Jamie Oliver has been one of the UK’s most illustrious chefs for two decades, but the past year has certainly been difficult, with attacks coming from both the media and those in the industry. Following the loss of 12 restaurants, the TV star tells Emma Lake that the industry needs to come together to create a little more camaraderie
For a chef turned TV star whose career has been on an upward trajectory since he hit the nation’s screens in 1999, Jamie Oliver has found the past 12 months tough to bear. His restaurant group has been trimmed back and required a significant personal cash injection, while he personally has taken a battering in the form of a certain amount of schadenfreude from the industry – and his competitors on the high street. It has culminated in what Oliver describes as his “toughest, most emotional year ever” and has led him to call on the industry to come together because, he says, “we all need a break”.
Oliver says: “For you, it’s an interesting time. I’m living it, and it’s been the hardest, darkest, toughest, most emotional rollercoaster ever. I hope we never ever go through this again. I don’t know if I could hack it.”
The celebrity chef had piled more than £10m of his personal savings into Jamie’s Italian before pursuing a Company Voluntary Agreement (CVA) in February, which resulted in the closure of 12 restaurants.
He was also forced to close Barbecoa in London’s Piccadilly and buy a second Barbecoa outlet near St Paul’s Cathedral out of administration.
The news generated countless headlines – including in the pages of The Caterer – with no shortage of people ready to advise on why the chain was struggling. JD Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin told the i newspaper that Oliver was guilty of “arrogance” and needed to realise he could not “sell simply by being a celeb on the telly”, while Martin Williams of M Restaurants added that the failing chain restaurants were “devoid of personality”, as he made a bid for Oliver’s Barbecoa sites.
What’s clear during our interview is that Oliver has found the past 12 months very painful. He cares about the response from some of those in the industry he grew up in – the chef was raised in his parent’s Essex pub, which he describes as a “proper Anglo-French, regimental kitchen, where this fucker [The Caterer] came every week”.
The redundancies that came from closing 12 restaurants have also taken a toll, while sticking to the principles that have guided much of his work and campaigning over the past two decades has necessitated difficult decisions.
He explains: “I went early on the CVA because I felt it was the most honest thing to do and I didn’t have any levers left to pull. I wasn’t going to pull the levers of shit produce; I’d die before that happens.”
The casual dining crunch, as it has been dubbed, came as a surprise to Oliver, as did the reactions of some people from all sides of the hospitality industry.
He continues: “I could never have guessed what would happen to my industry five years ago. I could not contemplate losing 12 restaurants. I could never imagine the behaviour – good and bad. I’ve never seen such horrible, filthy, evil behaviour from counterparts in the same industry who were in different ways benefiting, enjoying and adding fuel to the fire. I’ll never forget that.
“At the same time, the good. Oh my god, the good. Suppliers doing the opposite and saying ‘How are you? Are you OK? What are your payment terms? Do you want three more months? We believe in you.’
“I had one half of the industry saying if you don’t guarantor a million-and-a-half quid and your personal home in 24 hours we stop serving you on Sunday, which would have forced the whole company into bankruptcy, but at the same time I had David Gleave of Liberty Wines phone up and say ‘what do you need, I’m here for you’. We need more people like David giving you some blood, giving you time and trust and the worth of their experience.”
When Jamie’s Italian launched with its first Oxford restaurant in 2008, people queued around the block to get a table. The celebrity chef says that on launching the chain he wanted to “democratise the mid-market” creating a concept that “killed it for the first five years”, eventually reaching more than 40 sites across the country.
But both Oliver and Jon Knight, chief executive of the chef’s restaurant group, have acknowledged that the restaurants failed to keep step with the chef’s more agile media company as well as the conditions on the high street.
Now, with the loss-making sites disposed of, rent cuts agreed and creditors – aside from Oliver himself – paid, his team are working to ensure the restaurant business returns to profit in a way that is sustainable.
Oliver, who says he has never earned a penny from the restaurant group, explains: “We’ve used everything and more to save the restaurant business. We’ve saved 2,500 jobs, give or take, and I think I’ve done the right thing.”
In the months since, many others have sought CVAs and the crisis on the British high street has faced much analysis. Rising business rates, rents and food prices alongside national minimum wage increases, the apprenticeship levy and the weakening of the pound following the Brexit vote are among the factors conspiring to reduce the already thin margins of hospitality businesses.
Asked if he is lobbying government about the situation, Oliver explains that he “can’t campaign for everything”, adding that his priority remains “the huge amount of work” his company puts into child health initiatives. But, following his experiences, he does feel the industry needs to come together.
The chef says: “Survival is a priority for most at the moment. If it isn’t a priority for you, then god bless you, congratulations, but the industry is in a very fractious time and we’ve got to come together because we all need a break.
