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Mixing it with the Nonnas

Brand Jamie Oliver has taken a battering in the press this year, from claims of cultural appropriation over the release of a jerk rice dish, to the revelation he has no money left to bail out his British restaurants if more is required.

While others may have gone to ground, the celebrity chef has not shied away from the media and remains passionate about causes such as successfully lobbying the British government to introduce a soft drinks levy.

In Australia we would say the chef, who burst on to screens as the Naked Chef in 1999, was a victim of the tall poppy syndrome.

Down the line from London, Oliver agrees he has his haters.

“Yes, absolutely, and I think you just have to accept that and say ‘what have you done in the last year’,” he says.

“There are a lot of lazy people who achieve and do nothing, that have a lot of opinions.

“Ever since School Dinners in the UK (2005), I get a lot of s… but I wouldn’t take it unless I got s… done.

“When we talk about the sugary drink tax for instance, there are hundreds of things that have ricocheted off that moment … the government have stood up for child health to the food industry for the first time ever and said ‘just a minute this is too much, you’re hurting our kids, actually we’re going to tax you’.”

Oliver said he had fought hard to make sure the money, potentially a billion pounds, went to primary schools for things such as breakfast clubs. In Australia, his Ministry of Food continues to make changes at a grassroots level, teaching cooking skills and introducing the Learn Your Fruit & Veg program.

“If you can work at a local level, where people are suffering from ill health that is based around diet, they have proven, learning 10 recipes to save life, learning the basics of nutrition and how to budget and shop, we know that it makes a difference.

“So any s… that I get, any naysayers, I get s… done,” he says. “And I am really proud of the stuff I have done. I am used to it, I am pretty battle hardy.”

Closing restaurants and making staff redundant was necessary to keep Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian restaurants afloat. He resumed ownership of the Australian restaurants including the Perth CBD outpost.

“It has been a challenging time for me in the UK with the restaurants; we went early, so we are stable before most of the others now,” he says.

“I am very upbeat about it and grateful and, as I am sure you know, the restaurant industry, surprisingly enough, is not easy. There’s not loads of money, you need to be really on it. We are a mid-market restaurant and we are really proud to serve a really wide range of people and love making pasta every day and cooking really simple, delicious food.”

It’s the morning of Halloween when we speak and the father of five is bemoaning the state of his house, with pumpkins and slime everywhere.

“I didn’t grow up with it, we didn’t really have it when I was a kid,” he says.

“We talked about it, we knew about it but no one did it where I came from and the idea of kids walking around knocking on strangers’ doors was considered to be a little bit of a strange thing to do, which of course it is.

“I have got no shaving foam, no shampoo, no conditioner, it is all being turned into bloody slime, there is mess everywhere. My teenage girls would rather go around parts of the town I’d rather them not go around, dressed as strange things I don’t quite approve of, but what do you do?”

He contemplates following them around dressed up. Maybe he could go dressed as himself?

“I would f…… scare everyone, wouldn’t I,” he roars with laughter.

Jamie Oliver with Nonna Franchina.Jamie Oliver with Nonna Franchina.
Camera IconJamie Oliver with Nonna Franchina.

Oliver remains the UK’s most successful celebrity chef and bestselling non-fiction author but in his new TV series, Jamie Cooks Italy, he worked alongside nonnas who didn’t know he was or that the show would be seen in more than 100 countries.

“I would say none of them knew who I was,” he says. “They knew what we were after and they were very conscious emotionally that they wanted to keep parts of their culture alive and these recipes alive and they adamantly wanted us — all of us — to share it.

“When we went to Tuscany and cooked with (Elena) the last Jewish nonna of Pitigliano and we cooked her artichoke dish it was an incredibly moving scene. She had no idea the whole world was going to see it.”

For the series, Oliver teamed up with his mentor Genarro Contaldo to learn and preserve treasured local recipes from women in their 80s and 90s, scouted by bilingual producers who found them the old-fashioned way, by going door to door. “It’s the first TV series in 20 years I didn’t ask to get commissioned. I said ‘we have to, otherwise that’s it I’m off’,” he says adamantly.

“It was an important show to make because this generation of nonnas, the original nonnas who grew up without electricity and gas and supermarkets and all the mod cons, they are starting to die off.

“I really wanted to spend quality time, use the best of technology and cameras, to record this moment, and their memories, and their thoughts about food and life and family. So that is why we did it.”

Oliver says Channel 4 is famous for being contemporary but this was a deliberately old-fashioned show which grew its ratings from week to week.

He spent two years on and off filming, gaining the women’s trust and trying through cooking and smell and taste, to unlock memories they maybe hadn’t thought about or talked about for 50 years.

They may not have known who Oliver was but the nonnas became quite fond of touching him, something his wife Jules noticed when watching the series.

“She wasn’t bothered. She was ‘Jamie they are all over you, they’re very tactile, they are constantly touching you’. And when I watched it I also agreed, it was a very touchy-feely series but when I was there I never felt it and it never felt inappropriate.”

He says it was a reminder that older people often miss out on physical contact such as hand holding and hugs.

Oliver hopes Australian viewers will be inspired to ask their parents and grandparents to record and pass down family recipes.

“For me boxes of recipes are brilliant but they’re quite mono,” he says. “I think what the TV show is invisibly implying is, go talk to Mum, go talk to Grandma, get those bloody recipes, get them in a place, take pictures of them, but talk about them, the context is everything I think.”

To celebrate 20 years on TV next year, Oliver says his team is planning to find previously unseen footageand to ‘have lots of fun, take the piss out of ourselves a little bit’. A trip Down Under is also planned for February.

Jamie Cooks Italy starts on November 21 at 7.30pm on Ten. The accompanying cookbook published by Michael Joseph is available now.

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