Twenty years ago this month, Mr Oizo’s “Flat Beat” was number one in the charts, ciabatta was getting the kind of write-ups jackfruit now garners, and Jamie Oliver bounded onto our television screens for the first time.
The Naked Chef premiered on BBC 2 in April 1999, and followed Oliver—back then an unknown River Cafe sous-chef—as he zipped around East London on a moped and cooked roast lamb with roughly chopped “veg” he’d haggled over at Borough Market. As a frantic breakbeat played over the opening credits, a shaggy haired Oliver insisted that food “has gotta be a laugh,” before explaining that the “naked” moniker in the show’s title “is not me—it’s the food!”
Oliver’s stripped back approach to cooking championed homemade dishes, rather than the restaurant-perfected. Unlike so many British TV chefs before him, his measurements were slapdash and his delivery informal. Olive oil needed a “good lug” and mozzarella was to be “ripped up in any old fashion” and scattered over salad by hand. He’d cook for mates while telling anecdotes about parties. In one episode, he criticised the canapé lessons he received at catering college. “The flavour-to-work effort was, in my eyes, completely wrong,” he said, undoing years of weird British snobbery around food. “I’m not a vol-au-vent man, it’s too much time.”
The Naked Chef was an immediate hit, with an accompanying cookbook selling 1.2 million copies worldwide by December 2000. And if sun-dried tomatoes, dried porcini mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar weren’t previously available in supermarkets, they certainly were after Oliver’s TV debut.
Oliver’s brand of have-a-go simplicity was revolutionary then, but today his career is far more complex. The Jamie Oliver empire now encompasses nearly 30 television series, 23 books, a (now-folded) magazine, a YouTube channel with over 4 million subscribers, supermarket collaborations, an MBE, kitchen goods, and a slew of restaurants.
This success hasn’t been without controversy. Jamie's School Dinners, the 2005 documentary that saw Oliver use a South London comprehensive as the guinea pig for his plan to overhaul British school dinners, was criticised as patronising and Turkey Twizzlers remain a long-running anti-Oliver joke. His 2018 campaign to introduce a sugar tax on soft drinks was similarly lambasted by some for its classist undertones. More recently, Oliver has battled the downturn in the casual dining sector, which forced several Jamie’s Italian restaurants and his Barbecoa steakhouse to close. And then, of course, there was the regrettable decision to release a “jerk rice” product.
And yet, most would agree that Jamie Oliver has done far more good than harm. Aside from championing home cooking and bringing attention to important public health issues, his recipes stand the test of time. Who doesn’t have a go-to Jamie recipe for roast chicken, or a well-thumbed copy of 15-Minute Meals on their kitchen shelf?
To explore Oliver’s influence over the last 20 years, MUNCHIES spoke to people from pivotal moments in the celebrity chef’s expansive career so far.
The Naked Chef
Leigh Haggerwood, musician. Leigh went to school with Jamie and appeared on The Naked Chef : I met Jamie in 1983 and he was exactly the same then as he is today: friendly, bubbly, and charismatic. Jamie’s talent is being a great communicator, he pulls people in and gets them enthusiastic and that’s the key. We started a band and he played drums but his dad was very sensible, so made sure Jamie was keeping his eye on reality. While the rest of us wanted to be pop stars, Jamie went to catering college. His ambition, in his early twenties, was to open a restaurant and write a cookbook. He then started working at the River Cafe.
Jane Root, BBC 2 controller from 1999 to 2004: The woman who really discovered Jamie is dead now. Pat [Patricia Llewellyn, BBC producer, who died in 2017 after a battle with cancer] was a momentous figure in British food television but she is sadly no longer with us. I was at BBC 2 when Pat and Nicola [Moody, then-commissioning editor at the BBC] brought in this clip of Jamie at the River Cafe with Rose [Gray] and Ruth [Rogers]. We said, “They are wonderful but look at this guy in the background, he’s the one!” I love and adore Delia Smith and all those people of that era, but Jamie was different. He hung out, did a dollop of this and a glop of that, and spoke like my family in Essex. It was a new kind of person and a new way of being around food.
Leigh: Cookery shows weren’t so cool back then, so we thought “bless him” when he got it. But The Naked Chef was different. The whole crew went to watch Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels so they could take some of the filming techniques from there, and he talked to Patricia rather than the camera.
Jane: Everything was measured out beforehand in those glass bowls that no-one ever uses in real life. He wasn’t confident speaking to camera, so me, Pat, and Nicola decided to have him speak to us.
Leigh: Though it was a bit contrived, everyone in it was a genuine friend or relative.
Jane: He had the apartment before we met him so the filming wasn’t super styled by committee, it was an extension of who he was. He wasn’t yet married to Jools but had this great modern gal, who was a big influence. There was a freedom in his attitude to everything. Once he got married and she got pregnant, we created what was Jamie’s Kitchen. We were aware that it was fantasy, it wasn’t like we were trying to fool the public—it was a fantasy life.
Leigh: I made a complete plonker of myself on the programme and after the filming, we’d have the best parties. We all tried to slide down the banister when we were drunk. Soon afterwards, when he started doing live shows, he asked me if I wanted to write songs to entertain the audience. We wrote “The Lamb Curry Song,” which was really popular.