“Are people going to the high streets? Seemingly not. We need to react to that quickly and get people back in and fired up. Britain is interesting because of restaurants, pubs, clubs and bars. Britain’s not interesting because of government. If most of us could go back to the beginning and say, ‘where’s the best place to make a few quid with the least amount of pain?’, no one with what they know would go into the restaurant industry, so it has to be about more.
“People forget that camaraderie is really important. We can’t just be obsessive about small businesses being great: small, medium and large businesses have to be great, with shared values around best practice. If it’s a race to the bottom, Britain will become America. I’ve lived in the most unhealthy town in America and you don’t want that. That race to the bottom is not what I grew up with and it’s not what this [the chef’s business] tries to foster. We must get back to this idea of camaraderie; we must go back to having each other’s backs.”
After going through the CVA in February, Jamie’s Italian is starting to see “green shoots”, in part helped by the launch of the chef’s latest book and TV series Jamie Cooks Italy.
The chef says the launch of the book “wasn’t as strategic as it looks”, and it had been delayed by 18 months with 5 Ingredients – Quick & Easy Food taking its original publication slot.
He explains: “It does look like Italy was cute, but that’s luck, although definitely cute. It took me a few years to get the series away; two and a half years to make the show, which was completely over budget, but that’s life. We’ve caught a bit of history; we were there to find the last generation of old-school nonnas who didn’t have electric gas, supermarkets, etc. These girls are dying and as cute as the nonna concept is, you can’t rush it, you can’t force it.”
While the book, and the revolving specials taken from it, are helping the restaurants, the chef acknowledges that there is a lot of work to be done. He explains: “We’re refocusing to look at the territory and ask, what does Cambridge need? What does Manchester need? Actually, they all need something quite different.
“As we’re redefining our high streets we need to redefine our four walls; who we are, what we are and why. If I had some spare money, I would refresh some Jamie’s Italians, some of them into incredible pubs. We’ve got some buildings that are just the most quality buildings in the city; five, six, seven years on, we need to readdress what those cities need.
“Now that spring cleaning is done, we need the bank fully on board – we’re nearly there – and I need to work out what’s the future.”
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of Oliver’s breakthrough into the public domain as the Naked Chef. His front cover for The Caterer in 1999 saw him in the first flush of fame, after being spotted during the filming of a television documentary at the River Café, where he worked at the time.
The intervening years, described by the chef as “an amazing journey and incredible marriage to the British public,” have seen him pursue a prolific number of projects, some successful, some less so – he once said that 40% of his ventures have failed.
It is undeniable that Oliver has had and continues to have a huge influence on the country’s culinary landscape. His media group had its best year ever last year, both creatively and commercially, reporting pre-tax profits of £5.4m.
5 Ingredients was his best-selling release to date, while Jamie Cooks Italy is fifth in Amazon’s bestseller list across all genres. On top of this, the licensing and endorsement side of his business made £7.3m last year.
Oliver says that “everything and more” has gone into saving the restaurant business and he remains determined to make it a success: “I am very, very committed and I believe in it, so it’s nice to see those green shoots.”
What we learned from the Italian nonnas
Oliver and his mentor and friend, Gennaro Contaldo, spent two years travelling around Italy to learn the recipes for Jamie Cooks Italy.
Oliver says: “We wanted to go and meet these nonnas and hear their stories. I’m still thinking about what I have learned. I think it’s about gratitude to food and not trying to be romantic about it. We have to look to these girls because of what they had to put up with – food wasn’t cute, it wasn’t niche, it wasn’t middle class, it wasn’t luxury, it was life or death. Most of the nonnas we cooked with started cooking when they were six or seven; by seven or eight they were cooking for their families many days a week over an open fire.”
Contaldo adds: “They made it look easy, but you have to remember these nonnas used to cook on charcoal. There was hardly anything, everything was precious. In summertime you had the best time because you could forage for everything and collect everything and then preserve things, because if you didn’t you would probably be starving come winter. It was nice for me to hear their stories. I’m quite old, but some of these nonnas are 20 years older and they told the stories of things I never experienced because I wasn’t a child after the war and I didn’t see the poverty. I was born five, six years after the war, but these nonnas saw some incredible hardships.”
Oliver explains: “When you look at these nonnas, there’s so much to learn. One thing is that kids are amazing and can do amazing things. Of course they can use and respect a knife, and if they grow up growing and picking great food, the outcome of that is a human that is fit to flourish in food and health, whether rich or poor. That feels like the most democratic, amazing thing in the world. That’s what is important for us to see from them. They were amazing; we didn’t plan to work with the nonnas for so long or to laugh and cry so much.”