On the surface, Jamie Oliver never seems to change. His trademark blue jeans and cowboy shirt combination, topped with blond scruffy hair, is always carefully maintained to project that affable, laddish persona we’ve come to love.
But scratch the surface and you’ll find a boy who’s grown up.
“Cook, presenter and CEO, I’m all of those. We’ve got around 6,000 staff now. Quite a lot of responsibility for a little boy from Essex,” he said, grinning widely and unable to hide his delight about the success of multiple Oliver enterprises.
The British supermarket Sainsbury’s may have made him a millionaire, but it’s Jamie who is keeping it that way.
Oliver’s first restaurants were not-for-profit labours of love, born largely, he reveals, of a deep need to give something back to the public he felt indebted for his success.
“Everything went straight back to the kids. Other chefs used to say to me, ‘What do you mean it’s a charity?’ They all thought I was completely bonkers,” recalls Jamie.
Now he’s focused on creating “healthy businesses” that are principled, offer genuine value to consumers and can help him fund more of his world-altering campaigns.
“There’s less in my bank account than there was 10 years ago. It’s all out there, it’s all working, it’s all doing stuff.”
With all this in mind, he’s just developed a range of “strategic” products for the 200-year-old British frozen fish firm Young’s, that includes fish fingers, fish cakes and pies.
“Rolling up my relationship with Sainsbury’s was about giving me a bit more time to do other things,” he said.
“It’s very easy for people to say this is just another job for Jamie… blah, blah, blah. But there are a million jobs I can do and a million I’m asked to do. And 98 per cent of the time I say, ‘No’.
“I pick my partners really carefully and Young’s have allowed me to spec every product to over-deliver. I’ve stood by everything the public would have expected of me.”
Whether you love Oliver’s desire to transform society from the ground up, or find him a touch overbearing, his obsession with the public’s wellbeing is genuine.
“What I’ve tried to do with all my campaigns is not only make a point, but get the supermarkets and retailers to buy in. With this, I’m going further upstream and going to the producer that goes to the supermarket,” he said.
Not to mention challenging the entrenched fast-food culture of the US in his spare time. And he does all this in the face of relentless criticism.
“As much as I’m proud of doing it, and I will continue to do it… it’s not much fun,” he suddenly blurted out whilst we were chatting about filming Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution in the States.
Although he was still grinning, lines of sad frustration started to cross his forehead.
“I’m not going there because I need a new career, or better opportunities. I’m doing it because no one else is and the biggest network in the US is giving me a prime-time slot.
“America’s very central to food issues, whether it’s farming or business. But when I’m fighting with bureaucrats and ministers, I’m also thinking, ‘When this comes out, people are going to hate your guts’.”
After two months across the pond he’s got his feet firmly back on Blighty soil now. Yet, he admits he’s already “disenchanted” with the Coalition government’s approach to food.
“The uptake of school meals has gone up in the last three years which has been a brilliant thing. And the nutritional standards I fought for, and which Tony Blair put in place, are in very good nick.”
But, he explains, local authorities are no longer required to report on take-up of school meals, as part of a recent government move to slash red tape, and new academies don’t have to meet those hard-won standards.
“I just think there’s some stuff you mustn’t mess with,” he said after a long pause.
You do wonder how he fits everything in, but perhaps he’ll start by taking his own advice, and pulling a few meals from the freezer.
“So if you can buy a good quality one, that’s economical, delicious and saves you half an hour … well, pukka.”
Ah, yes, some things never change.