Let’s Unpack That

How Jamie Oliver became British TV’s most divisive chef

Indefatigable campaigner or out-of-touch millionaire? As Jamie Oliver’s new show about air fryer cooking gets a mixed response, Katie Rosseinsky looks back at how the Turkey Twizzler-hating TV chef became a polarising figure

Monday 22 April 2024 11:07 BST
(PA/Getty/Channel 4)

Desperate”. “Nowhere near reality”. “Bewilderingly cringe”. These are not responses to some new governmental gaffe, but damning verdicts on Jamie Oliver’s latest TV show. When the first instalment of Jamie’s Air Fryer Meals aired on Monday night – with sponsorship from Tefal, the company that makes and markets Oliver-branded pans – it was greeted online by a flurry of snarky comments, taking issue with the chef’s attempts to make low-cost, speedy meals. Why did one man faffing around with a table-top convection oven provoke so much ire?

Over the years, Oliver has turned laddy relatability into a hugely successful brand. A quarter of a century after his first cookbook was released, the 48-year-old is still the UK’s biggest-selling non-fiction author, with new shows popping up regularly on Channel 4. His campaign work – on issues like school meals and junk food – has permeated the public consciousness in ways that most celeb-driven causes simply don’t do. But he’s also drawn criticism and mockery along the way (we’re talking about a guy who once rapped about healthy eating with Ed Sheeran and reportedly signs off every email with “big love”, after all). How did the Vespa-riding every-bloke turn into one of the most divisive figures in British food?

Oliver’s origin story is well known by now. He grew up in his parents’ Essex pub, The Cricketers, where he worked for pocket money, and struggled with dyslexia at school, eventually leaving at 16 with two GCSEs. After that, he headed to catering college before landing jobs as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant and as a sous-chef at The River Cafe, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s much-loved Italian restaurant in Hammersmith.

It was here that Oliver accidentally started his media career. The River Cafe opened its doors to a BBC camera crew to capture the restaurant in the run-up to Christmas. Oliver wasn’t meant to appear in the show (he wasn’t even supposed to be working that day – he’d turned up to cover a sick colleague’s shift), but his easy manner caught producers’ interest. “We said ‘[Rogers and Gray] are wonderful but look at this guy in the background; he’s the one!’” Jane Root, then a commissioner at the BBC, would later recall to Vice.

That brief cameo earned Oliver a TV series of his own. The Naked Chef debuted on BBC Two in 1999, filmed at a flat in east London (the place in Hammersmith that Oliver shared with now-wife Jools wasn’t big enough to fit the cameras in). It was all about “stripping down the recipes to the bare essentials”, as an alarmingly fresh-faced Oliver declared in the opening credits. He dashed around London on a Vespa, had a laissez-faire approach to measuring ingredients and invited all his mates round to test out the fruits of his labour at the end of the show (after sliding down the bannisters to open his front door).

With its oi-oi mockney lingo and its breezy Britpop soundtrack (Oliver later curated the compilation album Cookin’: Music to Cook By, featuring the likes of Toploader, Jamiroquai and his own band, Scarlet Division), the show was very easy to parody. But it was also a huge hit, thanks in no small part to Oliver’s laidback everyman approach. When the second series aired in 2000, The Naked Chef was drawing in around 4 million viewers; by the end of that year, the accompanying cookbook had sold 1.2 million copies worldwide. His next big venture was Fifteen, a not-for-profit restaurant in London’s Westland Place. Oliver hired 15 young adults, many of them unemployed or from disadvantaged backgrounds, and trained them up as chefs; the process was documented in the Channel 4 series Jamie’s Kitchen in 2002.

Success story: ‘The Naked Chef’ proved so popular that Oliver was invited to Downing Street by Tony Blair (AFP via Getty)

It was his first foray into social enterprise, proof that he wanted to do a bit more with his celebrity status than just shift books and sign lucrative endorsement deals. Depending on who you talk to, Oliver’s desire to get involved with causes he feels strongly about is either his biggest selling point or his most infuriating trait. Jamie’s School Dinners was a perfect case study. In 2004, Oliver began a mission to overhaul school lunches at Kidbrooke School in Greenwich, attempting to ditch junk food – including his ultimate nemesis, the Turkey Twizzler, a curly strip of heavily processed meat in a crispy coating – from the menu and get the already overworked dinner ladies on side. After coming in all guns blazing, Oliver soon realised just how difficult it was to pull together a half-decent meal on a budget of just 37p per child; he also mouthed off at parents sending their children to school laden with sugary snacks (sugar is a particular Oliver bugbear – he’s since lobbied for the government to tax it).

