Despite being one of the best-selling authors in UK history, Jamie Oliver didn't read a whole book until he was 38. He's dyslexic, and writes by dictation. Growing up, school was a huge struggle for him. When he began cooking as a kid it was the first time he thought, "I'm good at something."
Today, Jamie Oliver has one of the most impressive resumes in the food world: chef, TV personality, restaurateur, multi-cause activist, and author of almost two dozen best-selling cookbooks (including his newest, Ultimate Veg). His modus operandi is simplicity — hence the title of his first television show, The Naked Chef.
This week, Jamie tells Dan about his life story: Growing up in his parents' pub. Selling candy out of lockers at age 11. Finding his groove as a television star at the age of 23. And having to find a new direction now, after the core of his restaurant empire collapsed.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "On the Floor" by Black Label Productions
- "Child Knows Best" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Feel Real Good Instrumental" by William Van De Crommert
- "Comin For A Change" by Stephen Sullivan
Photo courtesy of Dan Pashman.
Jamie Oliver: The perfect toasted cheese sandwich is a thing of beauty. It is as gastronomic as any Michelin star.
Dan Pashman: This is celebrity chef and cookbook author, Jamie Oliver.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about your perfect toasted cheese sandwich.
Jamie Oliver: Okay, so first of all, as much as I am into artisan breads and love care attention, rare breed grains of flour and you want really rubbish white bread. You want something spongy. I think some good cheddar’s kind of cool, something oozy, but pick your cheese, as long as it’s oozy. You don't have to go OTT because once you have the perfect toasty, you take it out. Then you get a grater on the fine side and you grate some cheese into the pan, almost like what we would call a doily - you know, those funny little paper things. So, and then you let that just start to catch. Right? Thirty seconds and you put the sandwich back in it, okay? And then if you can be bothered, like a little pinch of cayenne or a tiny, tiny shake of Tabasco— believe you me, it works. And then when you kind of push the cheese and it kind of moves as a kind of object, pick it up.
Dan Pashman: So, Jamie says you take a spatula and pick up the sandwich and cheese doily, so the edges of the cheese doily hang straight down on all sides. You hold it in the air like that, you let it cool for a few seconds so the cheese doily solidifies, then you flip it upside down, so now the cheese is sticking up, and it’s like a crown. Point of all this?
Jamie Oliver: Simple can be beautiful.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. So recently, if you asked me who Jamie Oliver is, I'd have said “British celebrity chef, really into healthy school lunches. He had that show on ABC years ago, when he showed kids what chicken nuggets and made of.” The thing that got my attention, got me to read more about him, happened last year - and it was the worst moment of his entire career. We'll get to that later. But what I learned when I read more about him is that his story is pretty incredible. I mean, he grew up in his parent’s pub, cooking there at age 8. He was discovered by a TV producer when he was 23, he quickly became a massive star in the U.K., and he's remained one now for 20 years. One fun fact you often hear in profiles of Jamie: He's the second highest selling author of all time in the U.K. in terms of revenue, second only to J.K. Rowling. Now, they only started tracking this data in 1998, so Jamie might still be behind Shakespeare. Anyway, you gotta be impressed. Jamie's written 22 bestselling books, and he's dyslexic. He was 38 before he read a whole book for the first time. He writes books by dictating them. In January, he released his latest; a collection of vegetarian recipes called Ultimate Veg. That's what brought him into the studio to chat. But first, I wanted to talk about his backstory, which begins in Essex, about 50 miles north of London, at his parents’ pub, The Cricketers.
Jamie Oliver: My dad was one of the first pioneers of what we would call “gastro pubs.” So what does that mean? It means “Okay, we got a pub, we got booze, we got barrels, we got spirits, we've got locals of all shapes and sizes.” It's the most democratic place in the world. Fact. Everyone's welcome, from a 90-year-old to families. Right? So it’s an amazing place. But Dad put a real kitchen in. He was formally trained in France. He had a French regimental kitchen, six guys in the kitchen - pastry section, all pastries made, all meat butchered, fish only Tuesdays and Thursday, like flapping. I thought that was normal cause that was my daddy and that was my house. So, my house was upstairs.
Dan Pashman: You lived above the pub?
Jamie Oliver: Yeah, so when you wake up in the morning and go downstairs, it was a wash up area. Commercial wash, that was my home. So, I just thought that was normal. It wasn't until I went to primary school I went “No, everybody doesn't have a pub? Really?” But no, Dad was a pioneer, but it took me 20 years to know it.
