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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 March 2005, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
Profile: Jamie Oliver
By Andrew Walker
BBC News profiles unit

Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver: Crusading chef
Jamie Oliver's rise from cheeky TV chef to hard-hitting campaigner for better school dinners has been as mercurial as the man himself. But has the scourge of the Turkey Twizzler bitten off more than he can chew?

Just like a well-known savoury spread, people either love or hate Jamie Oliver. To some, he is a breath of fresh air, bringing quality food to a mass audience in his own breezy and unpretentious way.

His detractors see Oliver as a loud-mouthed mockney, who has sold his soul to corporate megaliths like the Sainsbury's supermarket chain.

Indeed, his fellow TV chef, Clarissa Dickson Wright, recently branded him "a whore" after he endorsed Sainsbury's farmed salmon, even though he refuses to serve the product.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that he has made a huge impact. Besides his television series and the £1.2m annual advertising deal as the face of Sainsbury's, Jamie Oliver currently sells around 2.5m cookbooks a year, bringing his pay packet for 2004 up to £5m.

Antonio Carluccio
Mentor: Antonio Carluccio has hugely influenced Jamie Oliver

Oh, and he also runs Fifteen, a restaurant staffed by disadvantaged teenagers trained by Oliver himself, which has been known to sell beans on toast at £8 a chuck.

Cooking has always been in Jamie Oliver's blood. His parents, Trevor and Sally, own a noted pub, the Cricketer's in Clavering, Essex, which has long prided itself on the quality of its food.

The dyslexic Oliver left school with no qualifications, and studied at Westminster Catering College before working as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio's restaurant in London's Neal Street, which instilled in him the love of Italian food which has become a mainstay of his own culinary style.

Poached chef

It was while he was a sous-chef at another top London restaurant, the River Café, that Jamie Oliver, easy-going, opinionated and knowledgeable, was 'discovered' by a BBC documentary team.

This led to his own BBC series, The Naked Chef, a fast-paced kitchen-based romp featuring his then-girlfriend, now wife, Jools. The couple have two children.

But his new-found success, the book deals, personal appearances and endorsements, soon led to conflict. After refusing to acquiesce to a BBC demand that he drop his lucrative Sainsbury's contract, Oliver was poached by Channel Four.

Jamie Oliver with his wife Jools
Pukka couple: Jamie Oliver with his wife Jools

His first series for Four, Jamie's Kitchen - which showed Oliver pulling together his Fifteen project, was an immediate hit. Viewers were entranced by the real-life soap opera, featuring the famous chef attempting to lick a group of often idle and feckless individuals into a formidable team of chefs.

The resultant restaurant has had a difficult birth, losing money and being described as "amateurish and overpriced" by one guide. Still, it is often impossible to book a table at Fifteen, the place is regularly packed and even former president, Bill Clinton, was turned away.

As for the £8 beans on toast, actually a recipe which included ciabatta bread, olive oil, cherry tomatoes, basil, balsamic vinegar, red chillies and rocket leaves, Oliver now admits he made a wrong call.

Changing tastes?

"I should have been brighter...Heinz came to us and offered £15,000 for us to put something cool made with baked beans on the menu. That funds one student for a whole year. Am I going to do it? Of course I am."

Chefs have long played an important role in society. Escoffier and Elizabeth David were hugely influential as arbiters of good taste, Graham Kerr - the Galloping Gourmet - brought a hint of high-calorie decadence to the Swinging Sixties, Delia Smith could make cranberries fly off the shelves by the hundredweight.

And Gordon Ramsay has introduced a whole new level of swearing to the nation's television screens.

Jamie Oliver serving food to schoolchildren
Will Jamie prove to be the saviour of school food?

But today, through his programme Jamie's School Dinners, Oliver is bringing his infectious enthusiasm, popular influence and evangelical culinary zeal to bear on raising the quality of the food served in UK's schools, hoping to change the tastes of a generation of children in the process.

270,000 people have signed Oliver's petition to replace the Turkey Twizzler, burger and chips with salads, fruit and better quality meat. The government now says that it will spend an extra £280m to tackle the problem.

Already the holder of an MBE, Oliver is now spoken of as a possible "Sir Jamie of Effing Forest" - a reference to both his Essex heritage and fruity language.

But he must realise that the fight for better school food has only just begun, and there is a long fight ahead before Britain's children can enjoy what Jamie Oliver would call "pukka nosh" every lunchtime.

See Jamie Oliver meet Tony Blair

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