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Thursday 19 October 2017

It's hard to believe that Jamie Oliver is still only 39. Not because he looks older - he's fresh-faced and his blue eyes are youthful - but because of what he has achieved in the 15 years since he first appeared on our screens. His business empire is estimated at more than €250m.

It's hard to believe that Jamie Oliver is still only 39. Not because he looks older - he's fresh-faced and his blue eyes are youthful - but because of what he has achieved in the 15 years since he first appeared on our screens. His business empire is estimated at more than €250m.

Its headquarters are spread across an east London street and it boasts restaurants, retail, publishing, a television production company and a charitable foundation. He has fronted 20 series and his books have been translated into more than 40 languages. Incredible though it seems, next year will be the 10th anniversary of the launch of his campaign for better school meals.

The 'Naked Chef' who, at just 23, transformed cooking on TV and is credited with inspiring men to get into their kitchens, remains full of enthusiasm. His office is littered with chairs and with photographs yet to be hung. His shirt sleeves are rolled up to reveal beefy forearms; his hair is combed back and he seems relaxed and happy. His Christian name long ago became a brand and his new book and Channel 4 series are called Jamie's Comfort Food.

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With Jamie's 30-Minute Meals and the shorter version behind him - "30 wasn't fast enough", he says - he seems relieved to be moving into another cooking gear. He talks in a disarming, rough-round-the-edges, Essex accent.

"To do my job well, sometimes I don't necessarily do what I want to do, I do what the public want me to do."

He's enjoyed being able to tell the stories about comfort food that were "special" to him. He's also reached out through social media to different countries and ways of cooking.

"There's dishes in there that I never knew a year ago. I wanted to be quite global in our approach," he says.

The tone of the accompanying TV series, Oliver says, is gentle, eccentric, geeky.

"People think I'm probably a bit mental because I get so into it, but that's just me unbottled and, honestly, it's not that often that you're allowed to do that - certainly not in telly."

Comfort food, he thinks, is reflective of what people want. "Maybe it's time for a little bit of a hug."

Food has been central to Oliver's life since he was an eight-year-old boy helping out in the gastro pub his parents still run in the Essex village of Clavering. Oliver "loved" his childhood and his relationship with his father has been life-defining.

"My Dad's a real character. He grew up in a pub. Dad has always expected a lot of graft from me. A lot of physical effort. And certainly enough obedience. And Mum did, too. But Mum was soft and cuddly. She was the silk glove, Dad was the iron fist.

"I was just scared enough of Dad - which I think's important. A little bit of fear doesn't hurt. But he was a very loving Dad."

Instead of pocket money, Oliver worked for his cash.

"I was small and agile and keen - I'd clean parts of the chimney, get put in the big bins to dig out the crud on the bottom and polish brass in piss-stained toilets."

He graduated to peeling "tons of carrots" and making the chips.

"I was so small I had to stand on a Grolsch beer crate. Once I started doing veg prep I had to get in the kitchen, even though it was full of bad language and filthy jokes - I was probably nine or 10."

Oliver left school for catering and hotel management college. His big break emerged while he was working in the kitchen at Ruth Rogers's The River Cafe. It was, he says, the most exciting restaurant in the city and he was "in love with work. I learnt quick and people said that I looked like a baby with an old person's hands".

In the right place at the right time, he was filmed one evening, unscripted, for a programme about the restaurant.

"I wasn't even supposed to be there that night. I went in at the last minute to cover. I already had a bit of attitude with the camera, I was pushing it out the way or pulling it towards me. I didn't see it [the programme] when it went out, and then the next day at work the phones went mental."

The Naked Chef concept grew out of Oliver "stripping food down to its bare essentials". It was, he says, an incredible time. Soon he was performing cooking demonstrations in front of 3,000 people a time.

"That first show, I'll never forget it - I was literally throwing up, crying. I was in a real state."

He admitted his fears to the crowd and the "whole audience stood up and started clapping. I thought, 'Oh God, they're on my side. Maybe I can be in control of this'."

Does he ever blink when he contemplates what he's achieved?

"Nearly every day since the age of about 35. I didn't blink before then, really. I spent all of my twenties trying to convince people, and the minute I got to 30, overnight people started believing me. And I didn't want that either."

Oliver has three daughters and a son. Will he ever slow down to spend more time with his family? "As far as basic family life is concerned we've got things down good, but I'd like to have a day in the week where I could do whatever I felt was appropriate. That's the dream."

Oliver met his wife Jools when he was 16. She was in the sixth form of the school he'd just left.

"I'd kind of fallen in love with her straight away but we didn't get to go out for two-and-a-half years. I'm proud of the family we've built. When I became famous I already had a girl I'd been with for five years, Mum and Dad were tight, her family are big on family. All my school friends that I still see to this day would tell me if I was an arse - and still do."

'Jamie's Comfort Food' continues on Mondays at 8pm on Channel 4

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