Dan Pashman: And so you started cooking there at age 8.
Jamie Oliver: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So, what kinds of things were you cooking?
Jamie Oliver: Well, you know, you'd start off in the wash-up, and then you'd be peeling vegetables. You go from prepping vegetables to kind of prepping basic fish - gutting, scaling, and then you go up. And you'd be on salad department, so you’d be getting the starters.
Dan Pashman: It's not like your dad jumped you to the front of the line. You didn't get any special treatment.
Jamie Oliver: No, no, cause I used to work weekends and then in summer holidays. But what was amazing for me was I wanted stuff, like wicked sneakers. And I also wanted independence. So, my independence was one pound twenty an hour.
Dan Pashman: Jamie's desire for stuff and independence leads him to find even more ways of making money at a young age. When he’s 11, he comes across his first food business opportunity.
Jamie Oliver: I used to go to Cash and Carry with my dad, which is where he'd buy all the dry stores and stuff—
Dan Pashman: For his restaurant?
Jamie Oliver: Yeah, and I’d kind of hide big tubs of like, you know, cola cubes and kind of all these sweets—
Dan Pashman: Candy.
Jamie Oliver: That you could never get. And we couldn't get access to that stuff back in the day. So, I used to rent lockers off of friends and I had the Jamie Oliver sweet shop, which is kind of like I was my own enemy there. I was my own nightmare, back in the day. I guess it was like basic commerce, really, you know? You'd weigh two ounces of sweets and then you'd count them. You didn't have scales, obviously, and you'd open up at 15 minutes for every break and you were busy!
Dan Pashman: But you were kind of always an entrepreneur.
Jamie Oliver: I guess so. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that the food always captured my imagination because I think as a child, I really couldn't express any type of pleasure, or—like I was terrible at school. I couldn't fit into what the educators had invented as a structure and as a syllabus. What they thought I should learn, it was so boring to me.
Dan Pashman: So speaking of that, I saw this quote of yours - and this is a quote from years ago, “I've got my own issues with regard to how my brain works. I'm quite hyperactive. I can't go on holiday and sunbathe. I'm bored. Give me a jet ski or something.” How does your brain work?
Jamie Oliver: I mean interestingly, that quote was absolutely correct at the time.
Dan Pashman: Is it still correct?
Jamie Oliver: If you take me on holiday now and give me a hammock, I'll sleep. You don't need to give me a jet ski anymore. So, I think that might have been my age.
Dan Pashman: So you mellowed with age.
Jamie Oliver: Yeah, I think I've learned to embrace relaxation and quiet.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting to me. I mean, you're dyslexic, as you've talked about many times. You describe yourself as hyperactive. You're a drummer, working off nervous energy as a drummer. I talked to a number of chefs who have said to me, “Man, if ADD was a diagnosis when I was a kid, believe me, they would have given it to me.” And then, there's something about getting into a kitchen and cooking that locked them in with a level of focus that they had never experienced before. Is there something about cooking that works for people with that personality type?
Jamie Oliver: Definitely.
Dan Pashman: What is it?
Jamie Oliver: I think it's lots of simple chores that add up to a bigger whole. The fact that there's feel, touch, smell, taste, sense and for me, being sort of dyslexic, and I was in special needs all my secondary school life—finding pleasure in cooking and processes and a structure that you're part of, that you can slowly but surely work up. You know, if I wasn't a chef, I would love to be a carpenter to find and source wood. And every one does a different thing, and they age differently, and they bend, and knot differently. And then you can kind of turn it to something. It's like when you put flour and water together or flour and eggs like you can do tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, lasagna, lasagnette, you can kind of then fill it—ravioli, cappelletti. What do you want to do? There are a million things, but the idea that you take something wet and then you take some flour and the star’s the limit. You just gotta set that spark off. I mean, for me, I remember that the spark for me when I was about 11, and I was given permission to make the family’s Sunday lunch. And in England, the Sunday lunch is kind of a thing, whether it's lamb, beef, or a chicken, which everyone loves. You roast it, you baste it, herb, salt, pepper—cook it till it's crispy skin, loads of veggies, roast potatoes, gravy, you know, maybe Yorkshire puddings. There's a bunch of stuff going on, and I remember doing it when I was about 11 and my dad thanked me, sincerely. And I remember the feeling, like hairs, back of neck. It was just like, I'm good at something. Because I remember like literally a month before I'd gone to parents evening at school and it was basically, like...
