'There are some proper idiots in the social media scene who will charge you for breathing' - Jamie Oliver on influencers
On what began as an 'escape' to Italy and ended up taking two years, chef Jamie Oliver learned the secrets of the nonnas - the matriarchs of Italian food. Here, he tells Leslie Ann Horgan how their way of cooking, with few ingredients and a lot of love, should be a lesson for everyone from home cooks to governments
Jamie Oliver looks up at me, black marker hovering over a copy of his latest book, and asks: "Will I sign it for you, darlin', or for someone you love?" Somehow I suppress the urge to say "Awwwww" right into his face, and instead ask him to make it out to my sister. "Hazel is a lovely name," he says, as he scrawls a 'big kiss, Jamie O' on the page. "That was my granny's name." Cue another internal "Awwwww" from me.
We've been talking about lovely things like grandmothers, as well as not-so-lovely things such as childhood obesity, for the past half hour and by the end of our conversation I'm brimming with feel-good energy. Perhaps it's the fact that it's a sunny 32°C here in London while at home it's raining, or the fact Jamie HQ is bright, welcoming and filled with flowers and hip décor (I want to steal at least half of the funky wall art, starting with a postage stamp-style print of Princess Leia). But right now it seems to be all down to the celebrity chef himself, who has a determination to make the world a better place that's genuinely uplifting.
Usually the cynic in me would note that a) this is a highly skilled interviewee and top-notch brand manager whose job it is to be nice to journalists and b) it is probably easier to think about the big picture when you've made more than €100 million along the way. But today I'm choosing to err on the side of positivity and surrender to the Jamie Oliver charm.
In fact, positivity is a central element of the Jamie Oliver way of life. "I had a chat with one of my daughters the other day and I was trying to explain that you choose to be happy or positive in a day. She didn't really understand it," he says. "I was saying that it's really normal in a day to feel like s**t when you wake up, look in the mirror and look like a bag of s**t and think, 'I feel a bit grumpy today.' But it's just not acceptable. You choose how you attack that day, and you've got to try to bring a bit of sunshine into it.
"There's a lot of bad stuff out there, and I think you've got to be grateful and to just try to not be a moody b*****d. You've got to choose to try. I come into here every day and people look at me for not just an answer but for a mood. You've got to smile and have a laugh."
He has championed new cooking talent, including the likes of our own Donal Skehan and The Happy Pear, through FoodTube, his hugely successful channel on YouTube. "There are some proper idiots in the social media scene who will charge you for breathing, but in my opinion the best of digital is in collaboration. I'll do something for your channel if you do something for mine. It's like old-fashioned bartering - I'll give you a pint if you give me some cheese. I really like that because it's got a really good heart. It's been a real pleasure from my point of view."
When Jamie smiles, it's one of those slow, spreading smiles that lights up his entire person. In reality he's less giddy and a lot more intense than his fizzy-bordering-on-manic on-screen persona, but the smile - well, I can see how it could be deployed to make the world a better place.
There are plenty of smiles as he recalls the two years of travelling that went into making his new book, and accompanying TV series, Jamie Cooks Italy. His fans will know that his books are peppered with Italian dishes; he's already released a Jamie's Italy cookbook, and there's the chain of Jamie's Italian restaurants, one of which is in Dublin's Dundrum Town Centre. What is it that draws him back to Italy? "I've worked and cooked and travelled and bought olive oil and wine and charcuterie from Italy for nearly 22 years now," he says, "but the reason that we've gone back now is that me and Gennaro, I think we needed a bit of an escape."
Gennaro is, of course, Gennaro Contaldo, the restaurateur, cookbook author and TV presenter who is Jamie's mentor and, as he writes in the introduction to the book, "dear best friend". The two first met in the late Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant in London, where Gennaro took the young chef under his wing. I did a double take earlier when, as I was waiting in reception, Gennaro strode by, dressed in chef's whites with coral trousers and funky trainers. The space here is open-plan so, as Jamie and I chat on a (trendy) couch, Gennaro is in the kitchen behind us making pasta dishes.
