Jamie Oliver Doesn't Want to Be a Hipster Chef
Original celebrity chef Jamie Oliver might not be as edgy as the tattooed guys on Chef’s Table, but he remains as one of Britain's most popular food personalities.
I'm having a deep meaningful chat with Jamie Oliver about televised broadcast reach versus YouTube engagement rates. He is talking earnestly about the media industry and has just used the word "platform." Twice, in fact. Both times in the correct context.
"For 15 years, I've broadcasted on prime time in loads of countries around the world and you never get any data," he tells me. "We've always had a YouTube channel but just thought it was shit and didn't understand it. We've only been doing it seriously for three and a half years, although we are quite male-skewed online and about 25 to 27 age range."
As the last to interview Oliver in a morning press junket, we sit in a downstairs booth at Fifteen, his flagship East London restaurant. Before being introduced, Oliver has already fired off soundbites for Andrew Marr and posed for a complicated looking shoot with a Hungarian photographer. The lovely jubbly schtick can't hold out for my turn, surely.
"Alright? Nice to meet you! So, are you a London gal?"
It can. Apart from the YouTube DMC, the only difference between the Oliver shaking my hand and his labrador-like television personality is the smell of aftershave. Wearing a white shirt with a dark, double-breasted jacket done up to the top and hair still buoyant from the morning's photos, Oliver is exactly what your nan would describe as "looking very dapper."
And he wants to talk about VICE. The minute the dictaphone is on, Oliver launches into a conversation I'm pretty sure I had with an over enthusiastic media studies student at a house party once.
"TV hates VICE and you guys are kind of baffled by TV like, 'What the fuck is their problem?'" he says. "It's a real arrogance as I'm sure you've noticed, but people in the digital world can be fucking arrogant as well because they think that they're Billy Big Bollocks because they've got half a billion reach and it's three people—they get away with murder."
I can't work out whether Oliver has been given the best or worst media prepping of all time.
In truth, he probably didn't need to be prepped on VICE at all—nor any of the other publications he met today. The Jamie Oliver empire encompasses over 20 television shows broadcast in more than 50 countries across the world, as well as Food Tube, the aforementioned YouTube channel that churns out daily recipe videos. Then there are the restaurants around the UK and in Australia, Canada, Russia, Turkey, and Singapore. The cookware range. The campaign work. The never-ending stream of recipe books: Jamie at Home, Jamie's Dinners, Jamie's Fifteen Minute Meals, Jamie in Your Home Having a Chat and Whipping Up an Easy Five Minute Snack. You can't build a global television-online-hospitality-publishing-retail brand without knowing every one of your sectors, ~youth media~ included.
"I just think it's important to listen to the public and have a relationship with them," he reasons, now sedately sipping an espresso.
The British public's relationship with Oliver began 17 years ago via The Naked Chef, a BBC cookery show starring the young cook in his home kitchen, preparing the dishes he made for friends and family after clocking off from the day job at River Cafe. Sliding down bannisters and bish-bash-boshing stuff in the oven, Oliver introduced Britain to prosciutto ("the Italian version of our streaky bacon") and homemade tagliatelle and without being a dick about it.
"Naked Chef, in the day, was radical. No one filmed shit like that," says the Oliver in front of me now, angling his shoulder slightly so the photographer can catch his profile. "And it was me in my home, wearing my clothes, cut to my music, going to my mates', cooking shit that I cooked at home. That was totally not done 17 years ago so in actual fact, the spirit of that is very MUNCHIES."
Aside from the fact that it wasn't technically his home (the Hammersmith flat he and now-wife Jools actually shared was too small for all the cameras), Oliver has a point. Later, when I rewatch The Naked Chef and see him like a baby-faced, pre-Cockney Mick Jagger in his 90s pale wood kitchen, I realise how pioneering this blokey presenting style was. You can sense Oliver's idiot-proof instructions and praise of simple ingredients in both trendy farm-to-table cafes and mouthy Come Dine with Me contestants. And yes, maybe even Matty Matheson or Lee Tiernan too.
Running for just three seasons, the show turned Oliver into a household name, cementing him as the go-to mum crush and among the first in a new breed of celebrity chefs.
"When The Naked Chef happened, mate, I went from being skint to a millionaire in six weeks like, what the fuck is that about? It was as big as fucking like—I don't know—the One Direction of food. It went fucking crazy."
By the early noughties, Britain's newfound interest in cooking as something that could get you laid, rather than what Delia did with eggs, had mellowed. But Oliver evolved. In 2002, he released Jamie's Kitchen, a documentary following his journey to open the restaurant we're now sitting in with young kitchen trainees from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was the public's first encounter with Socially Conscious Jamie and it went down well.
"I was just lucky enough to control the shows I wanted to do and not get bullied by the machine. It [Jamie's Kitchen] was a badass documentary, you know? Fucking loads of swearing, proper kids from the 'hood—it was a brilliant show. But the machine generally rattles out mediocre fucking sugary shit."
Many would argue though, that mediocre fucking sugary shit is Oliver's line. With his supermarket advertising deals and Union Jack-plastered restaurants, he is unquestionably mainstream. You can't honestly think you're sticking it to the man when you make music videos with Ed Sheeran. Compare Oliver with the guys pontificating about kaiseki sashimi courses on Chef's Table and he comes across as even more vanilla. Literally. The recent popularity of the "hipster chef" has served only to further highlight his lameness.
"I just think … I think it's like …" Oliver falters when I ask what he makes of food being cool now. "It's funny because I've never seen so many tatts and beards in my kitchens, but I think it's brilliant. Producers are on turbo and chefs are really tapping into that and supporting them and that just makes everything better."
