The ‘crushing’ fall of Jamie Oliver

 

HAD anyone ever really heard the word 'pukka' before April, 1999?

As the world stared down the coming new Millennium and the sheen was coming off Cool Britannia, a 22-year-old appeared on TV screens in the UK and with his first 'pukka', indelibly changed the food scene forever.

This year marks 20 years since The Naked Chef was first aired and introduced a laddish, cheeky Essex boy who knew his way around a mortar and pestle to the world.

In the decades since then, Jamie Oliver has become a global superstar and one of the most powerful forces in the food industry. Along the way he amassed a staggering $260 million fortune, married, had five children and built a global empire.

However, for his vast successes, there were signs that the Jamie Oliver behemoth was not all sunshine and Amalfi lemons.

In 2015, he admitted that he had "f**ked up" 40 per cent of his business ventures.

More recently, it is reported he lost $160 million of his own money over the last five years.

Then, in May this year, the news broke: Oliver's vast empire - which at its peak spanned more than 40 restaurants - was toppling, despite the wealthy chef having put about $44 million of his own dosh into the business.

Twenty-two of his remaining 25 businesses were immediately shuttered (the other three are operated by new owners) with more than 1,000 people losing their jobs.

It was a crushing moment for a man who had built his business behemoth on his ebullience and charisma.

So how did the pukka lad from Essex go from cheeky chappie to unbelievably wealthy titan, to facing the embarrassing fallout of his toppling empire?

PUB TIES

Oliver's food story started in on place: a pub called The Cricketers his parents Trevor and Sally bought (and still own) in Essex.

From age five, Jamie was in the kitchen helping out and by eight-years-old, he "had a knife longer than my arm and I could cut like a b*tch", he once told the Guardian.

While he was a less than spectacular student and was in a special needs class for English, he soon worked out where he wanted to be.

At age 13 his father took him to work in another nearby restaurant and within weeks the adolescent had replaced an adult chef in charge of the cold starters section.

Oliver was only five-years-old when he started helping out in the kitchen of the pub his parents owned in Essex. Picture: Michael Bradley
Oliver was only five-years-old when he started helping out in the kitchen of the pub his parents owned in Essex. Picture: Michael Bradley

That same year, he started working in his parents' pub's kitchen, producing up to 120 meals-a-night with the joint's chef.

After school he entered catering college where he was soon earning high marks.

"It was like, 'Oh, I'm not crap after all'," he has recalled.

It was during his teenage years that Oliver formed a partnership that is still going strong, meeting Juliette Norton. Jools, as the world has come to know her, has been a presence on-screen and off since then.

 

THE NAKED CHEF

After studying, London called with Oliver finally landing job at the renowned restaurant, the River Cafe. In 1997, fate intervened.

One day a colleague called in sick, meaning Oliver had to come to work on what would otherwise have been a day off. That day just happened to be one when TV cameras were in the kitchen to shoot a documentary about the fabled Italian dining institution.

His natural charm was immediately apparent to producer Pat Llewellyn, who had also created the Two Fat Ladies. Despite Llewellyn's belief Oliver was made for the screen, TV bosses were less than sure and the concept of an Oliver-fronted show was turned down for almost a year before the BBC finally signed on the dotted line.

Jamie Oliver ‘The Naked Chef’.
Jamie Oliver ‘The Naked Chef’.

The concept was simple: Oliver would cook at home for friends and family, turning out simple but delicious food that was unstuffy. The only problem was that the flat he shared with Norton was too small.

Instead, Llewellyn rented a hip east London pad for the couple who promptly moved and got to work. (The Guardian reports that Oliver did indeed like to slide down the banisters.)

Oliver was nervous at first, trying to cook and talk, so Llewellyn worked out the best way to keep Oliver relaxed was to chat to him, asking questions while he sliced, diced and sauteed.

It was TV magic.

Nearly overnight, Oliver became a bona fide star with a book deal and a supermarket endorsement following, and in the coming years, his bank account only grew. Then he decided to chance everything on a totally radical idea.

CHANGING LIVES

In 2002, with his first baby on the way, Oliver put about $1.1 million (his entire life savings from his cookbooks) into setting up the Fifteen Foundation.