Dan Pashman: It was not good.
Jamie Oliver: Cute kid but his work’s like a bag of shit. And they were so unsubtle in those days. They wouldn't even do it one-on-one. There'd be some kid next to you, he was the brain box getting complimented and everyone's work out and it's like “one out of ten, like nine out of ten, ten out of ten”. So it was just disheartening. So for me, the roast dinner saved the day and I think that was the moment when I knew that I've got to keep this food thing up.
Dan Pashman: At age 16, Jamie transfers to a catering school in London. He begins cooking in restaurants. Soon after, he moves in with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Jules. They share an apartment; him cooking, her waitressing. They don't see a whole lot of each other. Jamie says they're like ships passing in the night.
Jamie Oliver: In those days, it was like 80 to 100 hours a week. My wage just about covered the bills and the rent, and Jules didn't get a wage, she just got tips. She couldn't really cook, so I used to sort of do these foil envelopes. So you could take any—think protein. So it could be salmon, a bit of cod, it could be like a chicken breast. It could be a little hunk of meat and then I used to kind of just put combos together. So you could take cannellini beans and sort of like—some herbs and you could take—you could go Asian. You could kind of get that salmon, put some noodles in, smash up some garlic, ginger, chili, a little bit of soy sauce, lime juice, a bit of herb, wrap up these little envelopes. And then because she couldn't cook, I just put 400 Fahrenheit for 20 minutes and then put lots of love. And obviously, at that point in my life, I was new and partial to a little bit of jiggy jiggy so, you know, maybe there'd be a few naughty messages and dirty—you know, any anything that would give me a higher percentage chance of getting “a bunk-up”, as we would call it it in England.
Dan Pashman: And it's funny because, my wife, we roughly split the cooking but I'm more passionate about cooking. I sort of more get pleasure out of it. So, when we're both home, usually I’ll cook. Sometimes if I'm working from home, I’ll make her lunch without her even asking. And she does appreciate it, but I also think it's kind of funny to me like, if she's stressed, I will cook something. And I’ll be like “Here's how I'm gonna help her try to feel better,” is to cook something, but she doesn’t really care much about food in general. And she'll be like, “Oh, thanks. This is nice. Thanks. But, like, I would rather have had you fold the laundry.”
Jamie Oliver: But you know what, here's the thing. Like anything in life, you can take it for granted. The amount of times I cook for my missus, she never says “Thank you.”, just cracks on. I think it's when you're not there. Like, now I'm here, not home. She's cooking her own dinners. So, I get quite a lot I love when I get back. It's like, “No, thank you so much. It's lovely."
Dan Pashman: Was the only reason why you released this book in America, Jamie?
Jamie Oliver: Just so I could go away and treat em mean, keep em keen.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to the story. Young Jamie is working at the River Cafe, a fancy Italian place in London. One day, a TV crew comes in to shoot a special about Christmas at the restaurant. Now, Jamie is just a sous chef, but he ends up in a few scenes cooking in the kitchen.
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): As you can see boiling away, quite smoothly. I'm gonna pull it out now. I’ve got three orders on so I’ve gotta really move it.
Dan Pashman: Jamie would later say the thing he did in that special that stood out was that he could explain cooking steps clearly, quickly, and with some personality, which made him a TV producer’s dream.
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): So we're going to get a good handful in there, for one serve. In a minute, I’ll tell them to put a little butter in it to give it a nice shine, nice flavor. And a touch of lemon juice at the last minute, just give it a bit of that twang at the end. This bruschetta’s been rubbed with garlic. Lovely jovely.
Dan Pashman: So a producer spots him in that special and pretty soon, Jamie's first TV show launches on the BBC. It's 1999, he's 23-years-old, and the show is called The Naked Chef.
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): “Naked” is what I call my way of cooking. What I cook at the restaurant isn’t what I cook at home. Cooking’s got to be a laugh. It's got to be simple. It's got to be tasty. It's got to be fun. I suppose you could say it’s stripping down the recipe to its bare essentials. No way, it’s not me. It’s the food.
