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The child-friendly meal Jamie Oliver swears by

“You know, in our house three out of 10 dinners go according to plan – it’s always colourful to say the least."
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Getting to know Jamie Oliver isn’t really very difficult.

The affable cook-cum-food-activist chortles down the phone in the middle of the night, New Zealand time, full of “Hello luv, ’ow are ya’s?” and before long we are chatting away as if we’ve known each other for years. Which we have, sort of.

Jamie bounced into my life and that of many other Kiwis nearly 20 years ago as The Naked Chef, a young, energetic man on a moped breathing new life into the food we cooked.

Back then, he confesses, he had no idea that he would end up with a family of five children, an MBE, be the author of 39 million books worldwide, the owner of more than 30 restaurants, the star of many TV series and the man responsible for the UK introducing a sugar tax on soft drinks in a bid to curb obesity.

Jamie, wife Jools and their children.

“It’s nuts,” he says. “I never thought I’d reach as many countries as I have, and certainly not halfway around the world in New Zealand, but I’m very grateful. It’s a nice thing to do such a personal, intimate, friendly thing, which connects people.”

His latest cookbook, Super Food Family Classics, concentrates on recipes for cooking healthy meals for the family, which he is well qualified to do having just welcomed his and wife Jools’ fifth child, River Rocket, into the world on August 7.

“So far, it’s so good,” says Jamie. “The first month was amazing and really quite exhausting, but we’ve got two teenagers, a six- and a seven-year-old and we’re settling in. He’s certainly been well received,” he laughs.

River joins Poppy (14), Daisy (13), Petal (seven) and Buddy (six) in the Oliver family and both Jamie and Jools have been busy posting gorgeous pictures of their family on Instagram.

“I’ve got to be honest – it’s carnage all the time. Five kids running around, it’s busy, it’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s hormonal – everything is going on. I always thought two children was standard practice but it didn’t work out that way and I wouldn’t change it for the world. At home it is full of joy and love and, apart from the tears and the pain, it’s all worth it,” he says.

“I’ve got a 14- and a 13-year-old so that brings new challenges and I’m desperately trying to be a good teenage parent.”

Jamie says the one food which is a safe bet in his house is anything to do with pasta.

“You know, in our house three out of 10 dinners go according to plan – it’s always colourful to say the least – but literally anything with pasta will work. They’re also really good on breakfast; we try to mix that up quite a lot,” he says.

“As far as my life now is concerned, the book mirrors what is in our fridge and freezer. The chapter on food hacks [prepare-ahead standbys] is not just a cute idea – they genuinely are in my freezer every single week. The seven-vege tomato sauce in a batch is genius, and a super helpful one is buying a side of salmon when it’s on special for a tenner and jumping on it to make chunky jumbo fish fingers.”

Jamie says none of his children has decided to become vegetarian yet but the family eats vege meals twice a week, mainly because “you can if you know how to love it and do it – it’s a really good thing”.

Like everything Jamie does, the book resulted from public response to his Everyday Super Food book, which came out in 2015.

“The public globally told me that they want a safe place where every food choice is a good choice. And, to be fair, within the range of books I have done in the past there’s always been a mixture of green, amber and flashing red nutrition lights when it comes to the kinds of food I use in my recipes. Which is lovely in a book, but I think in this day and age people want one clean clear offer, so we did another TV series this year with Channel Four and this book has come out of that.

“It was a little bit like being in court with this book. I’ve been studying nutrition for the last three-and-a-half years myself, but I also have a nutrition team working with me. The point of the book is that it is completely structured, so all the breakfast dishes are under 400 calories, and all the lunches and dinners are under 600 calories – everything is balanced to give you the right amount of fruit and veg every day and also make what could be a bland dinner exciting and wonderful.

“So that was hard. Normally when I do a book, I cook 15 recipes a day, but with this one I was averaging three or four a day because they had to get the nutritionist’s sign-off.”

It is hard to imagine how hard Jamie works, especially because in recent years he has taken on the role of an activist fighting the alarming increase in obesity worldwide.

