Jamie Oliver doesn’t have happy memories of school. “Cooking saved me when I was struggling with the writing stuff at school,” he says with a gentle sigh.
“The life I was living at school was one of just being s— at everything and then [being sidelined as] special needs, getting taken out of classes and stuck in an attic with three dudes, having a very analogue approach to our problems.”
Jamie’s “problem” was that he was dyslexic, although at the time it wasn’t diagnosed or understood. When he looked at a collection of words in sentences they would dance around the page and mess with his brain.
Jamie’s teachers assumed he was simply not very bright and his immediate response was to attempt to focus his mind by tapping on the desk, which only got him into more trouble.
Now, at 47, Jamie sees his dyslexia as a gift. Despite the heartache at the time, it triggered a rather marvellous well of unconventional creativity, allowing him to see things differently from everyone else. And that became his silver bullet as his diverse businesses flourished, branching out in all sorts of directions, which is why it’s so frustrating that back then his teachers only saw a boy with learning difficulties.
“I think there are about 20 or 30 per cent of kids who are neuro-diverse and struggle with traditional learning,” he tells me. “I really do believe in teachers and I really do believe in schools, but I don’t think the government takes it seriously enough and allows these kids to find the confidence to feel hopeful about their challenges.”
Fortunately, Jamie found another outlet, which was also the birthplace of his later successes. Jamie’s parents ran The Cricketers, a country pub in the pretty village of Clavering in Essex, and it was here, working in the restaurant’s kitchen, that Jamie found his calling. “Every weekend I’d have a job for pocket money, one pound twenty an hour. I was never skint.
I always had the trainers I wanted because I bought them myself. Working in the kitchen was freedom. Even on a bad day I’d always learn loads of things. I didn’t feel like a loser.”
Returning to the written page to write his debut children’s novel was pretty confronting for Jamie and considering those dark classroom experiences, pretty courageous. But when he started out, Jamie tells me, it was a purely personal project, a bedtime story he had created in his head for his three youngest children – Petal, Buddy and River – that he wanted to record.
He never dreamed of becoming a published author.
“Because I’ve always struggled with reading there’s a time when your kids, at not a very old age, get better than you at reading. It happens when they’re around 10. They haven’t got the patience for Dad to read any more so they would always say, ‘Dad, can we just have a story from your head?’
“It was only in lockdown that I thought I might collate the story and try and beat a few demons and get it down on paper. I started writing it literally off the top of my head, something I was doing as a regular dad not thinking anything about it.”
But Jamie also wanted his story – which is called Billy and the Giant Adventure and is aimed at children aged 7 to 11 – to carry some key messages for kids like him who find traditional education methods a challenge. “I was calling on my childhood memories, lessons I’ve learned,” he explains. “My daughter was struggling with school as well, so I was trying to have metaphors in the story that would relate to her. So, instead of me telling her, the story tells her.”
WATCH: Jamie Oliver in the kitchen with his son, Buddy. Article continues below video.
Jamie’s tales were episodic, featuring core characters in different situations, and he didn’t really have a plan of where the whole thing was going. “My process has genuinely been very wonky, zigzaggy … not linear,” he explains. “What I’ve heard [from writers and publishers] is that there’s a normal, general structure to story writing and I really haven’t followed that. It’s almost like a collection of stories; they do work together but they’re individual. That surprised me because I really didn’t see that. But I think I’m taking it as a compliment,” he laughs.
At first Jamie started recording his tales – “because I kept forgetting the names of the characters and the kids kept correcting me”. Then he took the plunge. “After about a year I thought, you know what, I want to try and put this together as a book. It was genuinely just a laugh, and it was just for us – me and my kids.”
Jamie has sold 46 million cookbooks around the world but had never before worked with the written word, so he really was putting himself on the line. “I’ve never actually written a cookbook, I’ve only ever dictated them onto a recorder,” he confesses. “Black and white and fonts and words and spelling and handwriting are an issue – always have been – so getting the actual book on paper was tough for me. One of the struggles was that in my head I was writing a script, not a book. They’re very different languages and are structured very differently. That was one challenge. The other one was that I couldn’t really do it in big blocks of time, so on a personal level I’d just do 15 minutes every day, almost like a meditation, just to get it down.
As it started to form more of a tangible book, then I’d do it in hour blocks, twice a week.
“It was a slow burner – four years – every word, every paragraph, every illustration has been a labour of love and it was probably the most nerve-racking book I’ve ever published.”
During that writing process something amazing happened. The man who in years gone by has admitted to only reading one book in his lifetime, found a connection he had never felt before, something that was always out of his grasp. It was like a light suddenly switched on and a new world was opening up.
“I fell in love with the power of writing, which I had never discovered before,” Jamie says, beaming.
You can hear Jamie’s voice in every step of the story, which is about nine-and-a-half-year-old Billy and his best mates, Anna, Jimmy and Andy, who venture into the out-of-bounds Waterfall Woods where magical “Sprites”, angry smelly “Boonas” and a friendly nature-loving giant reside. There, Billy risks his life in daring battles, unpicks the source of an environmental disaster-in-the-making and much more. Needless to say there are endless references to mouth-watering food and even some recipes … oh, and lashings of fart jokes!
Lead character Billy is obviously based on Jamie himself; a happy, smart, brave lad who, held back by his difficulties with academic learning, finds his own way to solve problems. “The ‘Billy-Boy way’ is a metaphor for there’s another way, don’t worry,” says Jamie. “Hopefully it’s just saying you don’t have to fall into convention. There’s always another way. Invest in friendships and trust, explore.