Dan Pashman: The idea of The Naked Chef is to focus on simple recipes and quality ingredients. Jamie is not yet comfortable looking at the camera, so he talks to a producer off to the side who feeds him questions. The show is not beautiful or glossy, but it's intimate. You really feel like you’re in the kitchen with this kid. I mean, he's so baby faced. He’s 23 but he could pass for 16. In one episode, he's cooking up a curry for his buddies, who were going to come back to his apartment later that night after an evening of drinking. Jamie made it cool for young British men, who had never watched a cooking show, let alone cooked anything, to get into the kitchen. The Naked Chef was quickly picked up in the U.S. by the Food Network, which wanted a poster boy for its transition from low budget instructional cooking shows to flashy celebrity chefs. A Naked Chef cookbook soon followed. It became an instant bestseller.
Jamie Oliver: It exploded in the U.K., within months. Months! It was literally like being in my own boyband. And I remember my shitty little bank balance just going from negative, like 150 quid, to actually having money in it for the first time. And it's, by the way, it took a while to get any money because you don't get paid—like in a bookie, I think it's like six months before you get paid, or maybe longer, I can’t remember. I remember being famous and still being skint.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jamie Oliver: The bit that I couldn't get my head around was, like, literally within the blink of a year, we were already broadcasting in 30 countries. And it was every day there was like kind of “Yeah, yeah. We're going to South Africa, now. Yeah, yeah. The Aussies have taken it.” I remember the day and the place I was when I was phoned up and told that America had bought my book.
Dan Pashman: You had this quote, in 2003 you said this, this is just a couple years after that initial explosion but you're still in your 20s at this point, “The only reason celebrity is remotely cool is that you can do things that interest you. Otherwise, it's pretty soul destroying.” In what way is it soul destroying?
Jamie Oliver: Well I think I think then, as well. I think things have changed a little bit. I mean, I think obviously fame, being recognized, is one thing at that particular—because I was very young and there was sort of an energy about my age as well as what I did. It was a bit more boyband-y, because it was quite raucous and nothing was simple. So popping down the pub for a pint just became impossible. Once you've got over that, you really had to start using the gift of what fame could give you to do things that opened your mind and inspired you and could take you on that journey.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Jamie does start trying to use his fame to do some good, and that choice is met with skepticism from the press and his parents. Then later, the centerpiece of his restaurant empire crumbles. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I'm Dan Pashman. As you may have heard, there is a presidential election happening this year. And as you know, candidates often use food to try to win over voters. But as we discussed in last week's episode, it doesn't always go the way they plan. Like the time in 1976, when Gerald Ford went to Texas and tried to eat it tamale by biting right into the husk.
CLIP (MIKE HUCKABEE): To this day, I am convinced that it was that gaffe with the tamale that cost him the state of Texas. Carter won Texas and Carter won the presidency, and it may have been a tamale that did it.
Dan Pashman: So what are this year's candidates eating on the trail and what did their food choices say about each of them? We cover that and dig into the history of campaign food fails in last week's episode. It's called Why Candidates Shouldn't Eat Corn Dogs. It's up now, check it out. Now, back to Jamie Oliver.
Dan Pashman: So in about a year, Jamie goes from being an unknown sous chef to a household name. He's 26. He has offers coming at him from all directions for TV shows, books, restaurants. People are expecting him to cash-in but instead, he does something so surprising that a lot of people don't believe it's genuine. They think it's a vanity project. He launches something called The Fifteen Foundation, with the goal of helping young people from underprivileged backgrounds get a foothold in the food industry. Each year, the program will take in 15 students. The centerpiece of the project will be a restaurant called Fifteen, where the students will work. And, in a real stroke of genius, Jamie films the whole process for a TV show. His inspiration for The Fifteen Project came from that first positive experience he had, cooking Sunday dinner for his family.
Jamie Oliver: Positive reinforcement, being good at something, is a basic need, a basic one. So if you fall through the gaps, if you never get patted on the back for doing anything right, the idea of finding some form of satisfaction in school or life is the challenge. So I've gone to London and somehow come up with the idea, “Let's take the most hard to reach kids, and let’s inspire them with what inspired me.” If you take a drug dealer or a car thief and say, “Okay, do you want to become a craftsman or a chef? Let me show you how to source wild salmon vs. farmed salmon. Let's break it down.” Then you’ve started getting that fantasy and then, “Right, let's cook. Let’s steam it, let’s roast it, let’s grill it - taste the difference. Wow. Try this. Try that herb. Try that acid.” Then it becomes like a painter with paint and a palette. And I think what I’m really proud of is, they were all trained the same. They were all loved the same. They were all mentored the same. They all went on the same trips. And yet, they've all come out as individuals. Some have gone off into like—I've got a dude, who is now running one of the best sushi restaurants in Spain, getting amazing Spanish fish. He comes from a really rough council estate in Hackney. You know, it’s amazing! Some are in delis. Some are doing noodle bars. Some are going back to their roots doing Jamaican food. I love the idea that, you know, train them in a way where you kind of allow them to then go on their own journey, cause that's the only one that really matters.
