You would think at 41 years old with four children and counting, a staff of 3,500 and a diary booked (by the hour) for the next 18 months that Jamie Oliver would be ready for a rest – but not a bit of it. His prodigious work ethic was inherited. He was brought up by a “slave driver of a father” and because he had no credit for his school work (“the only credit I had was in graft and sweat”), he now expects it of others. “If I see an able-bodied teenager who hasn’t got a sniff of graft about them my face curls up like there’s a badger’s arse in front of me.’” I get the point.
But the work ethic nearly got out of control. “If you speak to people who know me, I’m pretty bouncy. I’m glass-half-full. But there was a moment about two years ago when I thought ‘I’m f****** miserable with everything even though I’m the luckiest boy in the world. So what’s this all about?’ I was working too hard and I was sleeping too little. I was caring about everyone else and didn’t give a f*** about myself.” So he’s sorted a few things out. “I now get more sleep and even though I’ve always eaten well – I mean it’s my job, it’s my life – I’ve made a few tweaks. Now I try and eat within the framework of this new book Monday to Friday lunch and then I just let my hair down and get amongst it at the weekend.” He’s even gone back to school to study for a Masters in nutrition at Queen Mary’s in Twickenham. As a child, Jamie struggled at school, so is he finding it hard? “Yes and no. I’m not finding the detail and the science bit hard but I struggle with the protocol at school. I definitely have to try a lot harder.” Dyslexia doesn’t really come into it any more. “I’ve just learned to make it an advantage not a disadvantage – you approach things differently.”
That drive to try harder has brought about national campaigns. Last year he had success getting through the sugar tax legislation and of course his school dinners’ revolution. “I’ve always ‘listened’ to the people. Now with social media everything is a conversation. That’s how school dinners happened. It wasn’t because I was clever or deeply political because I was never any of those things. When you sell shed loads of books it’s kind of like a vote every year and after a few years you have to go beyond ‘Aren’t I lucky?’ to a feeling that the public are my boss – after my wife.”
The new book, Super Food Family Classics, is very timely but business is tough and Jamie’s open about failure as much as success. Does he regret any decisions he’s made? “I love people and I love food. A lot of my f***-ups have been from trusting people; if I go down for that, then I’m happy. I’ve been let down by some really close people but I think, try and go with your heart. I don’t want to be a really successful but boring ****hole.” Jamie laughs at the thought. “But I might be just saying that to make myself feel better.”
Jamie runs his empire from his mobile (“I don’t own a computer and can do everything I need from my phone.”) He’s out of the house at 5am and home after 8pm every day but family is what makes Jamie tick and his conversation is littered with stories about Jools and his kids. “Generally speaking I’m an alright dad – with the young ones I’m all over it but this teenage bit [his oldest two are 13 and 14] is hard. Jools is brilliant but if the kids were honest they probably think I’m a bit of a knob. We were the last people in the year to give them a phone. Even the other parents were saying ‘This is like child abuse!’ but we didn’t want a 12-year-old who is streetwise.”
He’s excited by the power he yields with his new favourite app, Our Pact, controlling the girls’ wifi and screen time by the press of a button on his phone. “Any nonsense – boom – wifi off,” he laughs. But this weekend they are going back to the simple, wifi free life just for a bit. “This weekend – forest – rope – swing – camp – logs – light a fire – it’s all the little ones have talked about and I can’t wait.” So, off Jamie goes. I love him. His enthusiasm for life is infectious. Super Food Family Classics by Jamie Oliver £20 Penguin