The Naked Chef Bares All: 20 years of Jamie Oliver documentary traces his victories and failures

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

"I done my best and I couldn't do it this time," said a tearful Jamie Oliver to Channel 4 host Davina McCall, visiting the barren premises of his first restaurant, Fifteen. 

The documentary, 'Jamie Oliver: The Naked Chef Bares All' recounts the celebrity chef's life, from his young years as a dyslexic teenager at odds with the education system, through to the present day, in the aftermath of the collapse of his restaurant business.

The programme tells the story of Jamie's numerous projects, his bittersweet relationship with the British public and how he plans on bouncing back after the closure of 24 of his restaurants. 

Influencing a generation of Britons

In the early 2000s, the celebrity chef sold millions of books off the back of the success of The Naked Chef. He could have stopped there, but he remortgaged his house to open Fifteen and gave disadvantaged young people a chance to better themselves through his Apprentice Programme. He secured millions from the British government to reform the country's food systems and built a restaurant empire which at its peak employed 4,500 people and turned over £108 million in annual profits. 

Only JK Rowling has sold more non-fiction books in the UK; Jamie was an ambassador for Sainsbury's for a decade and recently became Tesco's health ambassador. His homeware brand has been a resounding success - his Tefal range alone has sold more than 27 million pieces of cookware. 

Fighting a negative public image

Jamie and the Fifteen graduates
Jamie and the Fifteen graduates in 2017

Despite his successes, Jamie Oliver  is still held in low regard across the UK, with his campaigns to improve health through food largely seen as patronising and interventionist. 

When he first visited a school in South London to launch his school dinner campaign, he said: "It wasn't a warm welcome - most people didn't want me there."  

He took the criticism in his stride, however, saying that" if you accept that the food system is broken, the only way to fix it is to be in it." 

The chef  is also notoriously disliked by Marco Pierre White, who recently told The Times he was "delusional" for blaming his restaurant collapse on Brexit. 

"He thinks I'm a wanker," Jamie told Davina McCall, "and the feeling is fairly mutual." 

The £83 million question: what caused the collapse of Jamie's Italian?

While Jamie Oliver admits to having made mistakes, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what tipped the business over the edge.

Perhaps, as his mentor and fashion designer Paul Smith said, it is because Jamie  is "good at cooking" but wasn't equipped to deal with the realities of owning 42 restaurants.

"In my opinion, Jamie's strengths have not been the restaurants. When Jamie is doing a book, he's very in control. When you're doing a restaurant, you have to set a standard," he added.

Jamie owns up to not having been the most savvy of business owners. "I was very naive at the time. I was good at running one restaurant, but I wouldn't call myself a businessman."

Maybe the reduced footfall was due to the quality of his food or because of rapidly changing consumer habits. There may have been a shred of truth in his claims that Brexit and the fall of the pound caused food costs to rise too quickly for it to survive. 

Whatever the case, when the company went into administration in May, it was estimated that it owed creditors close to £83 million pounds - despite Jamie putting £15 million of his own money into trying to save it. 22 restaurants closed and 1034 people lost their jobs with no notice.

Having to tell his staff that they had lost their jobs was his "most painful regret," he said, insisting that all the staff got paid to date.

"I made sure of that," he said.  

How would he do things differently given the chance? "I would structure it differently, I would put talent first instead of the business, I'd have different objectives, but the truth is, I didn't know what I was doing." 

A new chapter for Jamie

While his public image has taken another blow with the collapse of his restaurant business,  in a way, it feels like a sigh of relief for Jamie Oliver. 

His plan now is to focus on what he does best. With 7.3 million Instagram followers, 4.3 million YouTube subscribers and a TV audience estimated at 67 million, a new book (Veg: Easy & Delicious Meals for Everyone), he certainly has enough to keep himself busy.

His fight to reform the UK's food systems is still ongoing: his latest campaign is to halve childhood obesity in the UK by 2030.

"Our dream and goal is to make sure every CEO, every mayor worth their salt commits to it," he said. 

And so, whether we like it or not, it is unlikely to be the last we'll hear of Jamie Oliver. 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 22nd August 2019

The Naked Chef Bares All: 20 years of Jamie Oliver documentary traces his victories and failures