Dan Pashman: Right. I gather your father was skeptical.
Jamie Oliver: Yeah, for sure. I mean, my dad, as any restaurateur out there that might be listening is like, “Even if you're good and even if you're busy, making a good living—as in making money out of the restaurant game—is really hard.” So even though Dad had always, you know, he built this business from nothing. Every pound was a hard pound. So when his son had kind of gone out to the big city, exploded as this, “What? A naked chef? He's got a book? What? What’s my son got? A book?” And then we'd sold a million copies like—boom. And all of a sudden I turn up in a new car and it’s like “Alright, Dad”. He was kind of like “hmmm”. And then, everything I had, I spent on this restaurant which was set up as a charity. So, not only had this weird thing happened, but then I was gonna essentially throw it away. So he was very, very not happy with the scenario. But, I think that I was well-meaning but just stupid enough. I was green, enthusiastic and stupid enough to do the most brilliant, beautiful thing I've ever done. You know, if you're more conservative, if you're more grown up, if you're more kind of business-minded, you never would have done it.
Dan Pashman: Well also, your dad was skeptical cause he thought that you can't change these "never-do-wells".
Jamie Oliver: For sure. For sure. He said to me, “You can't make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” And I fundamentally disagreed. I think, ultimately, the concept of rehabilitation fascinates me.
Dan Pashman: Why?
Jamie Oliver: Because I think the simple conversation in the media and the simple conversation to oneself and one's family is “us.” Are we alright, Jack? Is my kid alright? Is my daughter alright?
Dan Pashman: The immediate concerns.
Jamie Oliver: And I get that because that's human, and that's that's the most powerful, visceral thing that all of us have. But if you truly care about that “us”, then you have to step back from your house and your street and maybe even beyond your town, maybe to your district and go, “What does bad look like? How bad is bad?” And for me, Fifteen was like, “Well, let's take the kids that have slipped through the net.” And, by the way, most of those kids were single-parent families.
Dan Pashman: When you started Fifteen, your dad wasn't the only one who was skeptical. One of things that fascinated me is how much skepticism there was from the public.
Jamie Oliver: Not the public, the media.
Dan Pashman: Right. There was actually a journalist who posed as one of the...
Jamie Oliver: Students.
Dan Pashman: —students because they were convinced they were going to uncover some sort of...
Jamie Oliver: Right, fake-faux.
Dan Pashman: Right. “Turns out he's not actually helping anyone, turns out he's a sleaze.”
Jamie Oliver: And we broke her, by the way. We broke her. She was on the course for seven months. She fessed up to it. She didn't just leave, she fessed up to it and she wrote the story. It was a big story. And the story was, “It's real.” But then, of course, it was hard for them to publish because they'd wasted someone's place. They'd taken an opportunity from a young person that should have got it, and a journalist got it instead, and they got seven months of love.
Dan Pashman: And what do you make of that skepticism?
Jamie Oliver: I think it's very human.
Dan Pashman: It's human to not think that someone might actually just be doing something…
Jamie Oliver: Nice. Yeah, I think—and so I think in some respects because Fifteen had such a pure heart, and because it was real, because it was registered as a charity, because I never took a wage, because we did what we did and carried on doing what we did for many, many years. After about four years, all the journalists globally got bored of being cynical because I'm like, “Well, I'm still doing it. What are you doing?”
Dan Pashman: Fifteen, the restaurant, becomes a mainstay, and a TV show about its creation airs on Channel 4 in the UK and gets picked up by Food Network. On the BBC show, The Food Program, last year, Jamie said even his dad came around to the idea.
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): It was the first time, and Dad would tell you this, that we had the moment, as son and father, where I was right and he learned from me. And the only way I could get him to understand was to send Aaron, one of the students, to his pub and work a summer. And then over the course of him baking bread at 5:00 in the morning with my dad, you get to know a kid and you hear about what happened. And you give him five more students and you hear about lives of crime, what it was like in the neighborhood, alcoholic parents.