“I really started falling in love with the grey line between reality and fiction. There’s a lot of reality in the book that sounds like fiction and lots of natural history, lots of quotes. Jimmy’s character is inspired by my friend Jimmy, and [the British broadcaster and naturalist] David Lindo who had two little kids that were geniuses at 10 at nature and bugs and zoology. So, a lot of this is pulling on real characters I’ve met in my life – all of them, actually.”
Interestingly, the leaders in Jamie’s created magical worlds of the “Sprites” and the “Boonas” are women, and the smartest and most courageous character in the human world is Billy’s best friend, Anna. Is this because women rule his world?
“I didn’t intentionally do that, but I think I’ve realised I’m a massive feminist,” notes Jamie. “Even in my household with three girls and a mum. My flavour of feminism isn’t predictable. I don’t see the super-power in feminism being chippy.
I see it being calm and knowing and long-game, like little tea cosies.
“I employ probably 86-87 per cent women and that’s not intentional either; [but] the heart of a lot of what I do – and this is my opinion – requires quite maternal feelings and emotions. Men are really important and I need the men I’ve got in my business, but there’s not one thing I’ve ever done without the girls around me to support me.
“Most have been with me for a long time. A lot of them would take bullets for me and of course the feeling’s mutual. I think that’s quite precious to me.”
WATCH: Jamie Oliver and his family support #ClapForOurCarers campaign. Article continues below video.
A few weeks before our chat Jamie renewed his wedding vows to wife Jools in a beautiful ceremony on the beach in the Maldives with their five children looking on. It was something he had intended to do in 2020 on their 20-year wedding anniversary but was postponed because of the pandemic.
“It seems like a blink since the first wedding which we kept very private – apart from the paparazzi at the village church! We’ve always dreamed of going to the Maldives and it was just as you would have dreamed, simply amazing!” Jamie posted on his social media, along with an album of stunning pictures of the happy day.
“If I’m really honest, I thought it was a nice thing to do. It felt cute and like a perfect time to do it,” he tells me. Jamie’s two eldest girls – Poppy, 21, and Daisy Boo, 20 – were “leaving the nest” he goes on, and Jamie wanted them to know that back at home everything was “tight”, with Mum, Dad and siblings Petal, 14, Buddy, 12 and River, six, all still there if they need them.
But what started as a romantic bit of fun turned into something “very powerful” for Jamie, which he admits took him quite by surprise.
“Doing the vows again, I don’t want to be cheesy, but it meant something this time. I think first time around it’s all words, you haven’t proved anything, you haven’t done anything, you haven’t earned anything. Second time around, everything I said had meaning, which was really powerful.”
Jamie has never taken his marriage for granted and says the biggest lesson he’s learned is the importance of patience ” … and don’t hold grudges,” he adds. “But also, it’s not easy, marriage. It’s tricky. It’s tough. The fact that we’ve lasted 23 years and we’re still together, for me that was why doing it again was really lovely.”
Jamie accepts he is probably an old-fashioned romantic. “I like the idea of making Jools happy. As a person I get pleasure in other people and making people happy. I’m much better at giving presents than receiving them. Jools likes little things. So yes, I think I probably am a romantic.”
With the book we are seeing another side to the TV chef, and I wonder if all the crazy magic, humour, tear-jerking friendship stories and bizarre creations offer a glimpse inside Jamie’s head.
“The beginnings of it, for sure,” he muses. “I was talking to my eldest daughter yesterday about book two because they want me to write a second one. And the first one was so hard but the second one’s flowing, gushing, and now the world’s set up, the characters can be embellished.
“My daughter said, ‘Do you actually genuinely come up with that?’ – Yes!
I think my head’s always been full of a blend of inappropriateness, bonkersness and utter geekiness. Literally, if you and I went down the pub, I can promise you that we could have a giggle about something that’s borderline totally inappropriate, then something that’s quite emotional and romantic, and then something like photosynthesis that’s boring.
“Obviously on TV you only get to see a version of me. In this book you get to see a little extra bit of some of the stuff running about in my head.”
As his eldest daughters head into the world on their own paths, Jamie is aware that the family unit is changing fast. “I’ve found being a dad from age zero to 11 was a joy, effortless, easy, natural. From 13 to 19 it shocked and frightened the living daylights out of me and I was not prepared for that,” he laughs. When 13 hits, Jamie says, “It’s like a bereavement. Where’s that child gone? They’re completely not interested in me. Even Petal was heartily embarrassed by me as a concept and would rather walk down the street with anyone rather than me. I struggled with that on the first two, but now they’re coming back at 20 and it’s mainly positive.
“Poppy’s an amazing young lady, very private, very gentle, very decent. She’s gorgeous and I’m loving this stage. Daisy is wild and bonkers. She’s training to be a nurse and is incredibly empathic and good at making people feel comfortable. You only get let back in around this time, so that was part of the reason for the holiday as well.”
Now for the first time the males are in ascendancy in the Oliver home. “Yes, we are outnumbering the girls. But we’re just before the 13 moment with Buddy, who is still a lovely little boy. He’s not like a growing young man yet. We’re just on the cusp. Talk to me in a year though … We’ll see what happens.”
As The Weekly goes to press, Jamie was shocked and devastated by the terribly sad news of the death of fellow chef and good friend Jock Zonfrillo. Jamie was preparing to celebrate the launch of the new series of MasterChef, the cooking show which he had so much fun filming here in Australia, when he heard about Jock’s passing.
Jamie shared his grief in a heartbreaking tribute on Instagram:
“We had the best time working together for this year’s MasterChef. Jock was very generous to me with his time and spirit in the show and for that I was really grateful … Jock will be so very missed.”