In defence of Jamie Oliver

Why we shouldn’t gloat at his downfall.

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It’s hard to think of many businesses whose failure would attract the same level of vitriolic glee as Jamie Oliver’s restaurant chain, which went into administration at the end of last month. “So happy #JamieOliver restaurants are closing this will teach the idiot that the British public will get their revenge for you trying to bring in a sugar tax” said one sweet-toothed, if not sweet-tongued tweeter. Others called it “karma” and told Oliver “you’ve got what you deserve”.

Some linked the collapse to the chef’s vocal stance against Brexit, while others put it down to Turkey Twizzler fans coming of age and voting with their wallets. But whether you were fond of the restaurants or not, as Nigella Lawson observed, “the pile-on has been really disgusting”.

At least 1,000 people have lost their jobs with the closure of 22 of his restaurants (the three at Gatwick Airport currently remain open while a buyer is sought, while the independently operated Fifteen Cornwall is unaffected) in what administrators called “a very difficult current trading environment”. Sales at full-service restaurants in Britain are down 6 per cent, according to market research firm Kantar, and other chains such as Byron, Prezzo, Carluccio’s and Gourmet Burger Kitchen have already been forced to make closures.

It’s also true, in my experience, that the food at Jamie’s Italian has deteriorated since I first visited in 2010. Tables crammed in so tightly it was hard to avoid putting your elbows in next-door’s polenta chips, stupid serving boards balanced on fake tomato tins, and pricey but average food meant that I avoided it where possible – a single sliver of black avocado in a £10 salad was the final straw. The Sunday Times critic Marina O’Loughlin professed herself “appalled” by a meal at the Stratford branch in east London last year.

So I’m not particularly surprised by the group’s demise. I am, however, saddened by the public reaction to it. Very few expert commentators have pointed the finger directly at Oliver, with one former senior employee admitting to the Times that, while he did take issue with some management decisions, he found the man himself “inspirational”. Indeed, Oliver put an additional £4m into the business earlier this year in order to aid fundraising.

Yet, as one critic wrote as far back as 2002, when the Naked Chef had just launched his Fifteen project, “the profundity of the nation’s loathing” for Oliver is remarkable. That project has since trained 480 unemployed and often underprivileged youngsters in the kitchen; graduates include the bestselling food writer Anna Jones and Tim Siadatan, founder of hugely successful London restaurants Trullo and Padella.

Then there were his thankless attempts to improve school food. Not that that’s put him off: he recently told GQ of his aim “to halve childhood obesity by 2030”. Recent campaigns have focused on teaching cookery skills to those who need them most, regulating junk food advertising and introducing a tax on sugar (to the apparent detriment of the Irn-Bru recipe).

Oliver may not get everything right, but he didn’t have to do any of these things – he could have, like many other celebrity chefs, sat back and let the money pour in from his books, television shows and supermarket tie-ins. But he didn’t, because he’s passionate about making a difference. How many of those celebrating his demise can say the same? 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news