Dan Pashman: Jamie says eventually, his dad became a passionate advocate for Fifteen. In the years after opening that restaurant, Jamie builds a full-on empire. He opens a chain of Italian restaurants, writes more books, works with British supermarket chains, launches lines of kitchenware, and he becomes an activist for healthier school lunches. He lobbies the British prime minister and wins a substantial increase in spending for healthier food in U.K. schools. Then, he makes another big splash in the U.S. with a show called Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, where he brings that school activism to America. In the famous scene I mentioned earlier, he shows kids how chicken nuggets are made. He puts all the least desirable parts of a chicken and a bunch of other additives into a blender.
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): Do you want to learn a lesson that's going to change your life? Who knows what this is?
CLIP (KIDS RESPONDING): Chicken!
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): I showed them where all the nice cuts of meat came off the chicken, and then you're left with a carcass with all the ribs and little bits of giblets and blood and skin and stuff like that.
[Blender runs, kids groan]
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): You've got to put loads of stuff in it. You know, flavoring in there to make it taste of something nice instead of something horrible. And there you go, ladies and gentlemen, our very own patty.
Dan Pashman: As big as Jamie got with all his TV shows and cookbooks and healthy eating campaigns, his work with Fifteen always stayed special to him.
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): I'm really proud of what we've done. And it worked, it worked for 17 years. We got just under 500 students through the program, 80 percent of them graduated. We had the best of the best.
Dan Pashman: But in the volatile restaurant business, sometimes even the best of the best isn't good enough. A couple of years ago, even as Jamie's international restaurants were doing well, his U.K. places fell on hard times. He says a lot of factors contributed. He had expensive leases and a lot of big spaces in prime shopping areas. And, as people started buying more online, foot traffic plummeted. When he started, he was one of the few people doing high quality mid-market dining. Now, it's everywhere. Jamie also blames Brexit, which he says created a lack of investor confidence, and which industry experts blame for a shrinking pool of workers and more expensive ingredients.
CLIP (REPORTER): He injected his celebrity personality, along with millions of pounds of his own and investors’ money but in the end, it simply wasn't enough. Today, from the South Coast through to Scotland, the “closed” signs went up. A chain carrying just one name now leaving a thousand out of work.
Dan Pashman: In the end, Jamie spent 15 million dollars of his own money trying to save his restaurants. But last year, his U.K. operation declared bankruptcy. Twenty two restaurants closed. For Jamie, the one that hurt most of all was closing Fifteen.
CLIP(JAMIE OLIVER): It's really eerie. And I don’t like it.
Dan Pashman: A TV crew filmed him as he walked through the restaurant one last time, empty glasses on the bar, dirty dishes in the sink.
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER): I don't know. It's like in the films when the bomb’s gone off and everyone has to leave, and everything's just left.
Dan Pashman: Looking around, Jamie tears up more than once.
CLIP (JAMIE OLIVER: My God. Over on the pillar, there were two plaques from students that died.
CLIP (WOMAN): It’s a lot of history here.
JAMIE OLIVER: It was more than just a business, it had soul. So, look. I'm grateful for the 17 years that we had. I know I did the best version of bad. Even from a personal point of view, I made sure my staff were all paid up to the day, personally. And as painful as it was, I’m weirdly grateful because I finally feel rounded as a restauranteur. I think I'm young enough to sort of reflect, and I know I'm going to do something interesting going forward. And I know I won't make the same - really, the reason we died was because my model, my business model, wasn't bendy enough. There's no magic in business. The government, whether it's the states or the U.K., treats you no differently if you care about the ingredients or the environment or the staff, than if you couldn't give two shits. So, to make money, stack it high, sell it cheap is the easiest way to make a load of cash in food. Right? And your risk is going to be way lower. The concept of even caring, which is on the same terms, is really hard. So should I ever do it again, it would be in a different way, in a different structure. In contrast to that, I still, to this day, have 70 restaurants in 23 countries around the world that are happy, well-run, and profitable.
Dan Pashman: Jamie told the BBC that he plans on taking the lessons he's learned and starting Fifteen’s next chapter, an organization that would offer seed funding and business support to young restaurateurs. Even as Jamie's restaurants in the U.K. were going under, he launched a new initiative, The 2030 Project. Its mission is to cut childhood obesity in the U.K. in half by 2030. Part of accomplishing that goal is convincing people to eat less meat and more veggies. That's why his newest book is all vegetarian. He says now, this project will be his main focus.
