Few chefs can boast a cooking empire quite like Jamie Oliver. With over 30 successful TV shows under his belt, dozens of cookbooks, a chain of restaurants, and even an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire award, for those of us on this side of the pond), he is undoubtedly one of the world’s best-known food personalities. And if that weren’t enough, Oliver has also dedicated himself to campaigning for the end of childhood obesity (via You).
For anyone interested in food, Oliver certainly seems to rule supreme. In fact, these days, he’s pretty much everywhere! However, this wasn’t always the case. Oliver’s journey has certainly had its ups and downs — and he’s definitely transformed since his early, carefree Naked Chef days. These days, he’s "less indie pop star and more harassed overseer of a culinary empire," noted the interviewer in You. It’s clear that the food star has grown up. But what exactly happened to Oliver over the years to make this transformation come about?
Jamie Oliver had a working class background
Jamie Oliver’s background often surprises his fans. In an interview for Flow, the chef explained his humble beginnings. "I grew up a real country boy in Clavering, in the county of Essex, about 18 miles from Cambridge," he recalled. He went on to explain that his parents were solidly "working class," even though people often thought otherwise. "I have no idea why all these people I met later with my food show The Naked Chef on TV thought I was some privileged rich kid who went to a private school," he said.
His working class background wasn’t always easy. Oliver explained to Flow that he helped out in his parents’ pub from the age of 5. However, this taught him something important — having a good work ethic. As he put it, his parents taught him "how to treat others with respect and friendliness, and how to stay polite even when you’re stressed and your feet are killing you … If you want to get anywhere, you have to roll up your sleeves and get on with it." No wonder he became the hard working man he is today.
Jamie Oliver grew up in his parents’ pub around food
Jamie Oliver’s parents didn’t just teach him about the importance of having a strong work ethic. They also taught him about working with food from a very early age. As Oliver explained to Flow, "I was really good with the knife [at age 5], and to be honest, I cooked up some really good grub, even as a kid." We’re hardly surprised that this famous chef showed signs of being talented with food early on.
And according to Oliver’s mom, he really was talented. As she told Penguin UK, he grew up eager to help out at the family pub. "We had chefs working in the kitchen who gave easy jobs to him and I think it made him feel really grown up — he thought he was ‘one of the boys,’" she recalled. It sounds like Oliver really was destined to work with food!
Jamie Oliver struggled in school but moved from the bottom to the top of his class when he started culinary college
Even though Jamie Oliver showed plenty of promise in the kitchen, he wasn’t quite so prolific in the classroom. In fact, as he revealed in the 2019 documentary Jamie Oliver: The Naked Chef Bares All (via Mama Mia), his dyslexia made his time in school extra difficult. As a result, he was actually at the bottom of his class. As he confessed, "I left school resenting education so much." He also revealed, "I felt angry towards the concept of revision."
It’s clear that Oliver had skills, even if they weren’t necessarily academic. In fact, when he went to culinary college after graduating high school, he quickly shot to the top of his class. Oliver recalled, "It was such a relief to start getting good marks" (via Mama Mia). Sounds like Oliver definitely found his niche.
Jamie Oliver met his wife when he was just a teenager
Unlike some other multimillion dollar TV stars, Jamie Oliver doesn’t have a scandalous dating history. In fact, he settled down with his childhood sweetheart. As his wife Jools explained to Made By Mammas, the pair met when they were still teenagers. "When I first met him he was a drummer and that’s what got me, rock star image you know!" she recalled fondly. She also revealed, "He was quite popular so I thought, ‘I want a piece of that’, and he was very cool and the man about town" (via Hello!). Apparently, the couple have been going strong ever since. Sounds like Jools and Oliver were smitten from day one.
In 2019, Oliver shared a lovely throwback image of his wife on Instagram for her 45th birthday. He wrote, "She’s a wonderful, kind, extraordinary person who I’m so proud to call my wife and she’s still smoking." It’s so sweet to see how Oliver’s long relationship has been a constant throughout his life.