It's a suspiciously diplomatic answer but the unforced way he says it convinces me that Oliver probably is that nice. I hope I'm right. If food media continues in the indulgent chef-as-rock-star vein, the sight of Oliver goofing around with butternut squash on terrestrial television will make a pretty nice counterpoint.
It's not like he doesn't want to be more edgy, either. Last year Oliver announced that he regularly eats vegetarian and plans to publish a meat-free cookbook—pretty radical for a guy whose target audience is menopausal women and people who listen to Acoustic Afternoon Spotify playlists. He's also getting tired of the staid cookery show format perpetuated by his Food Tube channel.
"Even though we've diversified, I still can't get over the fact that we are kind of a how-to for food—we're like an Airfix model. We could do loads of underbelly shit but we're so obsessed with getting people to create a dinner," he laments. "I want to get eight of my hero badass chefs and just go off for two weeks and set up some Voyage of Discovery-type stuff."
In the meantime, it's what the people want. And they want Airfix model cooking. Oliver's most recent book Jamie's Comfort Food, with its cheery front cover and recipes for eggs Benedict and "scrumptious sticky toffee pudding," was a bestseller. It was never not going to be.
"Naked Chef was radical. No one filmed shit like that. It was me in my home, wearing my clothes, cut to my music, going to my mates', cooking shit that I cooked at home. That was totally not done 17 years ago."
The chef's bio is similarly comforting: idyllic childhood in rural Essex, married his childhood sweetheart, curly haired kids with names like Petal Blossom and Buddy Bear—plus another on the way. His Instagram is a slew of safely appetising dishes with misspelt dad captions.
But sometimes, basic gets shit done. School Dinners, the 2005 documentary that followed Oliver as he attempted to improve the canteen of a Greenwich comprehensive school, worked because it never felt like the crusade of a hand-wringing liberal. Just a bloke with the fairly reasonable idea of offering school kids more than chips-and-pizza or chips-and-sausage for lunch.
"Even though I was really famous then at that point, it was tough," Oliver remembers. "School Dinners was 18 months and you honestly think they open the doors, 'Come in Jamie'? Some of the head teachers were really, really obstructive and and frankly the parents, even the grandparents, were anti."
Many viewers were also anti-Oliver, accusing him of dismissing the funding issues of state schools and patronising low-income families. But School Dinners had an impact. The "Feed Me Better" campaign it spawned prompted the government to release revised school nutrition guidelines and pledge £280 million towards school meal services in England. And we all know what happened to Turkey Twizzlers.
While Oliver acknowledges the limited impact of celeb chef-fronted docos, social projects like those inspired by School Dinners seem to excite him far more than finding time-efficient ways to make fajitas. I have to steer our conversation away from a long tangent on his battle to transform "America's fattest town" and he's still evangelical about Fifteen, proudly describing it as "a 100-percent charity that takes fucking gnarly kids and produces Michelin star chefs."
It seems Oliver was destined to be a have-a-go health campaigner. He disagrees.
"No. Because honestly, I am a proper nob. Absolutely not. I never grew up political, I was always a bit of a dick and had a laugh, muck about."
And we're back to on-brand Jamie, the self-deprecating nice bloke who didn't read a book until his late 30s and would probably get the first round in at the pub.
"It wasn't because I was better than anyone else, it was just because I was ahead," he explains. "People pretty quickly told me the things they were upset and pissed off about."
The thing Oliver is currently upset and pissed off about is sugar. Compelled by the rotten toothed-five-year-olds uncovered in his Jamie's Sugar Rush documentary last year, the chef launched a new campaign for a tax on sugary drinks. He started an e-petition and spoke in front of the government's Health Select Committee, pulling demonstrative bottles of Fanta out of a carrier bag and appealing for sanctions on sugar "as, most importantly today, a dad."
A month after our interview, Chancellor George Osborne revealed that the 2016 Budget would include a tax on any drink with a sugar content above 5 grams per 100 millilitres. In an Instagram post following the announcement, Oliver wrote: "We did it guys !! We did it !!! A sugar levy on sugary sweetened drinks ...... A profound move that will ripple around the world .... business can not come between our Kids health !"
Uncool as double exclamation marks and Will-somebody-please-think-of-the-children? crusades may be, it's hard to think of another high profile chef with enough influence—let alone drive—to cause this kind of "ripple" in government health policy. Gordon Ramsay is drinking iced tea in West Hollywood and Rick Stein couldn't convince you to sign much more than an office birthday card, but Oliver is here: badgering government health officials and uploading cringey Instagram posts about it.
Still, he says that anyone could do it, maybe even one of those cool bearded chefs with tattoos.
"I'm not doing anything unusual. I'm curious and I care. I like people. It's exposure. When you see that shit, you talk about it."
And as our food culture seems to be moving further away from the act of nourishing people and into the realm of showboating sous chefs and impenetrable #foodporn, maybe what we really need is a a food figure who sees exposing us to important stuff as part of the job: an easy chicken recipe for when the in-laws come round, a reasonably priced Italian eatery, a government-sanctioned action plan for tackling childhood obesity.
"In the world of food, new and cool is often rated but actually, predictable food done well is amazing. You know when you go to a restaurant and you want it just the same as last time? Don't change it, I want it just like before. I just love it."
Later, we take photos on the steps outside Fifteen, exiting through a fire escape so as not to cause a scene in the main dining room. Oliver looks directly into the camera and flashes the well-practised cheeky chappy grin.
Don't ever change, Jamie.
Photos by Jake Lewis.