We went from there, composing some music for several of his early series. We also put together a compilation album with acts like Toploader—the producers wanted to reflect that he was a young rock-and-roll chef with a funky lifestyle. A lot of the artists were very keen to get him to play more and in one episode, he cooked with JK from Jamiroquai.
But we quickly got the picture that people only really wanted Jamie to be one thing, and that was a cook. Young guys didn’t see cooking as cool at the time, it was something that your mum did, but he made it trendy.
Jane: After The Naked Chef, Jamie’s Kitchen and the School Dinners shows were a perfect way to show him in the next stage of his life.
Jamie’s School Dinners, Fifteen, and the sugar tax
Tim Siadatan, head chef at London restaurants Trullo and Padella, who appeared on the Jamie’s Kitchen series in 2002: When I was 18, I certainly didn’t know anything about food or restaurants or where I wanted to go with my career, but Fifteen has a fond place in my heart. It transformed a lot for me. He could obviously cook and I learned a lot with that, thanks to him and the team. But he was also the first person I’d met who had big ideas about contributing to the world in a positive way. He wouldn’t just talk about it, he’d action it. It rubs off on you, it’s infectious.
Helen, who attended Kidbrooke School from 2002 to 2008, the comprehensive featured in Jamie’s School Dinners: There was a whole school assembly and the teachers said, “We’ve got some exciting news, something amazing is gonna happen, this huge opportunity.” Then there was a big reveal like, “Jamie Oliver’s coming!” It was all a bit odd. The cameras were there for a year, it felt like a long time. I think the motivation behind it was really good, there’s a case for changing school dinners, but the execution of it felt a bit paternalistic—turning up to a school with a high rate of school meals, where people can’t opt out, framing it to look like people are ignorant of what vegetables are.
Sasha, who also went to Kidbrooke School at the time: The food was just so bland, I remember it was always chicken with a white sauce, all the time. I wouldn’t have minded if the food was nicer but it was always the same thing and I remember it too well. Parents would give kids food to eat as well, because there weren't enough options at lunch after his show was done.
Helen: The producer got a load of my friends, who knew what vegetables were, to misidentify celery for dramatic effect, which just feels exploitative.
Andrea Jenkyns, MP for Morley and Outwood, who sat on the Health Select Committee in 2015 when Oliver presented evidence as “chef, campaigner, and dad”: Jamie is a decent guy who cares about children’s health and what they’re eating. He was very affable when I met him. We did disagree on a lot of fronts, and I’m against the sugar tax because it’s the poorest who’ll be affected and we need better education and labelling, but I understand that he’s passionate about it. I can’t knock him for that.
Dr. James Davies, former-MP for the Vale of Clwyd, who also sat on the Health Select Committee: I've seen some politicians give Jamie Oliver a hard time, accusing him of seeking publicity to boost his career, but his key message was the need for clarity for the public in terms of the dietary composition of food and drink that they purchase and consume. He was ideally placed to comment on nutritional issues and I thoroughly welcomed his evidence on childhood obesity. It was ambitious yet realistic, and balanced.
Andrea: The sugar tax is a regressive type of tax, the Conservatives stand for free choice and it’s not something I support. I don’t give my two-year-old sugar everyday, responsible parents make sure their kids have a balanced diet, which comes down to better education for parents.
James: He kept out of party politics and looked at the bigger picture, even in terms of how the UK’s approach could impact behaviour of other countries. Above all, he came across as entirely genuine in his attempt to influence the very real challenge of obesity.
Andrea: I can’t knock him for his passion—his celebrity status highlighted the issue of too much sugar in foods and drinks and that’s helped us highlight the causes [of obesity]. I’m not into cookery myself, I burn toast.
Jamie Oliver's Legacy
Jane: The one singular thing you have to praise him for is a generation of British men don’t regard food as sissy anymore. Applications to catering colleges zoomed through the roof when The Naked Chef turned up. Being a chef was like being a rock star, footballer, or mechanic. I’m amazed by family of mine—guys in their 20s who all seem to take pride in cooking, in a way their dads never would have done. I think a whole generation of British women should be really pleased that Jamie accomplished that.
He’s not a purist and that probably drives some people mad, but he tried something. On TV, there are the masters, where you revel at the talent, like on Chef’s Table. Then there are others where you aspire to something reasonably healthy and cheap, when you’re cooking seven nights a week for family. He instinctively knows that you want food your family and friends want, something casual but stylish.
Tim: You can track the past 20 years in the UK, from the transformation of the restaurant and food consumption scene to farming methods and all the other stuff. It’s been about 20 years of a changed attitude. That nice olive oil you get in Waitrose now wasn’t there ten to 15 years ago and that funny-shaped courgette wasn’t there. He’s the reason it all started.
Jane: He made food free and liberating—and it tastes really good. There’s so much food stuck to the pages of my Jamie Oliver book, my husband says you can lick the page to taste it. I still use it all the time. The food freedom he did was just astounding. He never wanted to be on TV, he thought being on TV was a shortcut to opening a restaurant.