'I never get to say just how much I absolutely adore my wife Jools'
Jamie Oliver is a happy family man. But he's not so enamoured by fast food culture. So with a new book on how to cook on a budget, he's put his money where his mouth is. By Hannah Stephenson
No sooner does Jamie Oliver's latest cookbook hit the shops, than the Naked Chef goes and says something which whips up a feeding frenzy.
"Yeah, controversy," he says, laughing. "There's always a bit of that following me."
Despite the furore surrounding his recent comments on low-income families eating junk food and spending their money on huge TVs, and immigrants working harder in his kitchens than young Britons, the country's most famous chef arrives at his North London offices in a blue checked shirt, cotton trousers and open-toed sandals, looking tanned and relaxed, having just returned from a family holiday in Cornwall.
"We had sun, the beach, surfing, great Cornish food, the kids seemed really happy. I feel really close to my young ones," he said.
"My two eldest are turning into ladies which is baffling me and taking me on some different journeys.
"Jools seems really happy, we are getting on really well. We had a good week."
Oliver (38) and wife Jools, a designer and former model with whom he has four children – Poppy (11), Daisy Boo (10), Petal (4), and two-year-old Buddy – have been together 20 years. So what's the secret?
"When you're in the public eye, you annoy people if you just say, 'I'm really happy and in love', because everyone wants to go and throw up in a bucket. What I've tried to do over the years is balance it by saying, 'We're just normal, we still argue like normal couples', and this, that and the other.
"Actually, what I never get the chance to say is I absolutely love and adore her. She can be a pain in the backside but she's pretty amazing and a good person."
He says he doesn't want more children, but Jools definitely does.
"You think I'm the boss at home?" he asks incredulously. "I feel like I could be taken advantage of! 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 genuinely will have to get a proper, fully fledged minibus."
He doesn't have time to watch many food shows these days but is hooked on The Great British Bake Off. "I love Mary [Berry] and Paul [Hollywood]. My whole family watches it. That's the sweet spot that they've hit."
He returned from holiday to a storm over his remarks about modern-day poverty and "wet" work-shy British youths, and says he 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 cooking is without question the big 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, is in response to the growing frustration of people who feel their bills have soared, and want to make food go further.
"People just wanted affordable, tasty food. They were caught between, 'Do I go out for a takeaway or do I save money?'"
Oliver and his family don't really do takeaways.
"We've probably had two this year. The last time I went to McDonalds was about 10 years ago. Never KFC. I've bought KFC, about two weeks ago, because I wanted to see – and examine – what you could get for £16.
"Years ago I had a few chips on my shoulder about certain fast food purveyors but people like McDonalds are leading the way in mass fast food and buying British and Irish, 100% organic meals and free-range eggs.
"I never thought I'd be saying that. They are pretty impressive. There are lots of pubs that don't do that.
"I think they're trying hard and if they wanted to make vegetables and salad cool, they'd have more power than anyone else.
"In a way, I'm not anti-fast food. When it becomes a solution three or four nights, we've a problem."
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 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 book to every UK library.
There's something genuine about Oliver's passion and down-to-earth attitude which has helped to make him the most successful chef in the country.
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 then prime minister Tony Blair, founding the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation charity and creating Jamie's Ministry of Food.
There have been countless TV shows – including his latest, Jamie's Money Saving Meals – all aiming to reconnect us with food and teaching us how to cook.
The Essex-born chef, who began honing his cooking skills in his parents' pub, may now be worth an estimated £150m but his endless energy surely comes from a passion and a work ethic.
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 knackered after 44 hours," he insisted.
"There's the concept of mummies phoning up saying we're working their little boys too hard," he says, exasperated.
"Our kitchens are hard work. The average was 70-100 hours when I was in there. It's a tough industry.
"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.
"As a regular parent, I'm really worried about having even my own kids wrapped in cotton wool."
But he admits balancing his workload with family life is difficult.
"I have very specific time off for holidays and very specific days off. I try and stick to it 98%.
"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. Being a good boss, a good father, a good husband and a good friend. I mean, how the hell am I supposed to do all that?
"For me, the future is about being positive and trying to keep lifting the bar."