AIB Featured Business Leader – Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver has turned his passion for cooking into an international obsession. From helping out in his parent’s restaurant as a child, he has become one of the world’s best recognised chefs. He’s been a hit on television, lent his name to supermarket brands including Australia’s Woolworths, and spearheaded a global campaign for better food education. He has his own supermarket food range, owns a string of restaurants in several countries, has published a number of cookbooks, and was estimated to be worth around $AU450 million by his fortieth birthday last year.
In comparison to his current stratospheric success, Oliver’s childhood was modest in its ambitions. Growing up in Newport, Essex, he was placed in the ‘special needs’ stream at his high school, Newport Free Grammar, due to his dyslexia. He eventually left school at 16, with two GCSE qualifications in Art and Geology (the nearest Australian equivalent would be a Year 10 School Leavers’ Certificate), and focused on his cooking skills by obtaining a National Vocational Qualification in Home Economics.
He may not have been academic, but Oliver was a skilled cook from an early age. His parents owned a pub in Clavering, and the young Oliver helped in the kitchen for pocket money from the age of eight. By thirteen, he was working alongside the chef on a busy Sunday, turning out 120 meals a night. After leaving school, he worked briefly in France before returning to Britain and working at a high-end Italian restaurant under his long-time mentor, Gennaro Contaldo. From there, he moved to trendy River Caf in London, where he was discovered by the BBC. The TV company was so taken by his natural charm and charisma in front of a camera that they offered him his own cooking show, and at the tender age of 23, Oliver fronted The Naked Chef. Immensely popular, the show made him an instant celebrity. Two years later, at 25, he married his childhood sweetheart Juliette Norton, with whom he has four children.
Building on his success, Oliver began to publish his own cookbooks, debuting with The Naked Chef. In 2000, he signed an endorsement deal with British chain supermarket Sainsbury’s, which catapulted him into wealth. After three seasons of The Naked Chef, he moved into more serious topics, filming the documentary series Jamie’s Kitchen, which helped disadvantaged youth find employment through cooking. That work, and his efforts to promote fresh food, brought him an MBE in 2003. By 2005, his brand was worth enough to put him on the Sunday Times’ Richest Brits under 30 list.
Oliver has continued to make a series of television shows, publish cookbooks and market cookware. Far from resting on his laurels though, he has also continued to push for greater food education and better eating habits for children.
It’s a cause that has gained him the admiration of many, but it hasn’t been without its toll. Food, after all, is a deeply personal issue, and his campaigns to influence how parents feed their children have been met with indignant criticism from people who feel attacked by his views. His 2005 campaign to improve school dinners in Britain led to him being named “The Most Inspiring Political Figure of 2005” in the Channel 4 Awards the following year, but it also saw the Health Secretary, Lansley, criticise him for “lecturing”. It’s not hard to see why: Oliver has said that people who have overweight children and “keep feeding their kids inappropriate food – that is child abuse. Same as a cigarette burn or a bruise.” Oliver has never been known for his temperate words: talking to the Guardian in 2011, he defended similar comments on his School Dinners program where he told parents that they were ‘arseholes’ if they gave children fizzy drinks.
His attitudes on parenting aren’t the only target for people’s ire. In 2014, with the ink still wet on his contract with Woolworths, an issue flared when it was revealed that farmers wanting to sell to Woolworths were being charged an extra levy in order to fund the advertising campaign around ‘Jamie’s Garden’.
But criticisms aside, it is clear that Oliver has made a very successful career out of doing what he’s passionate about. With an incredible work ethic and serious stamina, Oliver has achieved more before the age of 40 than most of us will in our lifetime. So severely dyslexic that he read his first book at the age of 38, he is the second most-published author in Britain after JK Rowling. We can only assume that the Jamie Oliver of the next 40 years will be just as worth watching as he was in that first appearance as The Naked Chef.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Evening Standard, news.com, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New York Times, Wikipedia, The Guardian and the Royal College of General Practitioners.