…And who better to be best man than Jamie’s oldest friend and TV co-star Jimmy Doherty (who set them up on their first date!)
Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty are holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. They’re having a play fight with soap suds. Now they’re getting on a trampoline. Well, Doherty is. ‘I don’t mind doing the gay thing but I’m not getting on a trampoline,’ says Oliver with a laugh. ‘That’s going too far!’
The superchef and the country’s most famous pig farmer have been having a fine bromance since their school days in an Essex village, and you can see it every week in their Channel 4 series Jamie & Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast. But as I watch them mucking about together at our shoot, it is obvious that their love goes deeper: they really are very close and surprisingly physical. So come on, have they ever fancied each other? ‘Sure. I was always jealous of his hair,’ says Doherty quickly, fishing out his phone to show a picture of them together as teenagers.
Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty. The superchef and the country’s most famous pig farmer have been having a fine bromance since their school days in an Essex village
Oliver says he always thought Doherty was the good-looking one. ‘We’ve never kissed. But if I was gay, I would smash that!’ He means he would definitely fancy Doherty, who punches the air as if in celebration and says in return: ‘We’re quite comfortable being a bit camp sometimes. We’ve dressed up as women quite a lot.’
We’re going to find out more about that as these two 43-year-old Essex boys share outrageous stories about cross-dressing and talk openly about the times they have cried on each other’s shoulder, from the near collapse of Oliver’s restaurant business to the recent loss of Doherty’s father to cancer in May.
‘It’s not all about counselling or asking how are you feeling, it’s more that you have a real laugh,’ says Doherty. ‘Even the smallest gesture can mean the greatest thing.’
How much do they confide in each other? ‘Lots. Jamie saw me cry just last week.’ This was because of the new book, Jamie Cooks Italy, dedicated to Doherty’s father. ‘There’s a picture of him at my brother’s wedding on there,’ says Doherty. ‘Jamie gave me the book and I’m used to my dad being dead, but sorrow is a weird thing. I couldn’t control it, I had to go away on my own. Then I came back and said thank you and it started again. But luckily I had an eye infection so I could blame it on that. Pink eyes, weeping.’
He seems on the verge again. Jamie looks over with concern and says: ‘I think as you get older, especially when you’ve had kids, there are so many reasons to want to cry. Frustration, sadness, worry. Definitely nostalgia.’
Oliver says he always thought Doherty was the good-looking one. ‘We’ve never kissed. But if I was gay, I would smash that!’
When it comes to children, they certainly have a lot to talk about, because these two men have nine between them. Oliver introduced Doherty to Michaela Furney when she was one of his researchers. They have been married for nine years and have four children: Molly, eight, Cora, six, Neve, three, and Bo-Lila, who was born this year.
Oliver and wife Jools live in Primrose Hill, London, with their five children: Poppy Honey, 16, Daisy Boo, 15, Petal Blossom, nine, Buddy Bear, eight, and River Rocket, two. They married at a village church in Essex in 2000, just as he was becoming famous with his series The Naked Chef. A work colleague was his best man. ‘Should have been Jimmy really. If I was getting married again I’d have two or three best men.’
And it turns out, his old mucker may still have a chance, as Oliver has a revelation to make about his marriage. ‘Jools wants to get married again!’
Quick as a flash, Doherty asks: ‘Who to?’ ‘We’re gonna do it again,’ says Oliver. ‘Renew our vows to celebrate our 20th anniversary.’ That’s news, since their marriage has been the subject of much speculation over the years. ‘I’m not sure I’d want to be married to me,’ he told me when we met eight years ago. ‘But Jools made that decision. It’s a challenge.’
Oliver wore a pale-blue Paul Smith suit at his wedding, the bride wore white and there were not many celebrity guests because he’d only just been plucked from obscurity by a television producer who spotted him in the kitchen at the River Café in west London. Will their second wedding be at the same place? ‘No, we’ll do it completely differently. It sounds a bit cheesy, but 20 is an amazing milestone. It’s nice to have an excuse to get people together.
‘It’s really interesting who comes. It’s not judging, but who came to your first one? Who comes to your second? What happened in between? If you’re lucky, a majority of those that come a second time were there for the first.’
Oliver and Doherty met in the Essex village hall of Clavering, where there was a nursery. Oliver’s parents still run the village pub, The Cricketers, and it was there he first learned to cook. Both went to Newport Free Grammar School and Doherty says they were naughty
Doherty certainly will be there. He is the more gregarious of the two, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, his hair styled with a dark quiff. Doherty has his own pig farm in Sussex but also makes prime-time TV shows on what we eat and how it is made, including Jimmy’s Food Factory.