For Jamie Cooks Italy, 69-year-old Gennaro provided an intergenerational link, as well as a cultural one, between Jamie and the last doyennes of Italian cooking - the 'nonnas'.
"It means a mum or grandmother, a cook who grew up in a time without fridges, freezers, gas, electric - any modern conveniences. They're the matriarchs of old-school cooking," Jamie says. "I really believe that this is the last generation of proper, old-school nonna." And so, with Gennaro's help, he set about collecting the recipes of nonnas, from Miriam in Tuscany to Maria in Sicily.
"It was a very challenging and tough project from an operational point of view. It took longer than we thought and was completely over budget. We underestimated the enormity of the time required to get the gold. You have to spend time with the nonnas and get their trust, and try to get to that little girl inside. I know it sounds romantic, but generally speaking they're in a position of wisdom and reflection and they can look at everything very subjectively. Like family and love and husbands and loss… We never really planned for that but the series and the book became less about recipes and more about life, and more about soul really. It's about family and nourishment, and the concept of 'to love, to cook, to give, to feed'."
Having grown up in a pub, he says he's always been comfortable around older people, and ageing himself has brought a new focus on the wisdom that can be gleaned - as well as the fun to be had - with older generations: "We laughed a lot making this but we cried a lot too."
There were also some more prosaic challenges. "There was their age to contend with: you're halfway through a recipe and they start hallucinating or want to sleep… In a completely respectful way you have to just go with the flow.
"It was one of the best things I've ever done. In a weird way we sort of learned to un-cook, because a lot of stuff they do so brilliantly is not what you're taught at college. It's theoretically incorrect - but I know whose food I'd rather eat."
In an industry run on ego, it's somewhat unusual for a top chef to admit that there's anything they don't know. Is he still learning? "That's what I went out there for. No one is above learning - no one. I think you can learn from children, you can learn from non-cooks - with food, everything is genius in the appropriate place or time. It's not one-size-fits-all. I think you can have fun with food; you can take the piss with food. You can still love it through taste and flavour, but you can really disarm people through how you serve it or where you serve it."
The big lesson from the nonnas was to cook with local, seasonal produce and keep waste to an absolute minimum. It's a philosophy that ticks off every buzz- word of the modern, fashionable approach to cooking - but one that was born out of poverty and necessity. "Take seasonality," Jamie explains. "That's not just about flavour, it's about money as well. Generally, if it's in season, then it's cheap, and it's super nutritious, and it's not going to have to travel too far, so impact and waste are minimised."
He seems genuinely moved by the stories of how the majority of the nonnas he met made do in a level of poverty that's incomprehensible in the modern era - pasta being made when they had nothing more than flour and water to feed a family with. It frustrates him that where once the poorest among us were the most creative in their cooking, now the same sector of society doesn't cook at all in Britain.
"We've all been to school and there's a sort of hierarchy around what lessons are more important than others, but food - the life skills of cooking, knowing how to shop and budget, and the basics of nutrition - it's just considered a nice, cute luxury. If communities don't know how to cook or to budget, you can absolutely model not just ill health and lack of productivity and absenteeism and a less healthy, happy life, but also earlier mortality and cost. That's why if I did have one wish, it would be that every kid leaves school knowing how to cook 10 recipes to save their life."
Loving and caring about food and cooking has, he says, instead become the preserve of the "posh" middle classes. "Nothing could be further from the truth. The best food I've ever had in my life has been from poor communities that love food. They know how to duck and dive, and cook and shop, and celebrate and have a party. I've seen more posh people eat s**t food than the opposite.
"If it was true that great food, and the great things surrounding the dinner table and those memories, were only for the rich, then I definitely would give up and just become a carpenter. But I know that's the great untruth."
The sugar tax which was introduced in Ireland in May - which adds as much as 60c to a 2-litre bottle of sugar-sweetened drinks - came a month after the British tax, which Jamie had lobbied long and hard for over the preceding decade.
