Jamie Oliver: Naked ambition

One restaurant, five cookbooks, seven TV series shown worldwide, nearly 200 hundred employees, and 271,677 signatures on a petition to revolutionise school dinners. And still Jamie Oliver wants more. What's next? Caroline Stacey finds out
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"It doesn't go to my head because I know in three months I'll get whooped up the arse again. It's been like that for seven years," says Jamie Oliver. He remembers the time when he wasn't the nation's blue-eyed boy, and he knows that those three months since Jamie's School Dinners was broadcast are now up. All of which might explain why, since we met in London, Jamie has craftily taken his arse off to Italy for some back-to-basics cooking. And anyway, the queue left behind to give him a kicking doesn't amount to much more than one "poison mouth, silly cow, old bitch" and a TV critic or two - one of them a "no-fucking-friends git". One objected to his endorsement of Sainsbury's farmed salmon; the others, he's sure, just wanted to be different.

"It doesn't go to my head because I know in three months I'll get whooped up the arse again. It's been like that for seven years," says Jamie Oliver. He remembers the time when he wasn't the nation's blue-eyed boy, and he knows that those three months since Jamie's School Dinners was broadcast are now up. All of which might explain why, since we met in London, Jamie has craftily taken his arse off to Italy for some back-to-basics cooking. And anyway, the queue left behind to give him a kicking doesn't amount to much more than one "poison mouth, silly cow, old bitch" and a TV critic or two - one of them a "no-fucking-friends git". One objected to his endorsement of Sainsbury's farmed salmon; the others, he's sure, just wanted to be different.

In the run up to the election, everyone was talking about Jamie, agreeing with him, praising him and courting him. It wasn't just the TV audience that was gripped by Jamie's School Dinners, four programmes that could change the health of the nation's children. The gobby chef seized the political agenda too. He met Tony Blair for breakfast and spent two hours with Michael Howard: "I went round there; I thought that was a generous amount of time."

When Jamie said things like "our kids deserve the best of the best, to be passionate and clever and resourceful", it turned him into a kind of national saviour. Nobody minded that this celebrity chef wouldn't shut up. He was saying what we want to hear.

Cynics might think the school dinners mission began as a TV programme and turned him into an accidental hero. Oliver insists not. "I didn't fucking do it to be a pissy little thang, you know," he says. "I did it to make change. That's the only thing that kept me going last year when I was miserable. It was hard; it was frustrating." His motivation "was anger, pure anger - from being connected to the food industry and being a dad". And he relishes the righteousness of his position. "It's very nice that it's all very positive at the moment," he says. "But this isn't really about me. This is like, if you disagree with what I'm doing not only are you a total wanker but you're a thick ignorant wanker. How can you argue about such a fundamental cog of this country?" Who wants to be called a wanker, even by Jamie Oliver?

For someone who left school with two GCSEs he's perceptive and, despite all the "you knows" and a notorious love of swearing, articulate. He has written five hefty books of recipes. Sure, there are behind-the-scenes collaborators - his school meals Feed Me Better manifesto and campaign can't be all his own work - but he's left exposed often enough to convince us that the original passion and the knowledge are all his. He has the figures - "21,000 schools, 130,000 dinner ladies, £1.4bn spent a year on school dinners" - at the tip of his fingers. Nobody pulls his strings. Halfway through transmission of Jamie's School Dinners, Channel 4 organised a debate between academics, policymakers, organic lobbyists and food activists. Phrases such as "devolve responsibility to people who are incentivised by their shareholders" tripped off his tongue.

And it's not just Britain that can't get enough of him. Oliver's programmes are broadcast to more than 50 countries. I'm squeezed between the Norwegians and Brazilians on one of his monthly interview days at the office of his Sweet as Candy company, which looks after his numerous spin-off deals. It's one of four buildings occupied by his many employees. "Why do I do this?" he asks. "Because I have Dutch or Brazilian publishers or broadcasters or top magazines or whatever breaking my PR's balls every fucking day to get a little chat."

Hell, he isn't just a chef with a few kitchens (in the restaurant, plus one for photo shots and another in his TV company's office), he's an emperor with an attentive court and a global f fanbase. Where once the carefree, supposedly single guy whizzed down banisters and up the celebrity ladder, the chef formerly known as naked now comes clothed with layers of expectations and responsibilities.

There's the fourth annual intake of 15 troubled teenagers on to the chef's training scheme that was the first step in his reinvention as a grown-up and good guy. This cohort sounds the most challenging ever. "Two-thirds of our kids are from prison or on loan from prison, a quarter are officially homeless," he reveals. An offshoot of the Fifteen training restaurant project is running in Amsterdam; others are planned for Cornwall, and Melbourne, Australia.

Recently he put his foot in it by suggesting that Sainsbury's sold Turkey Twizzlers, when in fact they hadn't sold them for a couple of years. Since then, however, he's had his estimated £1m-a-year contract to advertise the supermarket renewed. He devises recipes for them. There are books to write; a deal with Tefal saucepans to keep buffed and shiny.

With mutinous dinner ladies, ungrateful children and intransigent bean counters, Jamie's School Dinners didn't make the life of a (then-) 29-year-old multi-millionaire workaholic chef look enviable. Back at his restaurant, Fifteen, he was getting a trashing from the food guides. Bill Clinton and entourage rejected the menu agreed months ago. There were tabloid-induced tears at home and an awkwardly timed book promotion in Germany.

