a better I’m trying to be dad
With feeding the family on budget at the heart of his brand-new book and TV series, Jamie Oliver explains why these days he’s a changed man
As I pull into the driveway at Jamie Oliver’s country house — the place he says he feels most at home — I spot him by the pond with his son, Buddy. The chef and his flaxen-haired two-year- old are chatting animatedly about the swans and birds they can see in the water. It’s a sweet snapshot of quiet father-and-son bonding on a warm summer’s afternoon.
It’s worth mentioning because a pile-up on the motorway has made me nearly an hour late for our interview and Jamie has taken the opportunity, some might say uncharacteristically, to spend quality time with his youngest child rather than working. Soon, he takes Buddy inside the long, pink farmhouse and returns to sit at the outdoor wooden table overlooking the pond and luscious gardens. In a casual get-up of long shorts and checked shirt, he’s tanned and seems more relaxed than usual. It could be the location. ‘This is where I live,’ he says, surveying his domain. ‘I don’t really live in London. I only sleep and work in London.’
We’re here to talk about his new cookbook, Save With Jamie, and the accompanying six- part Channel 4 series Jamie’s Money Saving Meals. The subject of family life crops up early in our conversation because Jamie is trying to be a more hands-on parent. He has realised, perhaps belatedly, that an upside of his own childhood was having his father Trevor, a publican, at home all the time. ‘If I wanted him, I’d just go downstairs and say [in a child’s high voice], “Dad, does Chewbacca have the power to beat Luke Skywalker?” Living in the family business was a real gift.’
So, despite running a business empire of restaurants, better- eating campaigns, cookbooks, TV series and Food Tube, a new online food channel, Jamie’s trying to spend more time with Jools, his wife, and their four children — Poppy, 11, Daisy, 10, Petal, four, and Buddy. ‘Petal and Buddy always seem to need me and it’s quite nice to be wanted,’ says Jamie. ‘When they hurt themselves, they’re like, “Daddy! I want Daddy!” And that’s a good feeling. What’s hilarious is that when they do it, their mum says, “I’ve been here all day looking after you, and he just waltzes in and you want him!”’
‘But it’s a good motivation to be a good parent,’ he says. Regrets? ‘I think I was a little slow on the uptake with Poppy and Daisy. I thought it didn’t matter because they were so young, but that kind of invisible closeness comes then. I used to go away for four weeks at a time quite often when the girls were about two and three. I was growing a business. And I would think it didn’t matter and they were happy with Jools. But I realise now it did matter. I have a wonderful relationship with my older girls and I’m not worried about anything, but I think I’ll have to earn my stripes with them when they’re older.’ He has adjusted his schedule to get home from work at 6pm at least two evenings a week to put the children to bed. Weekends and six weeks’ holiday per year are sacrosanct. ‘Jools would like me at home even more, though,’ he admits.
Jools is a home-loving maternal woman who shuns the limelight, while Jamie is a creative, extroverted crusader. ‘We’re loving with each other but at the same time we’re completely opposite in every way,’ he laughs. ‘Of course, that equals fiery because we always disagree. But clearly it works because we’ve been together so long.’ They celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary in July with dinner out near their Primrose Hill London home. He gave her a dress and a bag embroidered with a romantic message.
What’s kept them together all this time? ‘I love Jools more than chocolate,’ he says. He tries to keep romance alive and now the kids are no longer babies, he’s eager for more date nights. He’s even willing to consider accompanying Jools on her favourite — and his least favourite — evening activity, ‘disco dancing,’ as he sweetly calls it. ‘ My missus is bothering me to go disco dancing because she likes it,’ he says. ‘But I hate dancing. I’m aware that I look a k***, and when you’re famous and everybody’s looking at you being a k*** dancing, it’s hideous. I need private lessons, so this is a shout-out to any choreographer to sort me out with a few disco moves.’ Craig Revel Horwood, are you listening? Yet the reinstitution of date night may be some way off. One area in which Jamie and Jools disagree is whether to have the fifth child that Jools has said she wanted, as recently as July at the launch of her Christmas range of children’s clothes for Motherca re. Jamie’s face falls at the mention of adding to their brood. ‘She’s got, what do you call it? Empty nest syndrome,’ he explains. ‘ She just doesn’t want it to end but I think it’s a great idea to end. I want date night back.’ He sighs, looks glum, and then says that if she insists, he wouldn’t deny her another child.
Another little Oliver would hardly make his crazy schedule easier. This year he is opening another four restaurants abroad, taking his total to 11 ( he has 41 open in the UK at the moment and one in Dublin) and has a schedule so crammed that every work day is full. ‘That’s got to be sorted out,’ he sighs. ‘It’s a bit like air traffic control for the girls who look after my diary.’
His latest cookbook, Save With Jamie, and TV series, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals, are the result of public demand, he says. ‘We’ve been rampaged on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook with requests for budget food — we couldn’t ignore it.’
He recently caused a media firestorm with his comments about families living on a diet of junk food while spending money on pricey consumer goods such as big TVs — comments, incidentally, he also made in his 2008 series Ministry Of Food that failed to create a media frenzy.
Today Jamie is keen to move on from the argument. ‘Of course I’m sorry if I upset people and hope it didn’t come across as me bashing the poor,’ he sighs. ‘The truth is that poor nutrition is something that can affect the well- off as much as the less well- off. And equally, there are many people on low incomes who do an incredible job of feeding themselves and their kids well. I shouldn’t have generalised.
‘But I’ve spent a lot of time on various campaigns, like Ministry Of Food, to help people on a budget feed their families better. All I was trying to say is that I would personally love everyone to put better nutrition at the top of their list of priorities.’
average cost per meal in his new book, he says, is about £1.30 (€1.55). ‘I could have