"None of us liked the idea of a tax - even my team thought that I was a nutcase wanting to dedicate 18 months to telling the story of why we need a sugary drinks tax - but it is an absolute piece of genius. In the current climate we need some symbolic examples that say, 'If you don't behave, you will get a slap.' When you are the single biggest source of sugar in kids' diets and it's only getting worse, then the tax is not only just, but it's timely and symbolic."
He's not eager to take the credit for it being 'Jamie's tax'. "The public got a sugary drinks tax; I didn't. All we did was tell a story in a documentary and then get the public to force debate. What we fought for is to ringfence the tax. Now we've got about £500 million of new money going into British primary schools for sports and breakfast clubs. It's important that Ireland gets the money from the tax and gets it in schools."
The other major impact of the tax was that by the time it was implemented, two-thirds of the drinks market had reformulated their products to reduce sugar content. "Job done," he says with a smile.
This summer, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, put forward plans to ban junk-food advertising on the city's bus and Tube networks, as well as the opening of new hot-food takeaways within 400m of schools. These were measures that Jamie had lobbied for after they were shelved at a national level. So what's the next step?
"The next step really is that there is no one bullet. No one has fixed this globally, so there is no example. So you would ideally do lots of little things in lots of areas to make us all just generally get it right. Getting all of those ministries and convincing all those businesses to do it is far from impossible, but it involves complete conviction, single-mindedness and great leadership. We haven't had that. Then, the average stay of a minister or a CEO is three years, so everyone is fighting for their Christmas bonus for now. If you really care about supporting parents and child health, then you need a 25-year strategy. The big disease is short-termism."
I wonder if it's a heavy responsibility having to parent the nation, as it were? "It definitely weighs. It's tough but that's the job and you crack on. And it can also be also a joy."
Speaking of joy, does he agree that, be it through restrictive diets or processed ready meals, we've somewhat lost the joy in food? "You can only find the joy in food when you've done it yourself," he says thoughtfully. "We have a fairly high proportion of people in the last three generations who have not been taught to cook at home or in school, so we're not fully able to even see what's beautiful on our own doorstep. Ireland is full of amazing products, whether it's seafood or meat or vegetables - but you can't necessarily see that if you don't know how."
Do celebrity chefs not have to take some responsibility for their part in the loss of cooking traditions, though? After all, these days it's more common to Google Jamie's take on a recipe than to ask your mum how she makes it. "I think what we learned from the nonnas was that you have to fight to keep cooking alive," he counters. "You can completely lose a tradition based around the geography of your country or the produce of a region in five years. There's many examples of this - people just get out of the habit of it. So the nonnas were saying, 'Please share this: no one in the village cooks this any more, the young ones can't be bothered to do this.' It wasn't me pushing it; it was them pushing it."
Back home, I wonder if the roles are reversed - does he feel like an elder statesman of the food community or is he still a young upstart? "I definitely do feel like the elder statesman!" he laughs. "But I think food is really good at transcending age, religions, countries, language."
He makes the point that there are few other outlets for emerging talent than the digital space. "If you analyse TV in the last 20 years, unlike music or comedy, which is virile with new talent - or TV concepts where they'll accept someone new at the end of the table, and let them have a go and sink or swim - cooking is pretty frigid. No one has come through in 20 years if you really look at it."
To finish our interview, I quote from the book where Nonna Linda from Puglia, married for 66 years, shares the advice that "you've got to learn to put up with a man". Did Jools - with whom he celebrated his 18th wedding anniversary this summer - have to learn to put up with him? "Yes," he says emphatically. "I should have edited Nonna Linda's words and said 'learn to put up with each other'. Because I have been married for nearly 20 years, people do ask for advice. Maybe when I've been married for 40 years, I'll feel qualified to give some! I do think that patience is a really big bit," he laughs. "You've got to put up with each other. But Jools probably deserves a medal!" Awwwww.