Katherine MacAlister talks to Jamie Oliver about his world being turned upside down

JAMIE Oliver sighs, ruffling his hair in exasperation: “Look, I’m not going to pretend it hasn’t been a hard year. It’s been really difficult actually. I’m not going to get the violin out, but I’ve had to dig deep. It’s been challenging.

“Given my time again would I go back 20 years and do it all again? Probably not.

“But while it’s been the worst year and a half, it’s also been the best because I’ve learned so much. There’s been a lot of time for reflection.”

Oxford Mail:

Gone is the cheerful Essex boy-next-door. The 43-year-old sitting before me in Jamie’s Oxford on George Street is nervously twiddling his thumbs, a shadow of his former self.

Last time we met he was cresting the wave of his numerous restaurants’ success both in the UK and internationally, which were continually rolling out across the country, his name synonymous with good healthy, fun food, his TV shows prime time, his books consistently on the best-seller lists.

And then came the crunch. Last year he had to close six branches of Jamie’s, this year 12 more, the press were baying for his blood, and his continued fight to improve children’s diets was proving a hard battle.

Plus he had his fifth child to contend with, this time a boy, with his wife Jules, so home was as frantic. Too much perhaps?

“No, the restaurants didn’t close because we over-expanded. I know it looks that way,” he said glumly, “but hand-on-heart I can categorically say that wasn’t the reason. All mid-market restaurants are in pain.”

Oxford Mail:

It’s true. From Carluccios and Zizzi to Gourmet Burger, Byron, Cafe Rouge, Bella Italia and Strada – they are all struggling.

“Yes, but we were the first to go because we refused to compromise. I wasn’t going to cut costs to stay afloat by reducing the quality of our ingredients or getting the food cooked centrally and shipped in. I’m a chef so the menu had to be cooked fresh on site. And that’s what we still do.

“But yes some of the sites we took on were too big and the rents too high to make any money.

“But I’m proud of what we did. We created 3,500 jobs. We transformed mid-market dining. However, in the last three years we should have stuck with what we already had, so that I had time to see see what the customers wanted.”

Oxford Mail:

We are here to launch Jamie’s new menu on the 10th anniversary of his first restaurant opening in Oxford.

His ‘reflection process’ meant going out to meet his customers, listening to them, asking lots of questions and adapting. “We have just simplified everything and pared it back to give people what they want. Things have moved on in ten years. People want different things now.

“But the restaurant is still fun and funky. It has a nice atmosphere. We just have to keep going and prove that we deserve to be here, to remind people of the provenance of our food and what we are all about.”

But with so many other things on his plate, it must be hard to concentrate. Jamie has a new book and TV series launching in August based on his travels around Italy cooking with the nonnas (the last generation to cook withouth gas or electricity) with friend and staunch ally Genarro Contaldo which took two years to film.

He is also heavily into his campaigning, rallying against corporations, governments and parents to improve children’s diets and deeply immersed in the fight, for which he is still heavily criticised. Does he feel unappreciated?

“No, the way I see it so many people feel the way I do but don’t have a voice. I have the platform and access that they don’t. So I don’t have a choice. It is a bit of a ball and chain but it’s also a public service.

“Besides, I’m not saying anything controversial or clever. It’s pretty basic stuff. I just want to get the truth out there and I love a challenge.”

Does he care what people think of him? “No.” And the press? “They give me a good kicking every three years and then leave me alone for a bit.”

And where are we in the cycle? “At the end of the kicking, hopefully.”

So how is he coping? “I just had to go through it. I felt the pain. What can you do?” he shrugs. “It was so hard. But I’m tough, although that has been seriously tested recently.

“But then I get home and my two year old son has just started noticing me after years of grafting, and I have a two teens, and a nine and an eight year-old. So I get away. We go back to Essex every weekend. My life is quite bonkers,” he says unnecessarily.

“But it’s the only industry I know. It’s the one I grew up in. I don’t know how to do anything else. And in Oxford we have done really well. It’s still got a good buzz here, the staff are friendly the food is great, the prices reasonable.

So how personally did he take the closures? “Very. It was heart-breaking,” he says, looking at me.

And then collecting himself he adds: “But we have a new menu and a new structure and we still have 25 restaurants in beautiful cities to run, without compromising on my standards.”

So given his time again what would he have done instead? Stayed as a chef in Essex, cooking 60 covers in a pub kitchen somewhere parochial.”

But what of that boy staying up until the early hours at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant in London’s Covent Garden, improving his pasta skills?

“I am peculiar,” he accedes. “I do know that. I get very immersed in things. But it does seem to get me in an awful lot of trouble.”

And his epitaph? “You took away my turkey twizzlers,” he laughs, turning back to the launch dinner, his guests and his endlessly awaiting fans, eyes finally twinkling.

There is hope yet then.

Jamie's Italian, 24-26 George St, Oxford OX1 2AE

01865 838383