Jamie Oliver: In my opinion, the concept of true democracy is to have a place where everyone has at least the capacity to reach for the stars. I mean, that's the American dream, right? But, what we know from hard data is that if you're poor, you're going to be heavier, more unhealthy, do less well at school, get paid less money, have more days off sick, die younger. And the conversation that I'm having is a global one, not a British one. You'd be amazed how similar the worries and the excitement around food is, globally. And even down to the new book, right, Veg. So I didn't go, “Oh, all of a sudden, as a meat-eater, I'm gonna dedicate a whole year to just veg.”
Dan Pashman: But this is the kind of book that I feel like you are uniquely, maybe not uniquely, but one of the few people who has the, sort of, broad appeal and understanding of mass communication to take the idea of cooking more vegetables and bring it to people—
Jamie Oliver: Make it more mainstream.
Dan Pashman: Right. What's the key to that?
Jamie Oliver: Partly, the key to that was simplicity, but excitement to give people enough of what we know they want. So, whether it's mac and cheese, you know, noodle rice dishes, you know. I think also, the fact that it's even a conversation is weird because to real, true foodies, blindfolded, good food is good food, regardless of what it is. So the conversation we're having would be really odd in Portugal or Spain because they just go “Well, it’s food.” It's not vegetarian food, it’s just food! It just happens to be. So I think that's the vibe I went off. I think also timing for many western countries, the idea of taking something away is like divisive, really divisive.
Dan Pashman: People want to feel like they're healthier without feeling like they're giving anything up.
Jamie Oliver: And that was exactly the point of the book. So, we wanted comfort food dishes in there but we wanted to teach people how to get massive flavor out of veggies. And, also, because I'm not a vegetarian— I eat meat and I love meat—it’s really the concept of really, “Guys, let's push the veg because there's only good to be had from it, whether it's your wallet, your health, or the planet. It's all good, good, good, good, good.” You know, if someone just goes veggie once a week and they're, like, massive carnivores, that’s success.
Dan Pashman: You have had the unique opportunity—you've met with prime ministers and major political figures, people who really have the power to change some of the policies that you've been pushing for, for decades now. I understand that some of the resistance is just, “There are big corporations that make a lot of money off the status quo.” They have power. But is there some other source of resistance, because this seems like the kind of thing that should cut across political lines, like certainly anyone with kids. No matter what your political opinions are on other issues, you would think that everyone would agree that kids should be eating at least a base level of nutrition. And now there's now plenty of studies that show that when schools follow your program, that the students are healthier, that they do better academically. What's the deal?
Jamie Oliver: Surely. I think the deal is, these are people that are career politicians. They require and want to be going up the scale, getting more power. And, once you get into the realms of that, I am constantly largely disappointed. Because we would think that “Well, clearly you have something in your heart that defines you to have a care culture that would allow you to take care of these people, this district, this place, and represent them and be balanced and intelligent and rounded about how you would love all, not one section.” And that just doesn't seem to happen very often. Mainly because once you're in the political game, it's amazing, but consistently, they don't want to make much change. So they all, regardless of country, say, “Make me and we will.”
Dan Pashman: When Jamie says “Make me and we will,” he means, “You have to make this such a big issue. You have to create so much political pressure that I, as a politician, have no choice but to act.”
Jamie Oliver: Make a documentary, make a campaign, make the papers talk about it, make them ask us, and then I can go to my lot and say, “Let's do something appropriate,” and then try and get a few hundred people to sign a bit of paper. And I guess the interesting thing is I will do it, but it's not my job. That, I thought, was their job.
Dan Pashman: That's Jamie Oliver. His most recent cookbook is called Ultimate Veg: Easy and Delicious Meals for Everyone. If you're in the U.K., though, it's just called Veg. Here in America, everything has to be more ultimate. You want to win a copy of that book? Get on our mailing list by the end of February. If you're already on the list, you're automatically entered into this and all of our giveaways. Sign up now at sporkful.com/newsletter. Next week on the show, a very halal Valentine's Day. I go out to eat with Taz Ahmed, co-host of the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim. In the meantime, check out last week's show and find out why no presidential candidate should ever eat a corn dog.