Oliver is one of the most famous men in Britain, with an empire that extends to books and kitchen equipment as well as those struggling restaurants. ‘The past 18 months at work have been incredibly challenging,’ he admits.
A year ago Oliver took a call in the middle of filming for Friday Night Feast to be told his restaurant business was about to go bust. ‘I had two hours to put money in and save it or the whole thing would go to s*** that day or the next day,’ he said at the time. Oliver stumped up £7.5 million of his own money then and another £5.2 million over the following months. This allowed him to cut a deal with creditors and close some locations, but keep some open. ‘We’ve still got 23 restaurants and we still employ 500 people. We’re off life-support. We’re starting to reinvest.’
How long can he keep putting in his own money? ‘I haven’t got any more,’ he says, revealing that it’s now make or break. ‘I tried to do the right thing. I’ve never been paid by the restaurant group, I’ve always reinvested. My living was on the other side.’ He means his television work, books and endorsements, like a big recent deal with Tesco, all of which helped to fund the rescue package. ‘So I could’ve just gone, “Do you know what? Let it go.” ’
He claims that he was hit by a ‘perfect storm’ that includes rising rents, rates, food costs, the minimum wage and the decline of the high street overall. But if he has no more to give, is Oliver now broke?
‘No, but there’s a point where I can’t put the other side of the business at risk as well and the people who work there. The upside is I am now fully in control of the restaurant business. It’s fully owned by me. We’re getting on top of it and I think we’ve learnt lots of lessons. And if I’m being philosophical, I think I’ll be a better boss and restaurateur in the future because of it.’
Television is what Oliver does best, and being with Doherty is what he loves, so it’s a relief for him to focus again on their Friday Night Feast, a mixed dish of a magazine show that features Oliver’s recipes, films on their ongoing fight with the worst excesses of the food industry and a spot of DIY from Doherty. It also uses taste to unlock the memories and emotions of celebrities who visit and cook at a pop-up café they set up for six weeks a year on Southend pier.
‘What I learned from the nonnas [grandmothers] I’ve met in Italy is that when you mix smell, taste and conversation, it opens the brain,’ says Jamie.
The celebrities cook and chat in the kitchen area while two dozen diners chow down and chatter around them, which makes for an unusually relaxed atmosphere.
Sometimes the stories that come out are funny, says Doherty. ‘Mark Hamill was talking about filming the first Star Wars in England, going to English pubs. He and Harrison Ford were there looking at the menu in the pub and going, “What’s spotted dick?” So he says to Harrison, “Order spotted dick!” And Harrison goes – imitating Ford’s gruff, heroic voice – “I am not ordering spotted dick.” Can you imagine that? Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker in a pub trying to order spotted dick?’
They’re off again, laughing. Event visited the filming on Southend pier on a gorgeous late summer day with sightseers craning their necks to see past the cameras into the green wooden café. Inside was Danny DeVito, who was there to film a segment of the programme in which they recreate the food from Basilicata, a tough area in the south of Italy, where his grandparents came from. ‘We sent a runner out there to buy all the ingredients for the show.’ DeVito was visibly moved.
Jamie and Jools at their wedding. They married at a village church in Essex in 2000, just as Jamie was becoming famous with his series The Naked Chef
Sir Patrick Stewart and Jessica Chastain are also in this series. How do they get such big stars? ‘The show is full of love. We’re not trying to catch ’em out,’ says Oliver. ‘It’s about their upbringing and their connection to food. You see their real personalities.’
Not everybody is happy. The Essex novelist Syd Moore tweeted: ‘Danny DeVito came to Southend the other day. Who knew? For all the contact Jamie Oliver and his team have with the locals, his café might as well be in LA. You can’t even go in there.’
Oliver looks angry. ‘First of all, the building was getting knocked down. I saved it. We’ve actually said to the public for years, “If anyone wants to run it while we’re not there, they can have it rent-free.” No one wants to run a café at the end of the pier. The production puts hundreds of thousands of pounds into the local area for that six or eight weeks.
‘Criticisms like this are just sadly a constant on social media now,’ he continues, wearily. ‘It’s easy to pick on anything.’
Southend matters to them both because it is one of the places they grew up, coming as kids for ice cream and the sea.
They met in the Essex village hall of Clavering, where there was a nursery. Oliver’s parents still run the village pub, The Cricketers, and it was there he first learned to cook. Both went to Newport Free Grammar School and Doherty says they were naughty.
‘We were like devils with angel faces. We’d be like, “Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir.” Then turn around and flick our ink pens up the teacher’s white coat, or do all sorts of naughty stuff.’