While he may be a celebrity chef to many, behind the scenes he is meeting with governments, attending World Health Organisation summits and setting up his Ministry of Food centres throughout Britain, Australia and the United States.

These centres are based on a British initiative from the Second World War, when the government set up a national network of food advisors and cooking teachers to educate the public about food and nutrition so they would be able to feed themselves properly during the years of rationing.

So what drives Jamie to be the activist he is?

“People really,” he replies. “I don’t mean it in a nice, worthy, pat-me-on-the-back way, but when you sell books for a living it’s kind of like a vote. After 20 years and 39 million books it’s like a relationship.

“I honestly feel that the relationship I have with the people who buy my books is super clear and super deep and pretty much as powerful as my marriage.”

Jamie says that while most of the stuff he does is not enjoyable, it is still a pleasure and an honour to do it.

“The experiences I have every year, which add to a greater understanding of big food corporations and government pros and cons, are to ultimately try to fast-track healthier outcomes for regular people.

“You can’t get it right all of the time. Generally, governments come and go like ships in the night every four years, and CEOs and CFOs change every four years. I’ve been working with governments now for 11 years,” he continues, “and I have to say that I can see the absolute downfall in parts of democracy. I’ve been through nine education secretaries in 10 years in England. If that was my head chef – having nine in 10 years – I would have been bankrupt six years ago.”

The core of Jamie’s work is that food is there to be enjoyed, but in most environments it’s very difficult to make the right choice.

“I’ve lived in the most unhealthy town in America (Huntington, West Virginia), which is debatably one of the most unhealthy towns in the world, and if you wanted to make the right choice you couldn’t. And that metaphor keeps repeating itself.”

So Jamie says he has spent the past few years “upping the ante”.

“I go to places like Davos in Switzerland to the World Economic Forum and meet with leaders and CEOs of multi-national companies so we can keep that dialogue going. We’re collaborating and being a pain in the arse.”

Eighteen months ago he was lucky enough to meet with the then Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, and was invited to the government’s open sessions on the obesity strategy.

“The stuff on the table was phenomenal, sure-fire things that would make so much change. But the one thing they didn’t want was the sugary drinks tax.”

However, in March this year Britain did introduce a 20 per cent tax on soft drinks, which will begin in 2018. Drinks with more than eight grams of sugar per 100 millilitres will be taxed at a higher rate than drinks with less than five grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. Companies making the drinks will pay the tax and the government will spend the estimated NZ$1 billion revenue on fitness programmes and extended school hours for children so they can take part in more sports.

While the introduction of a sugar tax has been suggested in New Zealand, our government has said it has no plans to implement it here.

“I have to say that the only reason it happened in England was because of me,” says Jamie.

“We did a documentary, then we ran a campaign and got over 100,000 signatures, which forced a debate in the House of Parliament and then every single medical institution supported us. So what we did through storytelling was make it impossible for someone in the privileged position of power in government to not do the right thing. The public was polled and we got a 75 per cent approval for a tax, which just proves that the impossible can happen.”

Jamie’s optimism is certainly contagious and he predicts that eventually New Zealand will follow suit.

“They will have to, because the cost of diet-related disease will prove too much in a country like yours. You won’t find an economist that will say you can afford it. They’ll tell you the opposite, so it will have to change.

“It’s all about common sense, love and timing.”

Listening to Jamie talk about obesity, food and the law, it is hard not to hear the passion and sheer force of will in his voice. This is a man who it must be very hard to say no to on a good day.

As we wind up the interview, I ask him about Christmas and if his family has a tradition they do every year.

“It’s always the decorating of the tree, which is literally the most horrible experience,” he says, laughing.

“There are tears, baubles breaking, heads knocking, then finally all the lights go off. We turn on the tree lights, take a picture and put it on Instagram and it all looks really nice, but no one knows of the carnage that has just taken place in the last hour.”

And then he signs off.

“Thanks darling, speak to you soon I hope, take care.”

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