The Naked Chef’s business affairs are less than pukka. Revenue at the Jamie Oliver Group fell by nearly 20% to £30m last year. As well as the temporary shuttering of his global restaurant franchise because of the pandemic, 26 branches closed permanently.
So it’s not all smooth sailing for the cheeky chappie?
No. Oliver, 46, lost most of his British restaurants after his Jamie’s Italian chain collapsed in 2019. It put 1,000 people out of work and cost him £25m. He described closing down Fifteen, his first restaurant, as “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do”. Employees blamed Paul Hunt, Oliver’s brother-in-law, who was appointed to run the chain and Oliver’s other businesses in 2014. A former City boy who was once done for insider trading, Hunt was “testosterone central”, according to staff, with a “mahogany”-level suntan and a penchant for frequent foreign holidays. He was accused of bullying staff, although no formal complaints were made and Oliver defended him as “a strong and capable CEO”. This March he left the chef’s orbit.
It’s chefs who usually have a temper, not the suits
Indeed. But Oliver has a fair bit to smile about, not least an estimated net worth of £240m. He has sold more than 45 million cookbooks, making him Britain’s bestselling non-fiction author. His 11-year promotional deal with Sainsbury’s is thought to have earned him more than £10m. That cash went on a £9m townhouse in north London, bought in 2015. In 2019 he bought Spains Hall, a £6m Elizabethan country manor with 70 acres in Essex. He’s planning to build a garage for the family’s classic cars – a 1950s Land Rover for him and a 1967 Ford Mustang for his wife, Jools, 46.
Beauty and the beast?
Careful, he’s handy with a knife. He always has been – raised in Clavering, Essex, Oliver started helping in the kitchen of his parents’ pub at the age of five. When he was eight, he says, he “had a knife longer than my arm and I could cut like a bitch”. His dad, Trevor, instilled a fierce work ethic – if Jamie slept in on weekends, Trevor would spray him with a water hose through his bedroom window. He also told his son that cheffing was “a young man’s game”, and that he needed to own his own restaurant as soon as possible.
Good advice. How did Oliver make the big time?
He left school at 16 with two GCSEs. (He has dyslexia and dictates his cookbooks.) He then went to cookery school and in 1997, when he was 22, got a job as a sous-chef at the River Café in London. He made an unscripted appearance in a documentary about the restaurant – he was only in that day because someone was off sick – and his geezerish charm played excellently on camera. The next day, five TV production companies phoned him. His first show, The Naked Chef, debuted on the BBC in 1999, and the accompanying cookbook became a bestseller. The rest is history.
What did he do with his newfound fame?
After being invited to cook for Tony Blair, Oliver clearly felt at home in politics: he embarked on a series of high-profile healthy eating campaigns. In 2005 he got schools to boot Turkey Twizzlers off their menus. It was a decidedly mixed achievement, as he was often spat at by angry, less health-conscious pupils. Oliver’s recipes have also copped flak for cultural appropriation, but he insists: “No one’s invented nothing unless they’ve invented sun and rain, and they ain’t.”
What about his family?
The couple have five children aged five to 19, all with extravagant names: Poppy Honey Rosie, Daisy Boo Pamela, Petal Blossom Rainbow, Buddy Bear Maurice and River Rocket Blue Dallas. Oliver has been with Jools, a former model, since they were teenagers and he drummed in a band – very much a “man about town”, in her words. When they got married in 2000, he wore a blue suit and snakeskin cowboy boots – a dress rehearsal, perhaps, for his 2003 MBE ceremony, when he rocked up tieless in a brown suit. “I like ties, but I prefer not to wear one when I am nervous,” he explained.
It certainly hasn’t done him any harm. What’s next?
The machine keeps rumbling on – ever attuned to the zeitgeist, Oliver’s 30th cookbook, Together, is pitched as “meal ideas that will bring family and friends around the table after such a strange and dramatic 16 months”. Out next week, it’ll be inescapable.