The concept was simple: He would take 15 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, train them to be chefs and then get them to run his very first own restaurant, all of which was filmed for the documentary, Jamie's Kitchen.

When the business opened, critics raved.

The Times food reviewer Giles Coron said: "To see a kid of 27 simultaneously cooking four courses for his harshest critics, tackling urban unemployment and performing for television while the bankers pore greedily over his mortgage details redefined for me the concept of bravery."

There were long queues to score a table (Bill Clinton was not even able to sneak in for a booking) and Oliver was applauded for his innovative concept.

 

FOOD FIGHT

Oliver's campaign to improve lives through food was just getting started.

In 2005, he launched Jamie's School Dinners with the goal to improve the millions of lunches fed to British schoolchildren, strongarming the Blair government into improving standards.

His quest to improve nutrition took him to Rotherham in Yorkshire for Jamie's Ministry of Food followed by Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution that saw him take the concept to West Virginia and Los Angeles.

Later, documentaries about food production - Jamie's Fowl Dinners and Jamie Saves Our Bacon - followed.

While some critics claimed he had no right to dictate what other people chose to consume, elsewhere his efforts were rewarded. In 2003 he was awarded an MBE and won the 2010 TED Prize.

EMPIRE

He was also making a lot of money. A lot.

The first outpost of his restaurant empire was Jamie's Italian which opened in Oxford in 2008 and which saw customers lining up to experience his take on rustic and affordable (but high quality) Italian food.

For the better part of the next decade, Jamie's Italian spread around the world with 40 outposts including in Adelaide, Perth, Bisbane and Sydney, alongside Canada, Cyprus, Iceland, Ireland, Russia, Turkey, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Oliver was expanding elsewhere. Jamie magazine debuted in 2008. He launched Union Jack, a smaller chain of British-themed restaurants along with Recipease, a cooking school slash cooker shop brand with a number of London stores.

In 2011, teaming up with American chef Adam Perry Lang, Oliver added Barbecoa, a BBQ meat-centred chain, to his roster of ventures.

DOWNFALL

In recent years there have been signs that everything was not quite so sunny business-wise.

Recipease was shuttered in 2015, followed two years later by Union Jack. The same year, his eponymous magazine was closed.

His personal brand had taken some hits as well.

A leaked list of words that staff at Oliver's restaurants should use to explain dishes, including "mega", "wicked", "magic" and "scrummy" hit the internet, undermining the supposed casual charm and authenticity of the restaurants.

Late last year it was announced that he had controversially inked a $9 million deal with Shell, despite years of environmental campaigning, to open hundreds of deli counters inside petrol stations across the UK.

The first sign of significant trouble came in 2017 when Oliver received a "midnight call" telling him his restaurant empire was running out of money.

In a bid to save the dozens of restaurants, Oliver pumped millions of dollars of his own savings into the business.

In total, Oliver has said he injected more than $40 million of his personal wealth into the faltering enterprise.

Sadly, it was not enough to save them. The axe fell in May this year, with news breaking that the vast majority of Jamie's Italian outposts would close, seeing 1,000 workers lose their jobs.

"The past few months have been the most disappointing of my life," he recently told the Timesin July.

"In 13 years, we must have turned over around £1 billion. We must have employed around 20,000 people. We had seven years of the best of it."

THE NEXT COURSE

Despite the very public failure of the Jamie Oliver restaurant empire, Jamie Oliver the man is still doing pretty well. He has sold 27 million branded Tefal pans and he is Britain's best-selling nonfiction author.

Aside from his restaurant arm, he also has a highly lucrative publishing, TV and licensing company that still rakes in millions every year.

Still, this might not be curtains on Jamie Oliver, restaurateur.

Speaking last month, the 44-year-old said: "With the restaurants, we had the best of times and the worst of times. Now I've seen a lot, know a lot, smelt a lot, felt a lot. I won't ever operate in the same way again.

"But I still think there is a lot more to give. I'm not going to go off into the sunset."

Daniela Elser is a freelance writer with 15 years' experience who has written for some of Australia's best print and digital media brands. Continue the conversation @DanielaElser



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