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Jamie Oliver’s return to MasterChef Australia to remedy the grief

Returning to the set of MasterChef Australia to help steer a path through grief and spread happiness, the celebrity chef is also at a turning point – he opens up about failure, love, second chances and his endless reservoir of joie de vivre.
Jamie Oliver sitting off the side of a restaurant booth seat, looking at the cameraImagery: Getty Images. Instagram. Channel 10. Other photographs supplied and used with permission.

He’s arguably the world’s biggest celebrity chef and definitely the most exuberant, having risen to fame amid a flash of pans, into which he enthusiastically chucked knobs of herby butter and big, old lugs of olive oil. But we’re barely a minute into our interview and Jamie Oliver’s voice becomes brittle. His familiar face, so often lit up with creative zeal, is taut. The megastar chef has come to Melbourne to shoot season 16 of MasterChef Australia, where the warmly lit cooking arena has had its lights dimmed.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” Jamie, 48, says. “This sort of situation is very rare and it’s very painful. This was an incredibly important year to get right. We couldn’t get it wrong for obvious reasons. From my point of view I was here to support Andy [Allen, judge] and support the show, and that was it.”

Last year, Jamie spent two days on set filming season 15 of the beloved cooking show. The day before it was due to air, news broke that judge Jock Zonfrillo had died suddenly at the age of 46.

Jamie with season 15 judges Andy, Melissa and Jock.

The award-winning Glaswegian chef had been embraced by viewers for his gleefully raffish persona. He wore tailored suits with pocket chains, raved about native ingredients, and was patient and encouraging towards contestants. His screen presence was magnetic and his death was as shocking as it was sad.

The entire series had already been shot and so it aired – with the blessing of Jock’s widow Lauren Fried – as it was. For season 16, the producers had to think hard about how they’d execute a show known for its warmth and constancy with the tragedy still casting a shadow. They called Jamie and he answered. He told them he’d do whatever was needed to help.

“I came for two days last year. This year, it felt more appropriate to help bed-in and launch the judges. They call me a judge, but really I’m a guest judge and it’s been amazing,” he says of his two-week stint. “It’s a tough year but full of celebration and everyone’s thinking of Jock in the decision-making process. I am, and I think we’ve done it right.”

Jamie joins a refreshed team. Andy will remain, but Melissa Leong has left to focus on Dessert Masters. Stepping into the judging shoes is former contestant and first season runner-up Poh Ling Yeow – “who is the most amazing human on the planet”, Jamie enthuses – as well as food critic Sofia Levin and award-winning chef Jean-Christophe Novelli.

“Jock left a huge hole and it’s required an extra three people to even try to fill it,” Jamie says. “But in my heart, I feel like we’ve done it right.”

Some of Jamie’s characteristic gusto rises to the surface as he talks about one contestant, a 62-year-old who “hated most of the jobs that he’s had” but loves to cook. “You can just viscerally feel this thing that he’s always loved – coulda, woulda, shoulda!”

With new judges Sofia, Andy, Poh and Jean-Christophe.

These are the stories and experiences that keep Jamie coming back to the set. “I have been doing this stuff for 25 years,” he explains, “and this is the only type of show in the world that I would do like this.”

MasterChef has always exalted family, food and creative fulfilment, and there’s a redemptive quality to the format that gels with Jamie’s ethos – and Jock’s story too.

Jamie has frequently said that cooking saved him. And he says it again: “The kitchen was my saviour.” He has always been very open about his dyslexia and his trouble fitting in at school. Jock had written about his tough youth in Scotland, his addiction and homelessness, and the purpose he found sautéing and chopping.

“The reason I do MasterChef Australia is it’s actually, in my opinion, not a food show,” Jamie says. “It’s a show about hope and transformation. The food is just foreplay, in my opinion.”

We’re in a stark hotel room, dimly lit, surrounded by sombre greys, as Jamie ruminates on how a well-made meal is a pillar of happiness.

“Life is a bit colourful out there, so we do have three opportunities every day to have something delicious,” Jamie says, some of that swagger returning. “Food’s kind of cool. It’s a bit cooler than a lot of people think.”

Changing pace, Jamie gushes about Melbourne’s colourful Queen Victoria Market, just across the road, where he has spent the morning on a service challenge.

