Jamie Oliver: On having bigger fish to fry

He went from larky TV chef to scourge of government. Now Jamie Oliver is a global media player whose ambitions are far from fulfilled. He talks to Ian Burrell
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Jamie Oliver is anxiously looking out across an icy racetrack outside Guildford in Surrey, and his prospects of breaking all records in the celebrity version of BBC2's Top Gear are not looking good. "It's bloody been snowin', innit," he says. "Not that I'm competitive but, like, my personal goal was to beat Gordon Ramsay because obviously we are in the same business and he's got a good time and is quite a handy little driver. I'm stitched really."

But beyond the task of negotiating the Dunsford aerodrome course in a Chevrolet Lancetti, Oliver, 31, has an even bigger fish to fry. He is planning to get into really serious television.

Not content with having given reality TV a good name with projects such as Fifteen and Jamie's School Dinners, which influenced government policy and sparked national debates on children's diets and teenage job opportunities, he wants to tackle something even bigger.

"Part of me inside wants to do something quite BBC. I've spent 10 years looking outside to the world and I feel as if I'm really ready, and the public is ready, for something looking in. I would really like to spend two years - or however long it takes - to make a masterpiece bit of work on the food of Britain."

Oliver is a collector of centuries-old recipe books and wants his project to be steeped in the history of British cuisine. What he has in mind is far from the "bish-bosh ... pukka ... get that in yer cakehole" approach that made him a television star at the age of 21. He wants to bring to the kitchen the sort of popular but serious television treatment given to more high-brow subject areas by the likes of historian Simon Schama, "yes, or Professor Robert Winston", the fertility expert. Oliver says he has 10 versions of the proposed project - he's not sure what's the best way to do it.

"But there's loads to be proud of in this country, by which I mean Great Britain, not England. Historically the stuff that has gone on around food and where it all went wrong is amazing. We all want to know that. I would like to have a nice budget and get specialists in and do a really considered bit of work. Not, 'We are going to broadcast in October.' I have got some interesting ideas about the way you could present it, mixing modern relevance, history and great food. Let's fly the flag and be proud to be British for once, instead of cracking on about everyone else."

The evolution of the British taste bud during the past decade justifies such a show, he argues. "We weren't ready to do this 10 years ago but this country has done some incredible work on food in the past 10 years."

And so if Jamie sees this two-year commitment as "quite BBC", does this mean he sees his future outside Channel 4, the broadcaster that has made him a staple of its schedule and which chose him as one of the key faces of the digital sister channel More4? Yes, though not immediately.

"I've really enjoyed my time at Channel 4 and I'm going to be working with them in the future. Long term I don't know if we are going to suit each other. Not for any reason other than that we all change and grow up and we want to make different things don't we. Looking after talent must be a nightmare. I'm as involved in the programme making as in the presenting side so I must be a bit of a pain in the arse."

But this week sees the start of a new Oliver series on Channel 4, Jamie's Chef, the latest instalment on the Fifteen saga, which he hatched back in 2002, brilliantly repositioning himself as a force for social good, just when his ubiquity in the British media was starting to make him something of an object of derision.

Jamie's Chef, made by Oliver's own production company Fresh One and executive produced by his long-standing ally Robert Thirkell, will see four of Oliver's young cookery graduates given the chance to run their own Essex gastropub, not dissimilar to the one in which Jamie himself grew up.

The pub, says Jamie, will act as a "big bloody carrot" to all the other students who have passed through the Fifteen Foundation, which is a registered charity. "This is probably three years premature but I wanted to do one as a guinea pig because since day one I've always promised every year of students that, if they are great and get their heads down, we'd help them to open their own restaurant."

The original Fifteen restaurant in London, at which a motley crew of youngsters was schooled, will be five years old in October. "It's profitable and consistent," says its founder. Other branches have opened in Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne.

Having his own production company is "incredibly important" to Oliver, though he admits the idea rankled sections of the television industry. "There has been a reasonable amount of cynicism over the past four years." He is, however, a self-confessed control freak and is fascinated by the programme-making process, complaining of the shortcomings of a Z1 camera compared with Digi-beta.

