Jamie Oliver: I want my kids to have a hard time

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

Known – and adored – around the world, he is the best-selling non-fiction author in British history, has a TV career spanning a quarter of a century and somehow always seems so normal.

Maybe it’s his huge brood of children. Oliver and his wife Jools have five children between the ages of seven and 22, which should certainly 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 who graced our screens 25 years ago, is back in the spotlight with his latest children’s book, Billy And The Epic Escape – the second he has written and a sequel to the first. And while he promotes the adventures of his hero character Billy and his friends, he also talks openly about his own problems 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 so many children are on terribly long waiting lists, desperate for a diagnosis, he is able to connect with both parents and children. He acknowledges that neurodiversity can make children picky eaters. He knows that being the second most successful British author is an incredible achievement for someone who looks at a page and sees the words jumping around. But he also knows that his neurodiversity has made – and kept – him who he is today.

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

There is an important message about trust in the book, something that Oliver struggled with.

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

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

Oliver talks in an open manner, with those famous blue eyes still sparkling, and is not afraid of a challenge. He talks gratefully about the opportunity to work at weekends when he was young, at his family’s home and pub in Clavering, The Cricketers, which is now a hotel. “Cooking – 100 percent – ​​saved me. Because while everything was going very badly at school, at the weekend – at work – I could be someone and have something to offer. Cooking became normalised, earning £1.20 an hour became normalised, and getting paid for doing what I promised became normalised. So on the one hand my confidence was growing, and dare I say it, on the other hand it had diminished somewhat.

“I had such a grudge against the written word and traditional learning. And I’m done with that now,” he says, almost relieved. “What I’m trying to say is that book two wasn’t a chore. It was more than exciting. It was completely intentional. And probably without knowing it too much, it was therapy. And to be approaching 50 and still learning great lessons, and still making yourself vulnerable to criticism – I’m proud of that.”

Oliver’s words are sincere. He clearly cares about the book and wants it to be loved. He can now rely on his own unique process to get those words onto paper, and is genuinely proud of his achievements. Growing up “not good at many things measured in a school environment”, not receiving good school reports or positive reinforcement, he has come a long way, most of which he owes to that lovely old pub.

“Cafes are welcome for everyone,” he says, reminiscing. “Cafes are really unique. My best friends were travelers. And I grew up among farmers and retirees. 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 in the back; pubs are truly special places. And that was actually my school. Teenager Jamie was in love with people, optimistic about life and learned how to keep the glass half full. And I don’t mean it in a romantic or sweet way. But when you live in a bar and interact with the public, you see the best and the worst of the community, but mostly the best.

“Every day you go to service, and even as a child I was still serving as a child. Dad went to the service from twelve to three, six to eleven. It’s like theater. And no matter what happens, you have to push yourself and go for it.

“Even today I tell my girls, you have to brush your teeth, look in the mirror and decide that it will be a positive day, decide to see the glass half full. And I know – I know, I know, I know – it’s easier said than done. But even if you try, and if you have that intention, it’s about having the glass half full most of the time and hopefully having friends around you who can support you on the bad days.”

Oliver really comes alive when he talks about that pub. That’s no surprise, because that’s still the lifelong dream.

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

He bursts out laughing as he reiterates how happy he is, but with the big 5-0 looming, perhaps Jamie Oliver’s next big thing will take him right back to his roots.

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

“But I still haven’t achieved my career goal of opening a beautiful pub and doing my version of what I grew up doing.”

Jamie Oliver’s Billy And The Epic Escape is published by Puffin Books and costs £14.99. now available

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