Back home in the UK, Jamie has another, more personal challenge on the boil. In exactly six days, his new restaurant, Jamie Oliver Catherine St, will open in London’s Covent Garden.

“We officially launch about 48 hours after I get back,” Jamie says. “So let’s just get rid of some of the jet lag and then we’re – bang! – back into service.”

Jamie’s restaurant in Covent Garden is his first foray back into hospitality since the failure of the Jamie’s Italian brand in 2019.

He did a soft launch before leaving for Melbourne and the new establishment has been secretly running, smoothing out any kinks, before Jamie’s return for the official opening. It’s his first foray back into the hospitality business since the collapse of his chain of Jamie’s Italian restaurants and the shuttering of his passion project, Fifteen, in 2019.

“It’s probably two years before I should have done it financially,” Jamie says. “But I just thought, ‘I’m going to get really old soon, so I might as well go for it.’ It felt right, most importantly.”

The closure of his restaurant empire hit him hard. Jamie allowed a film crew to follow him through the shell of one of the locations, where he was captured speechless and teary. About 1000 people lost their jobs. It was, Jamie says, “seven years of the best and then four years of the worst”.

The restaurants were wildly successful for a time and the decor was as popular as the food. Jamie would regale talk-show hosts with tales of customers nicking his custom-made toilet seats. But a range of factors put pressure on the business model.

Gordon Ramsay was among the allies who offered support when the restaurants failed, but it was his composer friend Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber who urged him to try again with the new establishment in Covent Garden.

Gordon has always been an ally.

Jamie recalls, “He said, ‘Please can you just do it?’ I said, ‘Alright. I can’t really afford it, but I will try.’ I just think it’s brilliant that he’s my landlord. Can’t wait for a rent review!” And there’s that famous laugh.

“Maturing as a human is about listening to your heart. The heart was like, ‘Do it! Get amongst it!’”

His ethos with his new venture is classic Oliver – simplicity, warmth, predictability and comfort. Shows like MasterChef highlight the artistry and creativity that fine dining can bring out in chefs and artisanal producers. Jamie says Catherine St is about the other thing food can give us: “Nice feelings”.

He adds, “It’s all the food of my childhood. I was working professionally, honestly, truly, from the age of 13, at weekends and all through my summer holidays. So it’s really the food from my age of 13 to 18. It’s the greatest hits of the ’80s.

“I’m doing what any good person that loves what they do does, which is, once the dust settles, to regather your thoughts and start again. For me, where to start again is home and family.”

So it’s a reflective moment in this grey hotel room where our interview traverses death and rebirth. Jamie is as he appears on screen – open, generous and quick to laugh. He talks about luck and courage, learning from failure and embracing it.

“Loads of people don’t want to talk about failure. It’s so important to talk about failure. It’s so important to talk about moving on. No one gets it right all the time.”

Crucial to his success is his authenticity. Jamie has achieved the sort of fame that landed his face on olive oil bottles. He sparked a UK-wide scandal when critics accused him of cultural appropriation for his recipe for jerk rice.

Despite his critics, Jamie’s enthusiasm is unwavering. The same phrases and curiosity that he’s known for today have been on display since he first appeared on TV screens.

It was in a 1997 BBC documentary about Christmas at the River Café that a young Jamie made his debut. Famously, he wasn’t even supposed to work that night. He appears in a few segments, flipping mushrooms in a silver pan over a gas grill. “Bit a lemon to give it a twang,” he says, tossing the bruschetta together with signature flair.

His “lovely jubbly” catchphrases caught the eye of producers who could see the potential in his likeable ease. The first episode of The Naked Chef previews all the qualities the public has come to know and love about Jamie.

He’s smashing up herbs with a mortar until they’re oozy, then jamming them into holes he’s poked in a leg of lamb. He’s chatting as he freewheels around the kitchen, making it look easy. He washes the herby butter out from under his fingernails before getting to work on some “outrageous” vanilla sugar, and – bish, bash, bosh! – he became a household name.

The years that followed brought more TV shows, recipe books, restaurants and major campaigns to improve the quality of food children were eating in British schools. His output is staggering. As a UK bestseller, he’s outclassed only by Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. He squeezed $590 million out of British prime minister Tony Blair for his school-lunches program. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for training 15 disadvantaged young people to become chefs.

