From the moment in the very first series of The Naked Chef when he slid down the spiral staircase of his trendy London gaff to greet a mate with a double hand-slap and barrage of “oi ois”, Jamie Oliver made it clear he would be doing things differently.
Talent-spotted while working the kitchens at London’s River Cafe by a television crew in 1997, within two years, he had been given his own BBC2 series in which the young Oliver would epitomise late Nineties lad culture: Vespa, tick. Fred Perry t-shirt, tick. Questionable mockney overtures, tickedy boo.
Putting the cheeky pukka shtick aside he was the centre of a slick operation to build brand Jamie and make cookery programmes relevant to a modern aspirational audience, specifically by being the first to bring his nearest and dearest along with him.
When he wasn’t making “munchie, lunchie, snacky kind of things” ahead of his sister’s hen do he was off to the Walthamstow dog track with the lads, bagging a wheel of parmesan for a “pasta fest with me uncle Alan”, or washing a duvet cover in a launderette to use as a table cloth for dinner with the in-laws.
Such cameos revealed the core group who have remained close to Oliver throughout his career. As the collapse this week of his UK restaurant chain, Jamie’s Italian, sees his multi-million pound empire show signs of crumbling about him, these are the people who turned Oliver into a star.
The mentor - Gennaro Contaldo
An inauspicious introduction to viewers in series three of the Naked Chef when Oliver turns up at Contaldo’s house 20 minutes late for a fly fishing expedition and screams ‘ouvro la porto’ through the letterbox, but nevertheless the Italian chef has been a constant presence throughout his career.
Oliver went to work for Contaldo straight out of catering college at Carluccio’s restaurant on Neal Street in Covent Garden. One of his duties was preparing his baking trays by dusting them with polenta: to endear himself, Oliver would trace dirty messages in the crumbs. “He used to be quite strict and say no a lot,” Oliver said in an aside on The Naked Chef. “But he’s like a father figure now.”
Contaldo describes Oliver as his “sixth child” and over the years has become a key part of his business, making numerous appearances on his mentee’s various television shows. Contaldo was the inspiration for Oliver’s first restaurant chain, Fifteen, and also co-founded Jamie’s Italian in 2008.
“I learned everything from Gennaro,” Oliver once said of his mentor. “Heart, soul, romance, fantasy – every nice word you can say.”
The chef - Rose Gray
Co-founder of the River Cafe in London, where Oliver washed up in the mid Nineties. As well as introducing the budding chef to new recipes and ways of cooking, Gray also opened his eyes to the potential in successful spin offs: the first River Cafe cookbook was published in 1995 and presented a 12-part series on Channel 4, The Italian Kitchen, through which Oliver was talent-spotted.
Gray died of cancer aged 71 in 2010 but Oliver continues to pay tribute to her legacy, describing his time at the River Cafe as the “only reason I got discovered and ended up on TV”.
The TV producer - Pat Llewellyn
The driving force behind Oliver’s television career who cast Oliver as The Naked Chef and crafted his on-screen persona. As well as being a producer, she was also the narrator of the original series.
In pilot episodes Oliver’s speaking directly to camera was deemed too awkward, so Llewellyn deliberately changed the style of filming, engaging him in conversation as he whirls about his kitchen, a flailing melange of Ben Sherman and oversized denim.
By selling Oliver’s lifestyle as well as his dishes she is credited with teaching a whole generation of men that if they wanted a girlfriend, they should learn how to cook. Described by Oliver as one of “TV’s most gifted matriarchs” she also successfully launched the televison careers of Gordon Ramsay and Two Fat Ladies. She died of cancer in 2017, aged 55.
The band - Scarlet Division
An indie band formed in Oliver’s Essex and the spiritual font of his indie swagger. Oliver played drums between the age of 14 and 17 and during the nascent stages of his television career briefly reformed the band with childhood friend, Leigh Haggerwood.