Jamie Oliver’s first TV appearance happened by mistake
It turns out, Jamie Oliver was never aiming for a career in television. As he revealed in the documentary Jamie Oliver: The Naked Chef Bares All, his first TV appearance was basically an accident! It all happened when the BBC decided to film in a restaurant where Oliver happened to work. Apparently, Oliver wasn’t even working on the day of filming. "I remember," Oliver said, "because me and Jools hadn’t had a night off together in so long." When he was called in to the restaurant to work last minute, he almost didn’t go in. But, Oliver’s famous work ethic prevailed. "[B]ut my dad had always taught me to treat other people’s business like our own family business," he explained, "so, the only answer was yes."
When he arrived at the restaurant, he had his first taste of working with food for the camera — and audiences at home saw him for the first time. The special aired in 1997 and, as Oliver’s parents recalled, all of their friends spotted him on TV. Soon enough, the BBC had commissioned The Naked Chef.
His career took off in 1999 with The Naked Chef but Jamie Oliver remained unaffected by fame
After his fluke appearance cooking on the BBC, Jamie Oliver was quickly offered a more permanent TV role. In fact, by 1999, he’d been given his very own cooking show, The Naked Chef. As one interview from The Guardian recalled, he was an incredibly likeable, easy-going guy in those days. "His whole shtick was that he was truly impossible to dislike," the interviewer said. He was also unaffected by his newfound fame. "There was no front to him, no armour," she went on.
Despite Oliver’s easy-going nature, it’s clear that big things were coming for the young TV star. The same year as this show debuted, he also released a cookbook, which quickly became a bestseller. He was even invited to cook for the UK’s prime minister at the time, Tony Blair (via New York Times). There’s no doubt about it — 1999 was a huge turning point in the young chef’s career.
Jamie Oliver opened his first restaurant at the age of 27
Television wasn’t the only thing on Jamie Oliver’s mind in the early days of his career — he also wanted to continue working in restaurants. So, in 2002, at the age of 27, he opened his very own restaurant, Fifteen. As You reported, this first restaurant was designed to bring quality food to mid-market diners. It seems that opening a restaurant was a real dream come true for Oliver — much more than being on TV. As he told The Guardian a few years later, "When I was 14 I thought I’d like to run a pub in an Essex village."
His first restaurant soon expanded to a restaurant chain of eateries called Jamie’s’ Italian. By 2009, the chain had made plans to expand to Asia. Over the years, he opened 25 restaurants in the UK.
In the chain’s early days, things seemed to be going well. As Oliver told Londonist, "Everyone who’s visited Jamie’s Italian has wanted to come back again and again." Sadly however, in 2019, 22 of these restaurants were forced to close — but for a while, Oliver really was the head of a massive restaurant empire.
Jamie Oliver initially planned to quit public life for his family but continued working — and his marriage suffered
Even though Jamie Oliver’s career was definitely only getting better and better, it turns out, the pressure was actually becoming a little too much for the young star. In 2010, he opened up to Radio 5 about the pressures of public life and constant filming. Apparently, his busy schedule meant that he became a "weekend dad," leaving his wife to care for their kids. According to The Telegraph, Oliver had previously said that he planned on quitting public life by 2008. However, his fame grew and he kept on working.
As Oliver revealed in the interview, his marriage was definitely suffering as a result of his fame. "There’s a natural sort of tempo to having a relationship," he said, "and it’s not brilliant all the time but it goes through lovely cycles." He even revealed that they sometimes "can’t stand each other." It sounds like his fame came with both good and bad sides.
Jamie Oliver became a dedicated campaigner for ending childhood obesity
One of Jamie Oliver’s most enduring legacies is his work as a campaigner. As The Guardian explained, the chef set about on a dedicated campaign to improve school lunches, teach kids about cooking, and end childhood obesity. Most of his campaigns took the form of TV documentaries. And as the chef confessed, it wasn’t always easy work. "I hate making TV documentaries," he said. "Because it takes quite a lot of energy to know that you’re going to get you arse kicked and people will hate you, or fight you, for large proportions of time." He went on to explain that his famous show School Dinners resulted in about a year and a half of abuse. As Oliver summed it up, "I don’t particularly enjoy doing the stuff I’m most proud of."
