Jamie Oliver on watching his restaurant empire crumble and his new manifesto for eating well
'I did everything I could ... I created something magic and employed loads of people, but I just couldn't make it last sustainably'
Jamie Oliver has been having a tough time. British cuisine's golden boy, a national treasure since he burst onto our television screens 20 years ago, has just emerged, by his own admission, from the most "difficult four-and-a-half years of my life".
There's still the trademark bounce to his step as he walks into the test kitchen in his stylish offices in north London, briskly wrapping his stocky form in a canvas apron.
He's still got the same fast-talking pace and high-energy gestures we know of old, tossing olive oil and fresh herbs about with abandon, but there's also a touch of world-weariness about Oliver now. He carries a certain emotional heft on his shoulders - a prizefighter who has spent the last few rounds on the ropes.
The problems at his restaurant empire started to emerge last spring. By May of this year, the administrators had been called in. It was announced that 22 restaurants were to close and that 1,000 staff would lose their jobs.
A different man might have withdrawn for a while, disappeared out of view for six months or a year to lick his wounds. Not Jamie. There's the new book to promote, for a start, and the rest of the Oliver empire - the publishing projects, the broadcasting career, the political lobbying, the research and development - to keep ticking over.
"Luckily, on this side of the business," he says, gesturing around him, "we've got happy people. I think we're doing good work. I think commercially we're doing really good work - good business, but also socially we're doing some amazing things. I think you've just got to dust down, move on."
He did, he has said, everything he could to save his restaurant chain, including pumping millions of his own money into the group at the eleventh hour (reports vary on how much came out of his own pocket; some say £13m, others say £25m).
He's believed to be personally worth about £100m, so though his fortunes have taken a hefty dent, he's still in good shape. But you get the sense that, for Jamie, the loss is more a moral defeat than a financial one.
"I did everything I could," he says. "Created something really magic, did amazing things, employed loads of people and bought only from food systems that were positive.
"We made it, we whooped everyone's a** and then I just couldn't make it last sustainably. There's a million reasons that I've said a million times as to what our challenge was, but I lost this one. I learned loads, but it's been very, very painful."
He has, he says, no regrets.
"It's been tough, but you know ... you have to move on, don't you? I think most importantly what happened to me was not unique. It's been happening to small and medium and some large businesses all around the country - and will continue to do so."
He's not giving up on running restaurants for ever, referencing "when I go back into it", vaguely. "It's never closed. We still run 60 restaurants in 24 countries, which as far as I know is unique. I don't know any other British person who has done what we've done."
Oliver (44), who has become known as a food campaigner as much as a chef, returns again and again in conversation to the principles behind his endeavours.
"It's a funny thing, isn't it? Within food, if you care and if you treat staff in a certain way in business, it's the disadvantage to not caring. It's not a level playing field," he says.
It's significant, too, that among the businesses to close was the Hoxton flagship of his beloved social enterprise Fifteen - a non-profit restaurant that recruited young people from underprivileged and troubled backgrounds and trained them to be chefs.
It was Jamie's first restaurant and a pure expression of the values he's promoted from the start: combining good, straightforward, high-quality food with a positive social impact. It was the living embodiment of the optimism and energy that defined him.
Oliver was still a kid and working as a chef in the iconic River Cafe when he was spotted by a TV documentary production team and hand-picked to be a celebrity chef.
With his Essex accent and laddish style, he was iconoclastic and appealing, the perfect person to demystify the world of high-quality food and bring it to the masses. But alongside the cheeky persona, he also embodied reassuringly traditional values. He'd grown up in a gastropub, where he'd mucked in from an early age, working in the kitchen and cleaning out the bins.
At school he struggled with dyslexia and was never particularly academic, but in his professional life he's always been defined by his dedication and graft.
He's still the first man on site every morning here in north London, opening up at 5.30am. And as he grew up in the public eye, he evolved into a good family man, marrying Jools, his childhood sweetheart from home, with whom he has five children: Petal Blossom, Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Buddy Bear and River Rocket. Jamie and Jools began dating when they were 17 and next year will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Jools remains, he said recently, his rock.