Despite lyrics such as ‘I wanna live my life like a wild horse racing through the sky’ and ‘sail through blue skies, sunset, sunrise,’ Scarlet Division went the way of so many late 90s indie bands – Rialto, anyone? – and faded into obscurity.
Now a London-based composer, Haggerwood has continued to write several soundtracks for Oliver’s television ventures including Jamie’s School Dinners. As for Oliver’s musical ambitions, he had to console himself in the last series of The Naked Chef by whipping up lunch at the country pile of Jay Kay, lead singer of Naughties stalwart Jamiroquai and erstwhile fiancé of Denise Van Outen.
The sous chef - Ben O’Donoghue
“Bendoooow” is how Oliver greets the Australian chef whom he met in the kitchen of the River Cafe, who appears numerous times during the Naked Chef. In an early episode, while shucking scallops, O’Donoghue describes his first impressions of Oliver as “really quiet, head down and within about a month he was this loud gregarious young lad hopping about the kitchen.
It was quite infectious really.” Later in the same series, the pair are filmed embarking on a booze cruise to Calais.
The man nicknamed “tiger” by Oliver – also oddly the name given to his grandma, Betty, who appeared in various Sainsbury’s adverts – has since returned to Australia, where he has gone on to forge his own successful television and cookery career.
The family - Trevor and Sally Oliver and sister Anna-Marie Hunt
Oliver and his sister Anna-Marie grew up in the Cricketers Pub in Clavering, Essex, which his parents Trevor and Sally still run today. His family are present to the point of ubiquity in Oliver’s shows and in one early Naked Chef episode, Bun in the Oven, Oliver and his dad rustle up a hearty meal to celebrate his sister’s pregnancy. “Dad can you pass us some salt me old mate?,” being a typical Oliver kitchen command.
Anna-Marie’s husband is Paul Hunt, a former City trader (fined for insider trading in 1999) who Oliver appointed chief executive of his empire and director of the restaurant business in 2014. Things began to go south in 2017, the year Oliver’s businesses reported losses of £20m, leading to 18 of his restaurants – and 600 jobs – being wiped out. The following year, a further 12 Jamie’s Italians were closed.
Only three of Oliver’s Italian outposts will now remain open, and 1,000 jobs are thought to be under threat.
Various reports have emerged criticising Hunt’s business approach, though Oliver has always defended his brother-in-law: “He’s honest and he’s fair. I absolutely trust him,” he said.
The best mate - Jimmy Doherty
Childhood friend, pig farmer, co-presenter, and fellow cheeky-chappy in arms: see ‘em both down South end Pier dishing out cones of chips from their pop up caff as part of the series Jamie's and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast. The pair are so close even the checks on their nowadays slightly too-tight shirts seem to align. They first met as three-year-olds in nursery and went to the same primary and secondary schools.
Aged 18, Doherty introduced Oliver to the woman who would become his wife. The plan had been to go on a double date to the cinema in Cambridge, but Oliver crashed his Ford Fiesta carrying all four of them en route.
The wife - Jools
Officially Juliette though inevitably shortened to Jools, his childhood sweetheart is a key component of brand Oliver. But it was not always so. A few years ago Oliver admitted that in series one of the Naked Chef the former model was “kept away in the bedroom” during filming in their two-bed flat in Old Street as the television executives wanted him to appear single.
The pair married in 2000 and have five children all bearing names seemingly plucked from the billing at a Nashville open mic night – River Rocket, Daisy Boo etc – and live in a mansion in Highgate, north London, with an estimated value of £9m. The family also have a country pile in Essex. In recent years Jools has expanded the family empire launching her own clothing range, Little Bird, with Mothercare.
This month, when Oliver picked up a lifetime achievement gong at the GQ Food and Drink Awards, Jools posted a message on Instagram saying, “so well deserved, such a lovely humble human love him more than I can say”.
To which Oliver replied: “Thank you Jools, you are my inspiration now get the kettle on I’m on my way back.”