Fresh One recently made a show for BBC3 called The Roadkill Chef, featuring maverick chef Fergus Drennan, using ingredients found on Britain's highways. Oliver is keen to get behind the camera and is on the lookout for the right female presenter, "a mum that was really interesting and could cook lovely home food".

He is mildly irked that "the old school boys" of the television world were reluctant to accept Jamie's School Dinners (the 2004 series that forced the Government to spend an extra £550m on children's diets and which staved off another backlash against the cult of Oliver) as a documentary, after it was nominated for an award. "I know I'm biased but it bloody well was a documentary - it was observing a real-life campaign and a political moment in time."

Oliver has no plans to conquer the broadcasting world. "We are a small boutique production company. We don't have aspirations to be like RDF or Talkback Thames or Tiger Aspect. They really do clean up. I don't know how new independent companies survive. The RDFs and Talkbacks are so powerful and robust I'm not sure about the future of independent production, to be honest."

But he is fascinated by the prospect of making shows specifically for the internet and is already experimenting, not just with podcasts and moblogs (pictures from his mobile), but with turning jamieoliver.com into a mini TV channel.

"This month we are going to start doing a monthly show broadcast from my kitchen in the office. Almost like a filmed radio show." The Naked Chef argues that for video content to work online it generally needs to be less serious than television. "Quality content, sense of humour, heart and soul" are the key qualities.

The site used four cameras and outside broadcast equipment to produce a special show last year, encouraging families to eat communally. Nevertheless, like many others, he still hasn't found the answer to making it commercially viable. "It's all self-funded and we don't have advertisers but you do need money to run these bastard things and it is a constant drain," he says. "I've spent seven years paying for a website. Money is just leaking from every orifice."

Nonetheless, for a broadcaster with a following in more than 50 countries, the site, through its many forums, keeps him in contact with his international audience. "You've got people from Peru, Israel, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, all arguing about what the best Yorkshire pudding is. That in itself is great content."

Australia, he says, instantly accepted his positive and energised presenting style, "without a single word of PR". He was expected to go to America to make a Stateside version of Jamie's School Dinners but appears to have gone cold on the idea.

"This is going to sound a bit bolshy. It would be quite easy for us to do it and we've had conversations with the top two networks. It's much needed and School Dinners was a fascinating bit of work for the American broadcasters but they haven't yet found someone else who could do my job and they want me to do it. But I don't want to live in America and at this moment in my life I can't even carve out six months to go and live there. And to be honest, School Dinners wasn't a pleasant gig. It was two years of butterflies and feeling nervous and watching TV budgets."

Just as on the racetrack, he doffs his cap here to Gordon Ramsay. "I've been in the States for seven to eight years. Gordon has gone in the last couple of years and is much more well known. Good luck to him. It's a tough country and if he can pull it off, crack on. We do different stuff and luckily we've never got into the verbal rucks that everyone else seems to get into with him. I respect what he does and I think he respects what I do."

Jamie has other media commitments. The day after Top Gear he is off to meet staff from Sainsbury's. For nearly seven years he has been the face of the supermarket's advertising, made by Abbott Mead Vickers (AMV). "That relationship with Sainsbury's, I only thought it would work for three years. It's up again in June or July and I will hear whether they have a new vision or want to include me again."

Though fellow chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright once called him a "whore" for endorsing the supermarket's smoked salmon, Oliver says he no longer feels nervous about the association with Sainsbury's having a negative impact on his own reputation. "It doesn't bother me in the slightest," he says. "I've never seen a company change so much in four years. Justin King (chief executive) and his mob are bloody good and most importantly they are food lovers."

Nevertheless, Oliver knows another backlash will come before long. ("Oh God, yeah.") He says he "gets journalism" and respects the right to opinion but is still angry over press attacks on his students at Fifteen and his wife Jools. "There are some journalists who have said things that I should have smashed them up over really but you can't. Jim Shelley (TV critic of the Daily Mirror) absolutely mutilated my missus the day after our wedding, really bitchy horrible spiteful stuff. It wasn't like we sold our story to OK! or any of the others that were bidding for it like the clappers. We had a nice quiet wedding."

But Jamie will not be deterred. Food is back on the media menu and - like his Dickensian namesake - Oliver wants more. "Fanny Cradock, she was huge. She was doing live shows in the Royal Albert Hall - I've never done that."

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