"Jools has been great at listening but also knowing when I don't want to talk about it and carving out space for me at home," he told Closer magazine.
They are in many ways the ultimate power couple: contemporary, but reassuringly conventional. He a tireless entrepreneur but also a hands-on family man. She takes on the job of keeping the home fires burning while also launching business interests of her own, including a range of children's clothing called Little Bird with Mothercare.
In the early days, Oliver's shtick was simply about teaching people to eat well - introducing simple, quick and effective recipes that built confidence and made Joe Public feel competent in the kitchen. But as he matured, his vision broadened.
Through his TV programmes, such as Jamie's School Dinners and Jamie's Sugar Rush, he began to take on what he felt were the problems with food's place in society.
Though his British restaurant empire has almost gone, the values of good, healthy eating remain Jamie's defining interest to this day. Here at his HQ, he employs a team dedicated to lobbying governments and continuing the work of his healthy eating campaigns, which includes tackling childhood obesity.
"We are constantly talking to experts, we are constantly talking to other NGOs. We are constantly talking to the myriad of ministers and the myriad of prime ministers that come through," he says, stressing that he's keen to meet the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, "as soon as possible".
"The biggest morally wrong thing that we have to deal with now is that too many times the better or healthier option is more expensive. We definitely need governments around the world to maybe not tax, but maybe a better word is subsidise, for healthier choices," he says.
Environmental issues have also become part of his crusade.
"Generally what a child or what a family needs is the same as what the planet needs, which is more veg, more nuts, more seeds, more legumes," he says.
"If I had a magic wand, I would love to be able to go to David Attenborough and say, 'Can we do a show called My Health, My Planet?', because I think that's the conversation."
Which brings us neatly to why he's here today: cooking up vegetarian dishes for the press.
For some time now, he's been promoting a move to a more plant-based diet as a positive health and environmental lifestyle change. Indeed, his new book, Veg, was written about eight years ago, he says. But as veganism and vegetarianism has finally conquered the mainstream, now is the right time to release it. He'll always remain a bit of a carnivore himself, he says. "I think I'm the only vegetarian author who loves meat and fish and game. But at the same time, I probably only eat meat twice a week."
The credo of the book is making cooking vegetables simple, delicious and accessible. He conceives the recipes himself: "I do sort of dream it, I do sort of fantasise it. I normally guess the idea and then I can taste it and smell it about 90% correct every time, give or take. But the last 10% is everything, so you have to test, cook and finesse."
But the guiding principle, as ever, is convenience. "We're not trying to re-invent the wheel here. We're not after a Michelin star. But I think love, care ... some things are beautiful in flavour, but also they are beautiful in the fact that it's 13 minutes and everything you can buy from a supermarket.
"Having what at my last count was a million children in my family, it's always about how - they're pretty good, but how do we get the good stuff into the kids? Then realising that a normal life and a normal relationship with food and kids is constant antagonism and stress."
Cooking for capricious children is always tricky. "They do, they don't, they love, they don't, they're happy, they're sad - how many of your family meals are beautiful and idyllic? Mine is about three out of 10."
To start, he advises accepting "that that's normal".
"I would say it's challenging in my house because I've got teenagers - 16, 17 ... very different to an eight and a 10-year-old, from a palate point of view ... and then I've got a three-year-old. River is three today. We try to do the same thing for all of them, but we might serve it in slightly different ways ...
"They like it quite modular - not everything mixed together. They might scream at you for mixing things up ... generally when they are quite young it's more like a painter's palette. And then as the years go on you start mixing things. The teenagers - they want a pho (Vietnamese soup) all of sudden, or they get really into sushi.
"I don't think it's just my kids - what's weird in London is that it's actually quite efficient to go to YO! Sushi with 10 little kids instead of hiring a village hall and making a picnic. They're going to clean the mess up, it's quite fun ... my mum and dad still haven't eaten sushi and my kids think it's normal."
He's always been passionate about veg. "I've grown it for about 15 years. It's one of the most joyful things I can do with my kids - to grow something, somewhere, anywhere. I've never met a kid who wouldn't eat something they have grown."
