Jamie Oliver: I want my kids to struggle

The best-selling author talks about how a bit of tough stuff can make you strive harder.

Jamie Oliver has released his second children’s book
Jamie Oliver Jamie Oliver has released his second children’s book (FREDDIE CLAIRE/Freddie Clare)

Is there anyone as successful, yet down to earth, as Jamie Oliver?

He’s known – and adored – the world over, is the top-selling non-fiction author in UK history, has a TV career spanning a quarter of a century and somehow, always seems so normal.

Maybe it’s his enormous brood of kids. Oliver and his wife Jools have five children, aged between seven and 22-years-old, which must surely keep him in touch and on his toes. Or maybe it’s the fact that he’s neurodiverse.

Oliver, 49, and the original Essex boy to grace our screens 25 years ago, is back in the limelight with his latest children’s book, Billy And The Epic Escape – the second one he’s written and a sequel to the first. And as he promotes the adventures of his hero character Billy and his mates, he’s also talking openly about his own struggles growing up.

As a child with severe dyslexia, Oliver found school incredibly difficult and describes words as “his enemy”. He also has ADHD. And at a time when there are so many children on excruciatingly long waiting lists, desperate to be diagnosed, he’s able to connect with both parents and kids. He acknowledges that neurodiversity can make kids picky eaters. He knows that being the second most successful British author is an incredible feat for a man who looks at a page and sees the words jump around. But he also knows that being neurodiverse has made him – and kept him – who he is today.

“Conventional writing has never worked for me,” says the chef, author and campaigner, noting he uses dictation as his weapon in order to visually tell a story. “Cookery books have always been treated a bit like a Haynes manual – like a ‘how to’ or step by step. So, that’s not really writing. This is. Even though it’s a kids’ book, it’s still real writing. So, I had to find my confidence.”

TV’s ‘Naked Chef’ Jamie Oliver,as he was known in 1999
TV’s ‘Naked Chef’ Jamie Oliver,as he was known in 1999 (Michael Walter/PA)

There’s an important message about confidence within the book, something Oliver struggled to grapple with.

“I think confidence, worry and anxiety are all part of a cauldron of different emotions that challenge us,” he says, honestly. “And I think that they can present themselves when you’re young, as things that hold you back. But at the same time, as you get older, [they provide] a tension that makes you do your best work.

“Life’s not supposed to be linear or easy. I want my kids to struggle as much as possible, in a safe and controlled way. If it’s too easy, it’s really vanilla.”

Oliver talks in an open way, those famous blue eyes still twinkling, and is unafraid of a challenge. He chats gratefully about having the opportunity to work at the weekend when he was young, in his family’s Clavering home and pub, The Cricketers, which is now a hotel. “Cooking – 100 per cent – saved me. Because, while everything was going very badly at school, at the weekend – at work – I was able to be someone and have something to offer. Cooking was normalised, earning £1.20 an hour was normalised and getting paid because I did what I promised was normalised. So, I had my confidence building on one side, and dare I say it, slightly diminished on the other.

The Cricketers Pub in Clavering, Essex, owned by the parents of Jamie Oliver, before it was sold
The Cricketers Pub in Clavering, Essex, owned by the parents of Jamie Oliver, before it was sold (Chris Radburn/PA)

“I had such resentment towards the written word, and traditional learning. And I’ve got rid of that now,” he says, almost sounding relieved. “I guess what I’m trying to say, is book two was not a chore. It was beyond exciting. It was completely intentional. And probably without knowing it too much, it was therapy. And to be heading towards 50 and still learning big lessons, still making yourself vulnerable to criticism – I’m proud of it.”

Oliver’s words are heartfelt. He clearly cares about the book and wants it to be loved. He is now able to trust in his own unique process of getting those words down, and feels genuine pride in his achievements. Having grown up being “not good at a lot of stuff that is measured in a school environment”, not getting good school reports or positive reinforcement, he’s come a long way, most of which, he owes to that lovely old pub.

“Pubs are welcome to all,” he says, reminiscing. “Pubs are really unique. My best friends were travellers. And I grew up around farmers and old age pensioners. You know, the cricket club, the bowls club, the tennis club, rich city boys, drinking single malts and smoking expensive cigars with an E-Type Jag out the back; pubs are really special places. And that was my school, really. Teenage Jamie was in love with people, optimistic for life and learning how to be glass half-full. And I don’t mean it in a romantic or sugary way. But when you live in a pub, and when you are interacting with the public, you see the best and worst of the community, but mainly the best.

“Every day, you go down for service, which even as a kid, I was still acting as a kid in service. Dad was going down for service, 12 to three, six to 11. It’s like theatre. And no matter what, you got to brush yourself down and go for it.

“Even today, I say to my girls – you’ve got to brush your teeth, look in the mirror, and decide it’s going to be a positive day, decide to be glass half-full. And I know – I know, I know, I know – it’s easier said than done. But also, if you do try, and if you do have that intention, it’s about being glass half-full most of the time, and hopefully having friends around you that will catch you on the not so good days.”

Oliver really does come to life when he talks about that pub. Which is no surprise, as that’s still the lifelong dream.

“When I left the pub, and left for London at 16, my dream was to come back. And even now, with everything that I’ve done, my dream, sincerely, is to retire and open a pub!”

He bursts into laughter as he reiterates how happy he is, but with the big 5-0 approaching, maybe Jamie Oliver’s next big thing will take him very much back to his roots.

“I love my life. And I love my team. And I love the work that I have the opportunity to do,” he says.

“But I still haven’t fulfilled my career goal, which was to open a beautiful pub, and do my version of what I grew up in.”

Jamie Oliver’s new book
Jamie Oliver’s new book (Joe Giddens/PA)

Billy And The Epic Escape by Jamie Oliver is published by Puffin Books, priced £14.99. Available now