When Jamie’s School Dinners aired on Channel 4 the following year, it touched a national nerve, sparking conversation about healthy eating and eventually prompting the government to launch the £60m School Food Trust, with the aim of improving standards across the country; Tony Blair later earmarked £280m for further improvements. In 2010, a study found that the first schools to get on board with the campaign saw improved results in English and science SATs, and fewer absences due to illness. The flipside, though, was a slight decline in primary and secondary pupils eating school meals.

The show wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Some naysayers bristled at what they perceived to be Oliver’s nannying ways. Others, meanwhile, took issue with the entire set up: a very wealthy celebrity berating significantly less wealthy people for the way they eat, with limited empathy for their circumstances. Criticisms like these got louder when Oliver launched his next project, Jamie’s Ministry of Food. The 2008 series saw him head to Rotherham, then one of the unhealthiest towns in the UK, to teach cooking refuseniks how to make easy recipes. Once again, Oliver’s intentions seemed good. The execution, though, was a bit dubious. “This teeters close to being the nastiest sort of human zoo TV,” a Guardian review cautioned.

Hit show: with wife Jools after winning a Bafta for ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’ (Getty)

Once the cameras stopped rolling, Oliver did go on to set up Ministry of Food centres across the UK to continue teaching the public about healthy cooking: 15 years later, they are still going strong. But a few years after the show aired, the chef’s recollections of his time in Rotherham made headlines.You might remember that scene in Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive f***ing TV,” he told the Radio Times in 2013, while promoting another series about low-cost meals. “It just didn’t weigh up [...] The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families.” Even if the subject did “fascinate” him, it didn’t seem like he’d spent much time thinking about why a cash-stretched parent might opt for convenience food. It felt like he was kicking the very people he’d been purporting to help.

Seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families

Jamie Oliver in a 2013 interview

While all this was playing out on our TV screens, Oliver was also building up his restaurant empire. In 2008, he launched the first branch of Jamie’s Italian with the help of his mentor Gennaro Contaldo, his first boss at Neal Street. It was straightforward, mid-budget dining, but Oliver promised that the ingredients were top quality and well-sourced – or perhaps he’d say they were “wicked”, “legendary” or even “proper rustic”. All of those adjectives featured on a list of words that staff at Oliver’s restaurants were allegedly encouraged to use in conversation with customers, shared on Twitter in 2012.

Soon there was an outpost of Jamie’s Italian in almost every major UK city, plus a few branches of his steakhouse Barbecoa across London. But behind the scenes, all was not pukka. By the late 2010s, the mid-budget dining bubble had burst. Hit by “rents, rates, the high street declining, food costs, Brexit, increase in the minimum wage”, as Oliver would eventually sum up, his business called in administrators in 2019 (he’d previously poured in around £25m of his own money to try and turn things around).

Low point: the vast majority of Oliver’s UK restaurants closed their doors in 2019 (Getty)

All but three of his restaurants shut down – including his beloved Fifteen – and around 1,000 jobs were lost (some staff found this out over email). They left behind debts of £83m, including £21m debts to food suppliers and local councils; administrators KPMG later revealed that the majority of creditors would not be able to recover the money they were owed. You could feel the schadenfreude in the headlines crowing over Oliver’s “downfall”. And in a stroke of terrible timing, the whole debacle took place soon after Oliver and his family had moved into a £6m mansion in Essex.

These are just a handful of Oliver’s controversies. He’s been slammed for hypocrisy for advocating for environmental campaigns, then striking up a partnership to stock his sandwiches in Shell garages (“I can stick up for what’s in the stores and where it’s come from,” he countered). And for banging the healthy eating drum while selling pasta sauces with high salt content: in 2009, Consensus Action on Salt and Health found that a full jar of his olive and garlic sauce was roughly equivalent to eating more than 10 packets of ready salted crisps. In 2018, the MP Dawn Butler criticised his “punchy jerk rice”, alleging cultural appropriation; Oliver made amends by hiring “cultural appropriation specialists” to prevent future missteps (which inevitably led to him being slammed as “woke” by certain right-wing commentators). And most recently, his 2022 protest against “buy one, get one free” offers on unhealthy food was labelled “out of touch” against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis.

New venture: Oliver’s latest show dedicated to air fryer cooking has had a mixed response (Chris Terry)

And yet, despite all this, Oliver always seems to bounce back. Last year, he launched a new restaurant in Covent Garden, with a menu harking back to his “culinary roots”: the experience, he said, was “like getting back on the horse you’ve been kicked off”. So is he a dedicated philanthropist or acquisitive hypocrite? A man of the people or an out-of-touch millionaire? Might he even be “James Corden, but cooking”, as one Reddit user posits on a lengthy thread about the chef? Whatever you think of him, he’s probably cooking up yet another project that’ll engage and enrage us right this moment.

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