Jamie Oliver: TV star and man on a mission

London (AFP) –


With his often simple but inventive dishes, British chef Jamie Oliver revolutionised home cooking for his compatriots -- but could not save his restaurant chain from going under.

Oliver's restaurant group, comprising 25 outlets across Britain, collapsed Tuesday with the loss of 1,000 jobs, leaving him "devastated".

Oliver's fresh looks, messy hair, scooter riding and relaxed banter has earned him many fans around the world who watch his television shows and bought his books in their millions.

The 43-year-old, now a multi-millionaire, had cooking in the veins.

He grew up in the village of Clavering in Essex, eastern England, where his parents ran a gastro-pub and he had his first attempts at cooking in the kitchens.

Oliver had a tough time at school due to dyslexia. He completed reading a book for the first time at the age of 38. He went to study cookery at Westminster Kingsway College in London aged 16.

"I think I had a lot to prove", Oliver told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

"I did so, so badly at school, I had to prove myself at work. Even though some people think I'm a middle-class kid from a private school background, I'm not.

"My dad had nothing and I worked in a family business so it couldn't be more opposite."

His first job, aged 19, was as a pastry chef at chef Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street restaurant in London.

He learned about Italian cuisine and forged a close relationship with his mentor Gennaro Contaldo.

Oliver moved to become a sous-chef at The River Cafe where his appearance in a 1997 BBC television programme turned heads. He was swiftly offered his own show.

- Jeans and t-shirt -

Two years later, "The Naked Chef" hit the small screen and a star was born.

Rather than get bogged down in technical terms and fancy utensils, Oliver, wearing jeans and t-shirt and exuding natural enthusiasm, incessantly described the food before him as "great" or "fantastic".

However, it was not all plain sailing.

"I'm never happy with things, so striving for perfection can be quite tiring. I also tend to make extra work for myself," he told The Guardian newspaper.

In 2002, he sunk a large chunk of his fortune into creating Fifteen, a London restaurant staffed with disadvantaged youngsters. The project was chronicled in the documentary series "Jamie's Kitchen".

Promoting a healthy and balanced diet, with fresh and well-sourced products, he went to war with junk food in 2005, lashing out at the burgers, fries, and lack of fruit being dished up in school canteens in the TV series "Jamie's School Dinners".

"We are killing our children" with junk food, said the father of five, who married his childhood sweetheart Juliette Norton in 2000.

He campaigned for a tax on sugary soft drinks -- something the British government introduced in 2018 -- and for junk food adverts to be banned on television before 9:00 pm.

- Controversy -

But for all his popularity, Oliver has been no stranger to controversy.

He is regularly criticised for attacking the processed foods that the poorest in society can afford, and for his tie-ups with big supermarket chains, such as Sainsbury's from 2000 to 2001 and Tesco from 2018.

Oliver was accused of Jamaican cultural appropriation in August last year for calling a new product "punchy jerk rice".

He was blasted again in December last year for his £5 million (5.7 million euro, $6.4 million) deal to launch a new deli range in Shell fuel stations.

Oliver continues to make significant profits from books and products bearing his name.

In 2017, the tide began to turn for his restaurants and he was forced to close a dozen Jamie's Italian outlets, launched nine years earlier.

On Tuesday, administrators KPMG were appointed to run the chain and close all but three of its 25 restaurants.