Jamie Oliver: “I’m much calmer than the original me”

Food guru Jamie Oliver, 37, looks back on his school love life, becoming The Naked Chef and his biggest regrets...

When I was 16 I couldn’t wait to get to London and get my first job. I’d had a rough time at secondary school. I didn’t do well. I’m dyslexic but the school didn’t bother too much because mine wasn’t the most severe case. I’ve always struggled with writing. I’ve never had the ability to concentrate long enough to read a narrative book. I’ve never had a problem with imagination but when I write my cookbooks I have my editor take down what I say. He’s really good at spelling and all that. I think it’s fine to tell kids you don’t need to be good at everything.

Most 16-year-olds aren’t scared of much and I certainly wasn’t but I did worry about not getting a bunk up. My love life was like a bloody desert. There was nothing going on, and they were running a bloody mile, basically. I wasn’t very confident. My voice shook when I talked to girls.

I’d like to tell the 16-year-old me he’d end up with a model. He wouldn’t have believed that. Though, actually, I’d already met Jools by then. She’d joined the sixth form in my school. But every time I went to talk to her I just sounded like Scooby-Doo. So I just sort of avoided her. I kept sounding like a complete idiot. But a year and half later – I don’t know why – she had a change of heart. She decided she quite liked me. And as soon as I found out I was all over it like a rash. I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. But when I asked her out on a date I still sounded like Scooby-Doo. She didn’t understand me but she laughed and said: “Yes, to whatever it is you just said.”

If I met 16-year-old Jamie now, well, he wouldn’t be that different to the Jamie on TV when he was 21, on The Naked Chef. Undoubtedly that person had lots of annoying nuances that would jar with a 37-year-old bloke like me. I was incredibly enthusiastic. I thought I could do anything. I was into my music, on my scooter, saying ‘pukka’ every five seconds. I was annoying but I was genuinely being myself. Fifteen years later, four kids later, a lot of responsibility later, I’m a much calmer person than the original me.

I’d like to sit down with the teenage me, have a pint and tell him to stick to his guns and trust his gut instinct. He’d be in massive shock if I told him how things were going to go – working with governments across the world, all the different types of businesses he’s involved in – that would scare the life out of him. When I was young I just wanted to cook, run a nice little pub in the country, have a nice wine cellar, good local beers – that’s all I dreamt of. Then they made a TV documentary at the restaurant I was working in, The River Café, and when it came on TV, I was laced across the whole thing. And it looked really cool. And then the phone calls started coming.

I would warn the younger me that being in the public eye takes time to acclimatise to. There are always going to be people who don’t like you. And it’s quite hard getting a balance. I used to work seven days a week and was quite happy to do it and I loved it. But I probably wasn’t a very good boyfriend. So when we had Poppy, our first, we started from scratch. I had to make weekends and hol-idays totally precious. After eight years, I actually think I’ve got my life more in balance than Jools. She could actually do less with the kids. Mums need a bit of a break as well. I need to get her up to the same work/life balance as I have.

I’ll never understand why lots of wives are always trying to prove that their job is just as hard as the man’s job

The idea of four kids, that would scare the life out of the younger me. I only ever saw myself having two and I could barely see that. I never ever thought I’d have so many kids, ever. You always think you’ll grow up in a family like your own. My wife is a hands-on parent and that’s a tough job. I’m in complete admiration of what my missus does. But the thing I’ll never get is why my wife, why lots of wives, are always trying to prove that their job is just as hard as the man’s job. Men don’t need constant reinforcement about how brilliant they are. We just kind of crack on. But the girls do like to be constantly reminded how brilliant they are. It’s not a problem. It’s just that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

I don’t have many regrets but I have done some of the dodgiest photo shoots in the world. Some of the shittiest ideas a photographer could force on you – I’ve done them all. Juggling vegetables, generally looking like a total knob. And they’re all there online to haunt me for the rest of my life.

I’d tell my younger self, when you’re really uncomfortable that’s often when you do your best work. Humans never surprise themselves when they’re comfortable. Jamie’s School Dinners and Jamie’s American Food Revolution, they were the hardest things I’ve ever done. Having to go into a place and bring up that word people hate: ‘change’. You have whole communities of people hating your guts for about two months before they see some benefits from what you’re doing. Super tough.

You have whole communities of people hating your guts

I never had a sense of mission at first but over the years I looked around me and got wiser, more thoughtful. Back in the day I’d see a bunch of kids on a street corner and think: yobbos. Then I had my own children and I looked at them again and thought, they’re someone’s kids. And if they had disrupted home lives, and their health wasn’t the best, maybe at least we could make sure they got one good hot meal a day. You can’t do everything but maybe you can do something.

I’ve had a fast, mad life. Honestly and truly, with four kids… if I could go back I’d take more time to enjoy that time when we had no ties, no responsibilities, no baggage. Those weekends when we could just be selfish, have a conversation without being interrupted a million times. When I was 18, I took Jools to Crete and we had the most amazing week. I’d saved my money and was able to treat her, which was a really grown-up thing to do. That was brilliant. Just chilling, young love – it was just beautiful.