If Jamie Oliver tells you that you deserve a pay rise, but no one’s around to hear it, did it really happen? One of the slight issues of living on the opposite side of the world to most celebrities is you have to wake up in the wee small hours to talk to them on the phone.
So when Oliver, 42, tells me I’m “over-delivering” by sitting up in bed at 2am to interview him, who am I to disagree? The thing is, I had an inkling he might just be worth the early morning wake-up call and within about 11 seconds of our chat, I’m proven correct.
Jamie Oliver is the Jamie Oliver you want him to be: warm, personable, hilarious, somehow still down-to-earth despite being second only to J. K. Rowling when it comes to book sales in the UK.
Surprisingly, for a man who’s done not one, not two, but five different festive television specials in his career – Jamie’s Christmas With Bells On, Jamie’s Cracking Christmas, to name just two – he hasn’t released a Christmas cookbook until now.
“It wasn’t in the pipeline,” he says, chatting to NEXT as he drives down King’s Road in London.
“My publisher came up with it and I said, ‘Why on earth would I want to do two cookbooks in one year? That’s madness.’ I had a think about it and realised, ‘What an honour’. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put all of your greatest hits in one book. Hopefully it comes out every year at that amazing, special time.”
Oliver is, as you’d imagine, a total Christmas softie. Or to put it in Jamie-speak: He just bloody loves Christmas, do y’know what I mean? Midway through a spiel about Christmas dinner, he comes out with this pearler: “People just f--king love gravy, don’t they? They want a big ol’ jug of the stuff. There’s nothing worse than going to a party and there’s no gravy.”
As is his general modus operandi, Jamie Oliver’s Christmas Cookbook is all about making things as simple as possible for the household cook attempting to prepare a feast on the big day.
“People are nervous – sh--ting themselves, you know? The mother-in-law is coming around for the first time, you want to make a good impression. The awkward in-laws, or the dodgy boyfriend; the grumpy bastard you have to invite because they’re family but they always start having a whine about something. In the book there are cocktails that can turn a boring party person into someone wonderful. We can use food and feasting as a tool to hopefully create a nice time.”
In the Oliver household this year, they’re expecting around 30 people. Oliver is jokingly outraged by this number and blames it on the fact ‘everyone keeps breeding’, which is a little rich for him to say when you consider he and Jools have just had their fifth child: baby River Rocket has joined the similarly Sylvanian Family-named siblings Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom and Buddy Bear.
“Normally half the family goes to the in-laws one year and then us the next, so we’re always a biennial visit. But they’ve all come on the same bloody year! So it’s busy. But I love it to bits. I normally do a turkey and a goose, but I think this year I might do a porchetta as well. Christmas Day for us is about creating leftovers for the next week, really.”
As you’d expect from the family man, there’s a strong nostalgic feel throughout the cookbook. It’s dedicated to his beloved nan, with an accompanying story about the time she launched herself too enthusiastically at the Brussels sprouts and her party hat – and hairspray-laced 80s hairdo – went up in flames.
“The smell of hairspray and Brussels sprouts was everywhere… that’s Christmas, right? You never know what to expect.”
Oliver says there are elements of tradition to every family Christmas. In his case, they always tuck into his mum’s retro trifle and sit in the same spots around the table. But his favourite tradition is putting inappropriate gifts and jokes in the Christmas crackers. He pauses mid-question just to double check I know what he’s talking about – “Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but do you have crackers in New Zealand?” – before telling his best-ever cracker joke.
It was the time his nan and her new boyfriend – “She was in her late 80s at the time, bless her” – came to Christmas and Oliver had gone to the local chemist, asked for an empty Viagra packet and filled it with Maltesers.
“She opened it and she loved it and then when I told her it was filled with Maltesers” – you can practically hear him wiping the tears of laughter – “she looked genuinely pissed off. She’s not with us any more and that bit is part of Christmas, do y’know what I mean? All families are missing someone and it’s kind of a bit painful, but I think if the timing’s right, it can be a bit like medicine. Say a few words before dinner and talk about the people who aren’t there, have a chat and a cheers to them.”
Despite him being Mr Christmas (Nigella is obviously Mrs Christmas), there’s now a touch of irony to Oliver waxing lyrical about gravy and trifle, as he’s been a global champion of healthy food for so long.
His controversial Feed Me Better programme was a whopping 10 years ago; you may still recall the image of UK mums feeding their kids fish and chips through the gate as a protest to his healthy school dinners.
It’s still a bugbear for him – the week before our interview, he’s back in the press for calling parents who feed their young children fizzy drinks “a--holes”. But when asked if he feels like he’s fighting a losing battle, Oliver is far from downtrodden.
“There are a lot of things that make me upset, like politicians who don’t do their bloody job, or have no opinion, or are still wet behind the ears, or haven’t got enough fact or details in their life. And there’s loads of frustration, but the world is changing – supermarkets are starting to clean up their acts. There’s still a lot of misbehaviour. Everyone tries to blame the parents – and certainly there are some who should be blamed – but ultimately I think when you give the public really clear information, they make bloody good choices.”
He and Jools have taught all their kids to cook “although the teenagers kind of switch off a bit”, he admits.
“The parental journey is an interesting one, and often a thankless one, but you just try to have fun. I think it all works itself out in the mix, do y’know what I mean? Parents are a really important part of my audience that I try to look after – they’re so busy, they want to get involved in gardening and cooking, but they don’t want it to be complete carnage.”
When Oliver talks of his audience, he’s not just generalising – thanks to social media, he’s in constant contact with his readers. Between his various platforms, he has an audience of 20 million following his every move. It’s been one of the biggest learning curves of his career, he says.
“I’m 41 now – cracking on a bit – but when The Naked Chef first screened in New Zealand, I was 25. I could never talk to the audience, and so social media is really important in that sense. Certainly, for the last five cookbooks, they’ve all been nearly totally influenced by social media. I quite like that – I like the way it’s a conversation, not a speech.”
Considering Oliver is something of a million-dollar mogul now, his social media posts still feel refreshingly real.
When I tell him this, he jokes that I’m just politely saying they’re badly spelt, but when I insist they feel enthusiastically him, he sounds genuinely chuffed.
“Aw, I appreciate you saying that. I’d like to think if we went out and had a beer one night, you would think I was quite normal. I have an unusual life in some respects, but I’m still friends with about 80 per cent of my school year. My wife keeps me very honest, she has always been an important part of me being normal. And the kids – as you can imagine, times five – are very much the same.”
Us Kiwis might get the chance to have that beer with Oliver, when his oft-delayed Wellington restaurant finally opens. The Italian-themed eatery, which was supposed to be housed in the historic Public Trust building on Lambton Quay, has fallen behind due to the Australian group being “in flux at the moment”, but they’re in the process of sorting it out now.
“Once it’s back on track, New Zealand is straight back on the cards. I was so excited about Wellington; it’s been on the radar for two or three years.”
For now, this particular NZ to UK connection has to end, as my allotted interview time is up. He has places to go, people to see and it’s well past my bedtime. With a final “Smashing, mate”, Oliver asks if I’m doing the interview from my bed (of course) and if there’s a husband he needs to apologise to (luckily I’m single).
With a sign-off of “Sweet dreams”, Oliver tells me I’m the coolest journalist in the world. I think he might be my new favourite person, do y’know what I mean?
Feature image: Jamie Oliver's Instagram
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