As they got older, they started to experiment. ‘I think it’s good to be in touch with your feminine side,’ says Doherty, laughing. Oliver explains: ‘When we were 18 we did go to a cross-dressing party. I went in my mum’s Seventies luminous green outfit and stupidly wore no pants. There were two girls I quite fancied. One of them got the skirt and pulled it up. That is the only time in my life that I’ve got drunk like in the cartoons, where you see three of everyone ’cos I thought, “That’s it. It’s all over. Everyone’s seen me c***.” ’
About midnight he dropped a drink on the carpet and got paranoid that everyone thought he was an idiot. ‘So I just decided I was going home. It was a four-mile walk. I took all the filling out of my boobs and when a car would come, I would jump in the mud because I didn’t want them to see me dressed as a woman.’
Danny DeVito filmed a segment of the programme in which they recreate the food from Basilicata, a tough area in the south of Italy, where his grandparents came from. ‘We sent a runner out there to buy all the ingredients for the show.’ DeVito was visibly moved.
Doherty introduced Oliver to Juliette – Jools – when he was 18. ‘We went on a double date to the cinema in Cambridge – me, Jamie, Juliette and Sue Stump. He had a Fiesta with big fog lights and an exhaust like a tractor on it. We were going over a hill listening to Bob Marley, Buffalo Soldier. We’re all singing, the guy braked in front of us and Jamie smashed into him and knocked his front lights out.’
Oliver says: ‘My fog lights were hanging off so I just ripped them out and threw them away. I was so upset.’
‘Your car’s everything at that age,’ says Jimmy. ‘Juliette must have thought, “What the hell?” ’
They were together when Oliver worked in the kitchen at the River Café, before he became famous. Meanwhile, Doherty was studying animal biology at the University of East London, then working as a pig farmer. They kept in close touch, and when Jamie’s Kitchen came to film at his farm in Cumbria, Doherty met Michaela. ‘I realised straight away that she was the one.’
They were married in a Suffolk church in 2009, travelling to the reception on a pink tractor he had bought her as a Valentine’s Day present. Doherty had been to Oliver’s stag night but Oliver didn’t make it to Doherty’s. ‘I think you were filming. It wasn’t a major thing,’ he says in a way that suggests it probably was at the time. ‘I used to travel a lot in those days,’ says Oliver, apologetically.
Jools told him to cut that down so he could spend more time with her and the family, so he now works four days a week. Both men have admitted to facing struggles in their marriages.
Jamie and Jools Oliver with their children (from left) Daisy Boo, Buddy Bear, Poppy Honey and Petal Blossom, and baby River Rocket
‘When you get married, it’s supposed to be all passion and singing and dancing, but you do have ups and downs,’ says Doherty. ‘It’s about having the patience and the belief that stuff does get tough, but then it comes back. Too many people break up so quickly.’
Jools has also admitted to spying on her husband to check he is not being unfaithful. ‘I’ll check his emails. I’ll check his Twitter. I’ll check his phone. He says I’m a jealous girl, but I think I’m fairly laid-back, considering.’
Both parents and their older girls are on an app that tracks where they are at all times, as Oliver has explained. ‘If one of the girls says, “I’m going to Camden Town” and I can see they’ve gone to Reading, then we have a problem. They can check on me, too, and see how fast I’m driving.’
Poppy and Daisy in particular live a very different life in the busy, dangerous city to the carefree one Oliver had as a child in Clavering. Then there is social media, which can be so competitive and isolating for a teenage girl. Oliver has banned them from posting pouting selfies on Instagram, but is there anything he has learnt from his friendship with Doherty that can help his daughters?
‘I’ve desperately tried to get them to not just have a best friend,’ he says, surprisingly, given that Doherty is sitting across from him. ‘We’ve always been best mates, but we’ve also been in a wider group of best mates.’
His theory is that if the girls are part of wider friendship groups, it won’t hurt so much if one of their relationships goes wrong.
‘I remember being really jealous when Jimmy went travelling around the world with another one of our mates and I was in the bloody kitchen. But if you calibrate it right, you set yourself up for success.’
That’s why he thinks the pair have survived all these years. ‘We’ve never fallen out, ever. We just got the friendship right. It’s about not being too intense.’
They’ve certainly got a chemistry together on screen that any producer would kill for, and in person there’s nothing fake about it. ‘What I get from Jamie is a sense of home,’ says Doherty, giving his buddy a hug.
‘Jamie’s Friday Night Feast’ is published by Penguin Random House, priced £20. ‘Jamie And Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast’ returns to Channel 4 later in the year