But from the beginning, in the fantasy bachelor-loft apartment (girlfriend-since-school Jools had to pretend she was just visiting) the deal was always lifestyle as much as cookery. That's why his books of ingeniously simple recipes persuaded a generation of blokes to make proper food with their pestle and mortars and other bits of flashy kit. That's why his granny "Tiger" turned up in the Sainsbury's commercials and Jools has to share her gynaecological history and their shagging-for-conception schedule in her new book Minus Nine to One. Privacy is not in his vocabulary.

Did he mind his life looking out of control while he battled to feed the children of Greenwich better? "In the haze of it all I knew what we were doing was important," he says. "I knew that I should feel good about it, but I felt shit every day. But in the way it was edited, those four programmes - fuck it, I'll be big- headed - were brilliant and clever and honest."

It's his own TV production company, yet he claims to have no say in the content of the finished programmes. There were scenes in Jamie's School Dinners that were uncomfortable to watch. The reviews of Fifteen reduced him to tears. Jools and he argued about the tabloid allegations of a dalliance with a Dutch waitress.

These days the Oliver brand is a little like the Beckhams'. It incorporates Jamie and Jools' marriage and winsome daughters, Poppy Honey and Daisy Boo. Except that Jools' sister, rather than a loose-tongued nanny, helps her with the children. "I'd rather not film at home quite frankly," he says, "but if you want to touch hearts and souls and paint a really true picture, how else can you make a meaningful documentary? School Dinners wasn't just school dinners, it was an emotional thing. I wouldn't risk my family for anything. The point is, did it impact [upon] my family? Jools wouldn't let it and nor would I."

No, having so much revealed, both in the Jamie's Kitchen series and in Jamie's School Dinners never bothered him. "Because you know what? Both projects were brilliant. My director and executive producer are food lovers and they have kids. I have to believe they're good enough and true enough to not stitch me up."

They owe their livelihood to him. As do scores of others: 60 people in his Sweet as Candy office, 100 in the restaurant, 10 working for the Fifteen Foundation charity, the 15 trainees, and six in the TV production company. "They're all fucking talented cool people," he says. "And if I meet anyone who's fucking good I'll employ them too."

Oliver wants the Fifteen Foundation, which he started in 2001, to become a global social enterprise. The money, skills and time he has given to train disadvantaged young people to work in his restaurant have already earned him a prize for being the most generous celebrity. He still insists that's the project dearest to his heart, the one he's committed to for life - and his hope is that one day he'll have helped set some trainees up in their own restaurants.

"Fifteen drives everything else that I do," he says. "It wasn't just a programme; it was a real thing. I wanted it to work like an old-fashioned apprenticeship, with a family aspect and to show there was an integrity about the food and the sourcing trips." Surrounded by his students, the once-irritating cheeky chops came across as a patient and intelligent manager, motivator and teacher. And benefactor. "Fifteen cost me two-and-a-half million quid," he claims.

Only the telly and the adverts made it possible, of course. "It had been on my mind for nine years, and I was in a position, which I never for a second thought I'd be in, to afford to do something that had never been done before. It's changed my life as well as my students." So he'd trousered Sainsbury's money for advertising their supermarket with a format remarkably similar to his early programmes; it then helped him fund Fifteen. But still, more than anything else he's done, it's the Sainsbury's connection that shocks foodie purists. "I am quite commercial," he admits. But he's much more than a rich chef, even a very rich chef.

"People will tell you I'm ambitious or entrepreneurial. I don't disagree with them, but I just think I'm quite excited about exciting things. Could I have made lots more money in the past seven years? Fuck yeah, double, easy peasy. I've done really well, really well. But I spend a lot as well. What I've fallen in love with is social business versus commercial business. For me that's what makes the world go round. I work to feed the beast, really. I probably did 300 grand of my own dosh on School Dinners."

Any suggestion that there's a conflict of interest between advertising Sainsbury's and lambasting the Government and food industry for the standard of school dinners and prevalence of junk food, is met with a well rehearsed answer.

"I don't advertise junk food for Sainsbury's. Everything I advertise for them is scrupulously policed," he says. Clarissa Dickson-Wright gave him an earbashing for endorsing their farmed salmon. He defends it. "The tidal loch the salmon comes from was the best of its kind. British people need to eat more fish." What difference would it have made to part company with Sainsbury's? Given him 40 days a year to do other things, he says. Or do nothing.

If, as he's said before, he would like to retreat from the media circus, he has a strange way of going about it. Jools' embarrassingly revealing book was apparently his idea. Jamie's Italy - "just really simple Italian cooking" - is published in October, and he's promised to take Jools to New York for a month or two in the autumn. "It's going to be family time but with five or six hours work in the morning." At the same time he's supposed to go to Italy with Nora Sands, his right-hand woman from Greenwich, and the Fifteen students to visit an olive oil producer. Plus he wants to do at least a couple of follow-up shows on school dinners.

But despite the frantic schedule, he swears he has no ambitions left. "I haven't got any," he promises. "Honestly, I really mean that. I do know C4 want a meeting to see what next ..." Meanwhile Oliver's idea of lying low is to keep a web diary of what he's up to in Italy. "I'll be in my van and I'll just be driving around Italy as and when I please and I'm gonna get under the skin. I've got to get over this Italian thing," he says before he leaves. The Italian thing started with his first head chef and loyal friend Gennaro Contaldo, then with Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at the River Cafe, where he was first "discovered" by a TV crew filming a series about them. The rest is history ... "Italy is me time. I want to be fired up," he says. Will anyone be filming there? "Yeah, of course," he says.

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