Born in Clavering, Essex in the southeast of England in 1975, Jamie Oliver came to prominence in his mid-20s. Having started helping out in the kitchen of his parents’ pub at the age of eight, his true culinary career began as pastry chef at the London restaurant of “the godfather of Italian gastronomy” Antonio Carluccio.
But it was at The River Cafe over to the west of the city where his career really took off. He featured as part of The River Cafe team in a 1997 television documentary about the famous restaurant on the River Thames. With his lively confidence he stood out from the rest and two years later his own series, The Naked Chef, launched on the BBC.
Books, further TV series and restaurant chains followed and today a flourishing business exists bearing his name. In TV alone Oliver has an estimated global TV audience reach of 64 million, with more than 35 titles broadcast in 182 territories through 185 broadcasters.
So was building this empire as easy as it looked to his audience?
“There have definitely been challenges along the way,” he said ahead of his MIPCOM keynote. “I think the restaurant industry has always been a tough one. But for some reason, us restaurateurs keep going and keep working around new fashions, trends and challenges, like the economy and labour. It can be very tough, but it’s an amazing industry.”
Alongside his businesses, Oliver has spearheaded a number of social campaigns, for example helping to train disengaged young people into the catering industry, and successfully changing school meals across the UK towards a healthier diet for millions of children. Many witnessed his passion in a famous episode of one of his series, in which he broke down crying with frustration while trying to establish his childhood obesity campaign in the US.
“Caring about something only guarantees one thing — and that’s a bumpy ride,” Oliver said. “I think humans are quite predictable, and often we don’t change until the pain of not changing becomes worse than change itself. It doesn’t matter if you’re proved right or wrong — or if you’re in the US or UK — it’s all the same, you’ve just got to crack on. Everyone judges things on a scale of win or fail; on or off; light and shade — but in reality it’s not like that. Every conversation and campaign is progress — it’s moving things up and on. I’m happy to be a small part of what I consider to be progress within the world of public health, food, farming, child health — the lovely important stuff.”
But being a campaigner didn’t come naturally to him.
“I was never particularly political,” he said. “But I do think that you evolve depending on what you’re exposed to. If you can see how things are unjust — if you know we can do so much better, and give kids so many more opportunities — then it changes you. I have a really unusual job that puts me in very unusual positions. But I’d like to think my response and my drive to make change is ultimately a human response, and a kind one.”
FremantleMedia International recently put its distribution might behind a new series, Jamie Oliver Productions’ Jamie’s Quick & Easy Food, focusing on fast meals with just five ingredients. Initially commissioned for the UK’s Channnel 4 in 2017, it has already sold to over 120 territories internationally.
Yet despite his global success, Oliver’s style remains very British. “I think being British has always been about being open-minded and actually being quite international,” he said. “Modern Britain is made up of layer upon layer of immigration from different countries and cultures. I’ve always felt comfortable fitting in with different cultures, especially in terms of food. I think fitting in, having fun, sharing, learning and finding the exciting part of any unfamiliar culture is what it’s all about, really.”
And if he had the last 20 years again, would he do anything differently? “Of course there are thousands of things we’d all do differently if we had the chance. But for me, probably the only answer that stands true is spending more time with family and friends. In the end that’s all that matters — any mistakes are there to teach you. As my Nan would say: ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’.”
Jamie Oliver’s Media Mastermind Keynote is on October 15, at 12.10, in the Grand Auditorium of the Palais des Festivals
This and more in the MIPCOM Preview magazine; read it in full here…!