Oliver ended up also creating Jamie’s Ministries of Food, a campaign of teachers and volunteers designed to "get people cooking again and inspiring them to eat better and more nutritious food." As Oliver explained to Green Living, this campaign was all about childhood obesity. "Food skills have been lost, and schools and families aren’t teaching them, so our Centers are doing that," he explained.
As he became more famous, Jamie Oliver began to feel more and more misunderstood
While fame brought relationship problems for Jamie Oliver, it also brought more personal problems, too. In a candid interview The Guardian, the superstar chef confessed that fame had the bizarre effect of making him feel less understood. "No one understands me. No one," he said bluntly. "My wife doesn’t even understand me in terms of what I want to do." As Oliver explained, with fame came lots of press — and with press, came a lot of assumptions about his motives. "Everyone thinks everything’s about money," he went on. He explained that most people seemed to assume he did what he did for the monetary rewards –however, for Oliver, his work was more about making a difference.
In fact, it seems that Oliver is well aware of how plenty of members of the public see him. "There’s still lots of people who don’t like me," he said in the interview. "You can tell that if you go on any blog. I annoy lots of people." Sounds like Oliver understands that with fame comes a lot of misinterpretation.
Jamie Oliver has some questionable parenting methods — but is definitely a loving family man
When it comes to family, Jamie Oliver has always been a dedicated family man. As he told The Guardian, "Family first, always, always." However, he has faced some criticism in the past for some of his parenting methods. As he explained to Woman Magazine (via Hello!), he and his wife "use an app to keep track of our kids’ whereabouts." While some people may find this parenting method a little over-the-top, Oliver clarified that it was a system that really worked. "If one of the girls says, ‘I’m going to Camden Town,’ and I can see they’ve gone to Reading, then we have a problem. They can check on me, too, and see how fast I’m driving. It’s brilliant."
In his Guardian interview, he also revealed that he and his wife followed the Gina Ford method. As he explained, "Gina’s basically just a structured routine, and it’s quite a lot to remember, but it does work. It’s like communism." Wow, sounds like a pretty militant household.
Over the years, Jamie Oliver has learned about self-care
One thing about Jamie Oliver is crystal clear — he works incredibly hard. However, over the years, the famous chef has learned to slow down a little and pace himself. As he explained to Balance in 2018, at the beginning of his career, Oliver used to struggle with getting enough sleep. "I went through six years of about three hours sleep, just working too hard," he confessed. However, eventually, this lifestyle became too difficult to maintain.
"I went through a revelation," he explained, "and over the last eight years have started spending time with sleep scientists." By 2018, he was getting around six hours of sleep a night — which, according to Oliver "is on the cusp of acceptable." Apparently, his sleep was so bad, he decided to make sleep his main priority. It’s clear that his improved sleep has helped him find more balance in his life. And no wonder — he must have been exhausted!
Jamie Oliver called 2019 "the toughest year of [his] life"
Things took a real nosedive for Jamie Oliver in 2019. In a shocking turn of events, the majority of his restaurants went into administration and were forced to close. For the TV chef, this sad ending to his restaurant empire was a huge blow. As he told You, it was the "toughest year of my life." Apparently, he was determined to save his restaurant group, and even put in £4 million of his personal savings. When the business finally collapsed, Oliver was heartbroken. He told You, "It is what it is, but I think that’s been very physically, mentally, and financially tough … that was a tough one to swallow." When pressed about his emotions, the chef reportedly welled up.
But for Oliver, this failure was just a set back. In the same year, he announced a new overseas restaurant chain in Asia. It’s clear his dreams of running a restaurant empire are far from being squashed.
Jamie Oliver isn’t slowing down anytime soon
In addition to his new overseas ventures, Jamie Oliver has other big plans for the future. These days, his quest to end childhood obesity is his main concern. As he told Balance in 2018, "I have made a decision to go all out for the next 12 years to things where they should be." He added, "And then, I will happily f***ing retire."
He explained that while he had considered leaving his grueling work behind to see more of his five kids, he is determined to see his campaign through. And it’s a mission he feels proud of. As he put it, "I like to think that I’m not mad and if I fail while trying, that’s not bad. I’d like to think we are doing the right thing at the right time." It sounds like Oliver’s very best work is yet to come. One thing’s for sure — he will leave behind an incredible legacy when he finally decides to call it quits.