British chef Jamie Oliver is no stranger to controversy. He shares his opinion-splitting views with us.
No sooner had Jamie Oliver’s latest cookbook hit the shops, than the star of the television cooking programme Naked Chef went and said something that whipped up a frenzy.
“Yeah, controversy,” he says, laughing. “There’s always a bit of that following me.” He’s referring to his recent comments accusing poor families of eating nothing but junk food in his native Britain and spending their money instead on huge TV sets.
But there are good things that follow him too. He has opened restaurant chains in several parts of the world, including Jamie’s Italian at Dubai Festival City. The rustic Italian fare has proved popular with diners and plans are already under way to open a second restaurant at Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
Despite the furore over his comments on low-income families’ eating habits and immigrants working harder in his kitchens than young Britons, the chef arrives at his offices looking relaxed, having just returned from a holiday in Cornwall. “We had sun, the beach, surfing, great Cornish food, the kids seemed happy. Jools seems happy, we are getting on well. We had a good week.”
Jamie, 38, and wife Jools, a designer and former model with whom he has four children – Poppy, 11, Daisy Boo, 10, Petal, four, and two-yearold Buddy – have been together 20 years. So what’s the secret to their happy marriage? “When you’re in the public eye, you annoy people if you just say, ‘I’m really happy and in love’,” he says. “What I’ve tried to do over the years is balance it by saying, ‘We’re just normal, we still argue like normal couples’. Actually, what I never get the chance to say is, ‘I absolutely love and adore her. She can be a pain sometimes but she’s pretty amazing and a good person’.”
He says he doesn’t want more children, but that Jools definitely does. “You think I’m the boss at home?” he asks incredulously. “I’d rather not have more children, because I think we’ve got enough and transporting them down to Cornwall was hard enough – with one more, we’ll have to get a proper, fully fledged minibus.”
He returned from holiday to a storm over his remarks about modernday poverty and work-shy British youths, and says he now regrets the comments. “I guess I should have known better because, more than most people, I pride myself on being involved, getting my hands dirty and seeing both sides of the coin,” he says.
“The reaction is really divided. For the people who think I’m being patronising, rude or offensive, of course I apologise. At the same time, I probably said it because of my continued passion that the knowledge of how to cook is without question the biggest luxury now.
“It’s about priorities. And priorities of any class – how you feed yourself and your children – is a massive subject right now.”
His latest cookbook, Save With Jamie, he explains, is in response to the growing frustration of people who feel their supermarket bills have soared, and who want to make their food go further. “People just want affordable, tasty food. They’re caught
between, ‘Do I go out for a takeaway or do I save money?’”
For the book, he wanted to devise dishes that were either a third or half the price of a takeaway. The result is meals that cost an average of £1.32 (about Dh7.60) a portion.
If people can’t afford the cover price of £26, he and his publisher, in partnership with The Reading Agency, have donated a copy of his new cookbook to libraries in the UK.
A lesson in true passion
There’s something genuine about Jamie’s passion and attitude. Over the years he’s had his fingers in a lot of pies – campaigning to improve school dinners, placing disadvantaged young people in his string of Fifteen restaurants, preparing lunch for Tony Blair, then prime minister of Britain, founding the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation charity and creating Jamie’s Ministry of Food, a network of centres that aims to teach people about food and nutrition. And, of course, there have been countless TV shows – including his latest, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals – all with the aim of reconnecting us with food and teaching us how to cook tasty, nutritious meals. Jamie and his family don’t really do takeaways. “We’ve probably had two this year. However, I’m not anti-fast food. But when it becomes a solution three or four nights a week, then we’ve got a problem.” The Essex-born chef, who began honing his cooking skills in his parents’ pub as a boy, may now be worth an estimated £150 million, but his endless energy surely comes from a genuine passion and serious work ethic.
He doesn’t have time to watch many food shows, but is hooked on The Great British Bake Off. “I love Mary [Berry] and Paul [Hollywood]. My whole family watches it.”
His comments in Good Housekeeping that European immigrants are “stronger” and “tougher” than their British counterparts who tend to “whinge” about too-long hours, again prompted a mixed reaction. “I wasn’t generalising, It was really about chefs. There are far too many boys coming into the industry who think they’re exhausted after 44 hours.
“Our kitchens are hard work. The average was 70-100 hours when I was in there. It’s a tough industry. It’s about relentlessness grunt and sweat.
“But there’s something to be proud of when your feet hurt, you’ve achieved a day’s work and you’ve progressed. We’ve got to toughen up a bit.”
So how can British youths learn a better work ethic? “To be honest, I think mums and dads have got to kick them, figuratively speaking.”
Jamie says balancing his workload with family life is difficult. He spends more time at home these days – but maintaining his success and being the perfect family man was never going to be easy...
“I have very specific time off for holidays and very specific days off. I try and stick to it 98 per cent.
“I largely work with ladies and a proportion of them have kids. Having a tight, great team, we all want to get that balance between working hard, being creative, and having time for yourself and your family. For me, the future is about being positive and trying to keep lifting the bar.”
Save With Jamie shows you don’t need a massive budget to make delicious food