Contaldo.

Why would one of TV’s most recognisable foodies head online? “It lets me go deep with recipes. For a half hour telly slot, I get 24 minutes to teach people four or five recipes but with YesChef there are no time restrictions. The good stuff for TV can often end up on the cutting room floor, but not with this.”

And though he has conquered life in the TV studio, Oliver says he sees potential in keeping things online to help him stay part of an ever-changing dialogue. “I like to think I’ve got a balanced approach that uses the best of the past, even as technology develops and things change so quickly.”

Things like public perception? Oliver’s reputation, once squeaky clean, has had its ups and downs since his empire unravelled. He is well aware of the power of social media, and the pitfalls that come with online platforms. “I’m actually shier than you think and I don’t like conflict; it’s not my happy place, even though I have found a way to handle it,” he says. But it is the public discourse that dictates where he’ll go next.

I’ve tried a few things, and I’ve failed at a few things — it’s not like I get it right all the time

“There is a responsibility that comes with all this stuff, because if your work doesn’t resonate with people, you won’t get another gig,” he says. And there is a sense he’s taken on YesChef — which is global — a little more cautiously than other projects. “I’ve done a lot of genius stuff two years too early and wasted a load of money,” he muses. He mentions Recipease, his deli-cum-cookery school that closed in 2015. “The model didn’t work,” he says. Why? “The branding was incredible and we were sourcing products from artisan producers that we love, but it was too early and not quite right.” Still, that then “became the Jamie Oliver Cookery School, which definitely works.” With Oliver, every negative has a turning point.

The documentary that comes with the online lessons very much plays into today’s increasingly voyeuristic world. Besides showing Oliver behind the scenes, it includes interviews with his parents who, like his wife, tend to shy from the public eye.

“I never really saw them as pioneers, but they were,” Oliver says. “They were butchering their own meat long before it was done everywhere, but mum and dad were probably never recognised for how brilliant they were. They always did really well on their own.”

Did his wife mind all the cameras? “It’s rare for Jools to do this because she doesn’t really like doing interviews but, the way the world is now, everything of everyone is quite public, isn’t it?” he says. For his part, Oliver didn’t mind the documentary at all, seeing it instead as “an excuse to talk about my childhood. The documentary allows me to be really emotional about stuff. I mean, I’m chaotic. It’s like a pig farm here, even if it looks all slick-back-and-sides.”

“Pig farm” it may be, but the Oliver empire is clearly back on its feet, and the chef is excited about what’s coming. “It’s emotional thinking about coming back, but I’ve tried a few things, and I’ve failed at a few things — it’s not like I get it right all the time,” he says. But with Oliver, the sense is: he can’t help but try again. “The opportunity to open a new restaurant means the world to me,” he says. You sense, then, that this is a second chance that won’t go wasted.

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