From a fiery chef with a cheeky smile, Jamie Oliver’s elevation to global health pioneer in the UK and beyond has been a constant both across modern food, drink and business itself. The effervescent chef will tell you a lot of his craft isn’t in presentation or even flavour, it is about the banquet itself. His modus operandum is to bring family and friends together in celebration, and his craftsmanship is to make even the most disorganised, raucous, chaotic feast organised and special.
I remember going right back to the early days of when food became trendy in the UK, and when the first crop of celebrity chefs really started making headlines,” begins Jamie Oliver. “Then it was all about flavour, taste and presentation.
“Nothing else mattered – it was showmanship, where no-one said the first thing about health or nutrition… and as for the dining experience – forget it. That was just something you sorted out for yourself.”
How times have changed. Not only is the health agenda at its highest peak, but these days chefs are as keen to talk to their audiences about the feeling of food, about the ambience of a setting, and about restaurateuring as a whole, then they are the meal itself.
“It’s funny how these things evolve over time,” continues the 42-year-old, whose dual pursuits of food and business have made him one of the world’s most recognisable chefs. “Back in the 1990s, I think Europe, and certainly the UK, was so out of ideas when it came to food. Then we had this incredible rush of energy and craft, and it seemed like nothing else mattered.
“We’re now at the point where the expectation is that food will be on-point and fantastic every time, so our attention switches to the other elements of dining and the atmosphere involved in having a meal.”
As you would expect, Jamie Oliver takes this very particular form of craftsmanship to extremes. As if launching his own china and giftware collections wasn’t enough, he has opened a string of Italian-themed restaurants, created cookery schools and, in his best trick yet, joined forces with Land Rover to ‘pimp’ a Discovery model as the ultimate dining drive. Features ranged from the practical – a toaster in between the front seats – to the truly fanciful, such as a butter churner in one of the hubcaps. It also included a rotisserie, slow cooker and built-in oil and vinegar dispensers.
“Technology troubles me a bit because I worry that we’re getting lost in the majesty of tech without actually gaining from it”Jamie Oliver
The designers behind the project insisted that the campaign was a way to demonstrate to a mass audience what its special vehicle operations division could do. “It’s all about saying ‘here is a car and you know and expect it to behave in a certain way, yet those stereotypes are old and tired, and in actual fact, you can do things with it that are very different if you’re brave enough,” says Oliver.
“And the same is actually true with the food itself. Creativity means using the same things but in different ways, and not letting any past preconceptions cloud your ambition of what might be achievable.”
In addition, Oliver believes the food industry needs to take itself less seriously when it comes to being realistic over how most of us want to eat. “We’ve all been too brilliant high-end restaurants and that attention to detail, both in presentation and in taste, is admirable. You’ve got small, delicate ingredients and flavours cooked to absolute perfection, but that’s a very limited idea of craft because no-one cooking at home is ever going to have the time or the patience to replicate that.
“However, having a toaster in a car – okay, so it’s not quite on the same level, but it’s still craftsmanship and, in reality, it’s 100 times more useful!”
Oliver’s passion ultimately comes from his upbringing, notably his father. “Yes, everything I’ve done has been a scaled-up version of what my dad taught me. I had those influences around me from an extremely young age, and I’ve just been building on those all of the time.
“I think there’s often the temptation to look at food as an instruction to be ambitious and extravagant, but you don’t have to wow everyone. Sometimes you have to take the relevance from things around you and develop them gradually. That way you learn as you go, and it actually begins to mean something.”
There is, however, one element of craftsmanship that Jamie Oliver actively repels – technology. “I’m in no way a technophobe, but the food industry relies on the reality of being somewhere, then tasting, smelling, looking at and perhaps even feeling something. It demands you are present in the moment,” he says.
“Technology troubles me a bit because I worry that we’re getting lost in the majesty of tech without actually gaining from it. I’ve done the health thing with kids, and I feel now the task is to bring them back into reality, because food and dining and entertaining is the best reality you can have – it’s sociable, it’s joyous, it’s brilliant.
“In recent times, I’ve found myself doing presentations to groups of kids, and these kids will hold up iPhones to take a picture. They’re looking at me, and I’m looking at about £3,000 worth of phones thinking: ‘Are these seriously your phones… why do you need this stuff?’
“I guess there will be always something else to solve… but it keeps me busy!”