Promoting a cooking video after his success on The Naked Chef.

His social-change agenda remains front of mind and he reels off a bunch of causes that have caught his eye. “The latest one is controlling marketing to children. Children are actively being hunted for junk food advertising.”

As he contemplates his next phase, Jamie has no intention of slowing down.

“It’s been a long journey – it’s been extraordinary,” he says. “The cooking has developed in a very linear way, but mentally and emotionally, most of the stuff people like me for now, I never was that. Like, I was always a nice kid, but I was never political. I was never an activist, a mentor or concerned about right and wrong. I wasn’t born like that. But the journey’s made me very exposed to some really amazing and really terrible things, and that’s shaped me as a person.”

On the question of who he turns to when he needs advice, he names his parents, Trevor and Sally, plus fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, who he calls his “north star”, and romantic-comedy writer Richard Curtis.

“But also, more recently, myself,” he says thoughtfully. “Weirdly, I’m trying to have a relationship with myself, which sounds really spooky and odd, but it’s taken me a while to realise that I can actually have – when I’m going to bed at night – a nice long chat about the good and bad bits. You know, talk to myself in the third person.

“I know that sounds a bit weird, but I find that really useful because ultimately you’re in this on your own. We all are and we’ve got choices to make. I have a lot of pressure on my shoulders to perform every day.

Jamie has written a series of children’s books.

“And what does that mean? It means, like, when you’re famous for being positive and full of beans – which, by the way, I largely am naturally, thank God – you can’t wake up a bit shit. You can’t wake up a bit lethargic. You’ve got to choose to power on, and get that energy and vibe. This might sound like rubbish, but I really believe in it.

“Being Jamie Oliver is a bit of a strange thing sometimes. But I do feel very grounded. I feel very loved. I feel like I’ve got a good family and even here on this production [MasterChef Australia], honestly, the kindness that I’m given is just beautiful.”

For all his success, family is at the cornerstone of Jamie’s world. His wife Juliette “Jools” Norton has been by Jamie’s side since before he was the Naked Chef and, last year, they renewed their vows in a beach ceremony in the Maldives with their kids, Poppy Honey, 22, Daisy Boo, 21, Petal Blossom, 15, Buddy Bear, 13, and River Rocket, seven.

“Post-40, I’ve found it very important to make myself do 15 minutes of something that makes me uncomfortable, just to make myself sort of bend my funny little brain somewhere else,” Jamie says.

“I need to fail and be uncomfortable again. I’m never really optimal unless I’m a bit uncomfortable.”

He and Jools renewed their vows with their kids in the Maldives.

For Jamie, that uncomfortable place has been storytelling or, more specifically, writing. Last year, he published his first novel for young readers, Billy and the Giant Adventure, defying the dyslexia that made his early years so miserable.

The second instalment, Billy and the Epic Escape, is due out this year and Jamie is, to say the least, pumped. His sprightly mind is already picturing a big-screen adaptation.

“I really think it could be good,” he says. “I’ll just work my tits off for the next 10 years and I’ll do it myself. I believe in the characters. Billy is my little mad, safe place. I’d love you to come into a room and watch me write. It’s bat-shit crazy. It’s like, ‘Woohoo!’ It’s full of love.”

In a way, the books serve a purpose much like his activism and his questioning push for change. The Billy stories are parables. They venerate difference and different ways of looking at things.

“If there’s any dyslexic kids out there that ever feel bad about not being able to conventionally write, read or pass their exams, just come and see the second-most-published author in Britain. I say that not to be an arsehole; I say it because I have to be an example. I was that kid.”

It’s his famous work ethic, his boundless enthusiasm and his willingness to make himself uncomfortable that make Jamie such an enduring public figure.

He understands the value of kindness, service and optimism – of not being, as he describes it, “a mood hoover”. It’s for all these reasons that, when MasterChef – a place of comfort and meal ideas for hundreds of thousands of viewers – faced a crisis, the team called Jamie.

“This show isn’t about controversy or conflict,” Jamie says. “It’s about joy. In a way, that’s what I’ve tried to do in my jobs over the years. It’s good to focus on the bright, not the dark. There’s enough dark.”

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