He is not, he's clear, "trying to give you the best".
"I think my job is not to give you the best. That can be really complicated. It can be really self-indulgent and I think it's your journey to find that author or that time. It's constantly a struggle for me to try and find that balance between being a chef, slightly pulling back the pretensions that men can often have and really thinking about feeding and nurturing and nourishment and reality."
He is, by contrast, trying to make eating well both easy and quick.
"The big studies done on how much time your population is prepared to spend cooking find it is downward - it's halved in 20 years. I'm looking at my career in 20 years and the time acceptable to the regular person has more than halved."
That means being prepared to compromise. "We have to be okay to opening a little jar of mango chutney. We can't make it ourselves. We have to be okay to cheat in places. I don't think what we dream of is taking things away.
"Giving choice - that's the most powerful thing. And being honest."
Veg by Jamie Oliver is published by Penguin Random House © Jamie Oliver Enterprises Ltd (2019 Veg), food photography by David Loftus
Greens Mac ’N’ Cheese
Prep time: 1 hour
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
1 large leek
3 cloves of garlic
400g purple sprouting or tenderstem broccoli
40g unsalted butter
½ a bunch of fresh thyme (15g)
2 tbsp plain flour
1 litre semi-skimmed milk
450g dried macaroni
30g Parmesan cheese
150g mature Cheddar cheese
100g baby spinach
50g flaked almonds
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Trim, halve and wash the leek and peel the garlic, then finely slice with the broccoli stalks, reserving the florets for later.
Place the sliced veg in a large casserole pan over a medium heat with the butter, then strip in the thyme leaves and cook for 15 minutes, or until softened, stirring regularly.
Stir in the flour, followed slowly by the milk, then simmer for 10 minutes, or until thickened, stirring regularly.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling salted water for 5 minutes, then drain.
Next, grate the Parmesan and most of the cheddar into the sauce, and then mix well.
Tip into a blender, add the spinach and whiz until smooth - you may need to work in batches. Season to perfection with sea salt and black pepper, then stir through the pasta and broccoli florets, loosening with a splash of milk, if needed.
Transfer to a 25cm x 35cm baking dish, grate over the remaining cheddar and scatter over the almonds.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until beautifully golden and bubbling.
Tip: Swap spinach for any kind of exciting fresh or frozen greens, discarding any tough stalks. I also sometimes add breadcrumbs to the top for bonus crunch. Tasty!
Roasted tomato risotto
Prep time: 1 hour
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
6 large ripe tomatoes
1 bulb of garlic
½ a bunch of fresh thyme (15g)
1.2 litres organic vegetable stock
1 bulb of fennel
2 knobs of unsalted butter
450g Arborio risotto rice
150ml dry white vermouth
80g Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. With a knife, cut the cores out of the tomatoes, then place cut-side down in a snug-fitting baking dish with the whole garlic bulb and scatter over the thyme sprigs.
Drizzle with 1 tbsp of oil, season with sea salt and roast for 1 hour, or until starting to burst open (the juices will add game-changing flavour later on).
Bring the stock to a simmer. Peel and finely chop the onion and fennel, reserving any herby tops, then place in a large, high-sided pan on a medium heat with 1 tbsp of oil and 1 knob of butter.
Cook for 10 minutes, or until softened but not coloured, stirring occasionally, then stir in the rice to toast for 2 minutes. Pour in the vermouth and stir until absorbed.
Add a ladleful of stock and wait until it's been fully absorbed before adding another, stirring constantly and adding ladlefuls of stock until the rice is cooked - it will need 16 to 18 minutes.
Beat in the remaining knob of butter, finely grate and beat in the Parmesan, then season to perfection and turn the heat off.
Cover the pan and leave to relax for 2 minutes so the risotto becomes creamy and oozy.
Divide the risotto between warm plates, place a tomato in the centre with a little sweet garlic and the herby fennel tops, then drizzle over the tasty tomato juices.
Tip: Squeezing the smooth, mild garlic out of its skin after roasting adds a delicious bonus flavour to the risotto.