Snubbed by Meghan and Harry, mediocre food and £90m down the pan… how Jamie Oliver went from flavour of the month to kitchen nightmare
3rd January 2019

The kitchen sensation first bounded onto our screens back in 1999 with his own BBC show: The Naked Chef, and the 42-year-old has built an impressive culinary empire in the decades since.

But this week Jamie revealed he was snubbed by Prince Harry and Meghan, when he offered to serve up the food at their wedding back in May.

Appearing as a guest on Sunday Brunch, Jamie claimed he wrote to the royal couple offering his services, but never received a response.

He explained: "I did actually write and say if they want the food sorted I would bring the best of British and American chefs together to do the catering.

"I didn't get a reply. That is a true story."

Asked by host Tim Lovejoy if it was because he was going to charge too much, Jamie hit back: "No, I would have done it for free!"

He went on: "You know, I like a bit of a moment. I would have got all the American gang over and got all the British dudes… It would have been the best brigade of kitchen ever."

The snub comes just months after his Barbecoa steakhouse chain crumbled to reveal £7million of debt.

And it appears as if punters are also going cold on Jamie's Italian, the celebrity chef's biggest restaurant chain, which has racked up a staggering £70million worth of debt, including £2.2 million in wages owed to staff.

As part of a deal with creditors, Jamie agreed to shut 12 of his 25 sites, with eight more struggling outlets forced to ask for rent reductions to stand a chance of staying open.

Behind that cheeky grin, it's all starting to look a bit emperor's new clothes for the Naked Chef.

Stefan Chomka, editor of Big Hospitality magazine, explained where it all started to go wrong for Jamie's restaurants.

He told us: "People have high expectations when they eat in one of his restaurants and this has proven hard for the company to manage and maintain as it has grown – and in the face of rising costs.

"While I’m sure people don’t expect that Jamie will actually be cooking their food when they eat in a Jamie’s Italian, his association with the brand is very strong and this can lead to disappointment if they feel they haven’t had the best experience.

"When Jamie’s Italian opened a decade ago it felt like it was offering something new.

"However, the company, by its own admission, did become a bit too complacent over the past few years and failed to keep up with fresh competition, with its rivals offering a similar experience but at lower prices."

The glory days

Flash back just a few years and you could find Jamie all over our screens and on the Sunday Times Under 30 Rich List, buoyed by endless TV appearances and ad deals.

That lucrative TV career kicked off purely by chance: Jamie was working at The River Cafe in Fulham, which just happened to be the subject of a BBC documentary, Christmas At The River Cafe.

Producers fell for his mockney accent and blokey style, and he was served up to the public as an inspiration for fellas put off by the complexity of cooking.

His first show, The Naked Chef (named after his reported love of cooking in the buff) was an instant hit, as was his debut cookbook, both out in 1999.

More spin-off shows followed, and with them came Jamie's first crusade, demanding that schools offer healthier lunch choices to combat the obesity epidemic.

He started cropping up during the ad breaks as well, flogging everything from Tefal pans to Hello Fresh food delivery boxes.

Meanwhile, an 11-year partnership with Sainsbury's, from 2000 to 2011, was netting him an estimated £1.2 million pounds per year.

After scooping up an MBE in 2003, Jamie's opinions on school dinners became government policy, and he went on to set up Fifteen, a restaurant which teaches culinary skills to disadvantaged adults.

Next came Jamie's Italian, which boasted 42 UK branches at its peak and was franchised all over the world.

The chain's 2008 launch was followed in 2009 by the opening of Jamie's first Recipease cooking school-slash-deli, and a pair of London Barbecoa branches sprung up soon after in 2011.

All the while, Jamie kept on notching up TV appearances, waging his crusade against school dinners and pumping out recipe books faster than you can say "wagyu beef".

But controversy brewed with Sainsbury's, and Jamie's employer turned on him after he slammed parents who give their kids junk food in their lunchboxes.

A dog's dinner

In 2014, food hygiene inspectors came across mouse droppings, out-of-date cuts and mouldy carcasses in the St Paul's Barbecoa, leading to a voluntary 24-hour closure of the site and the awarding of a stomach-churning one out of five food hygiene rating.

A year later, Recipease had its chips, and the final store closed down on Christmas Eve 2015, with 40 employees handed their P45s as an early Christmas present.

And now Barbecoa has its own problems, while closures at Jamie's Italian (which he blamed in part on Brexit) mean the flagship chain is also looking a bit past its best-before date.

Industry expert Stefan added: "While having the name of such a high profile person as Jamie Oliver above the door brings with it enormous opportunities, it also comes with challenges.

"And in a marketplace as competitive as the Italian casual dining sector you can’t afford to be second best."

While things aren't looking all roses with his restaurants, Jamie's books are still selling well – one part of his empire which is still thriving long after the glory days have ended.

Despite losing out on the Christmas number one spot to David Walliams' kids book, Bad Dad, his latest recipe collection, 5 Ingredients, was one of last year's best-sellers.

But on all other fronts, Jamie's personal wealth has plummeted.

He has reportedly lost £90million since his peak in 2014, frittering a huge chunk of his fortune away on bad investments.

"I didn’t know enough about the realities of business and all the grown-up stuff that revolves around a man,” he told The Times.

Naked Chef laid bare

Back when The Naked Chef first aired, Jamie was such a sensation that he ended up cooking lunch for then-PM Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street.

Today, the unlikely pair have more in common than just that lunch: Jamie is also anti-Brexit.

Jamie's big fight is focused on one key issue, a sugar tax, in the belief that inflated prices will put us off scoffing too many sweet treats.

Understandably, not everyone is so keen on the idea of more expensive soft drinks and pricier cakes.

Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin, for one, blames Jamie's decision to charge more for sugary drinks at Jamie's Italian for the recent problems at his own restaurants.

“Jamie Oliver’s sugar tax, which he got us to pay, is costing us £3million," the Brexiteer businessman fumed.

For some of Jamie's critics, it's a touch of hypocrisy which tips his persona from cheeky to smarmy.

They argue he shouldn't demand that schools stop having bake sales, for health reasons, but still serve up high-calorie deserts in his own stores.

The chef also rubbed people up the wrong way when he claimed poor and fat people think "in a different gear", so his "middle-class logic" may not work on them.

He's managed to annoy some of his competitors as well, and a long-running feud with foul-mouthed Kitchen Nightmares star Gordon Ramsay boiled over into a blistering public row last year.

The pair are no longer talking after Jamie appeared to make remarks about having a bigger family than Gordon, forgetting about the recent miscarriage suffered by his rival's wife.

And it certainly wouldn't have been the first time Jamie had the knives out, after a suggestion Jamie made that his sweary competitor is like a dementia sufferer.

Away from the headlines, Jamie Oliver's mountains of business debt will be sure to leave a sour taste for the small companies he owes cash to – and the employees who aren't getting paid.

While he may still have many of his millions, it's fair to say from the closure of his restaurants and opposition to his tax plans that he's no longer flavour of the month.

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