When, in 2002, Jamie Oliver launched Fifteen, a not-for-profit restaurant designed to train up 15 disadvantaged, young, unemployed candidates into chefs, few expected it would be a success. The initiative was broadcast as a Channel 4 series – Jamie’s Kitchen – and ended with 12 apprentices completing the programme (three dropped out) and a restaurant that remained solidly booked out for months.
The show pulled in 5.4 million viewers, 24% of the audience share, at a time when Oliver’s reputation was taking a battering from the press. He was described as a “Hollyoaks reject” by the Guardian, “Benny from Crossroads does cooking” said the Mirror. “It may be hard for long-term fans of Master Oliver to fathom the profundity of the nation’s loathing for their mockney pin-up,” wrote one critic in the Independent, before reluctantly admitting that the show had transformed Oliver “from a national semi-pariah to a plausible hero”.
Last week, after 17 years and up to 150 graduates, Fifteen London closed its doors, along with the rest of Oliver’s restaurant empire in the UK. The chef said he was “deeply saddened” by the collapse of his businesses, which also included 22 Jamie’s Italian outlets, plus Barbecoa in London and a Jamie’s Diner at Gatwick airport. More than 1,000 staff will lose their jobs. Critics have pointed to the group’s aggressive over-expansion, while the Daily Telegraph reckoned that the failure “had been a long time coming”.
But speaking to the Observer, former trainees from the original Fifteen cohort insist their legacy will live on. And they won’t hear a word against the man who gave them their first break…
Anna Jones, 40
Cook, food writer and stylist
I did an economics degree and was working in consumer PR, so I wasn’t a typical Fifteen trainee. But it shifted the axis for me: cooking wasn’t really a career choice back then if you were from an academic background and it taught me about food and I learnt to cook on fast forward at 24. I only just got in – I was a month away from the cut-off age.
I have a lot of warm memories. Jamie was so hands-on even though his business was blowing up and everyone wanted a piece of him. He was cooking dinner for Prince Charles, for the G20 – that’s why it was so exciting to be in the kitchen with him so much of the time. He was really generous, a friend and a sounding board. If someone had any troubles going on, he would always know and he was there for us. He’s incredibly warm. He’s a busy man and a big deal but even now, if I ask him for advice, his opinion for the cover of a new cookbook or something, he will come back to me on text message quicker than some of my friends do.
I ended up staying at the restaurant for over a year and muscled my way into the media side of the business and stayed for seven years writing recipes and doing food shoots. He taught us all a real respect for food, its provenance and a connection with nature.
I’m a hard worker and I would have been OK but I don’t know if I would be where I am now. Working with Jamie, who is a massive pioneer in changing the landscape of this country, and learning first hand from him? Well, I couldn’t have paid for that.
Tim Siadatan, 35
Chef and founder of restaurants Trullo and Padella
I’d just left school when I joined Fifteen. Aside from the obvious – cooking – it opened my eyes to the food industry, to the business and how important it was to source quality ingredients. If you understand the depth of knowledge from that aspect, it changes your connection with food. Jamie took us on a lot of sourcing trips in Italy and across the UK to farms and vineyards, olive groves and abattoirs. It was part of the training.
Jamie himself is such a unique character; over 15 years later I’ve never met anyone like him. He has authenticity when it comes to helping people, you could see it back then. I think it speaks volumes that he had the idea to open up a social enterprise in his mid-twenties to help people from different backgrounds and that he’s gone on to do such large campaigns to change the way we think about food. To have that vision and courage and be that generous is rare. I don’t know many people like that who will go out of their way for you. Your parents might, but it’s rare for other people to genuinely mean it.
The training was unique, you were immersed in every aspect. The focus in food colleges was very dated back then and they were breeding the same types of traditional chefs based on classic French cooking. Jamie was bored stiff by that. I felt really nurtured and supported by him. He has a great ability to make you feel relaxed and at ease with yourself. For sure I wouldn’t have had the success I did without having Fifteen as a badge of mine.
The negative press Jamie gets is outrageous considering he only set out to create positive change. It’s sad what’s happened with the restaurants – but no one died. This business is fickle but he’s still had the biggest impact as a public voice on food. He’s shaped a generation.
Elisa Roche, 39
Group food director, TI Media
I won’t hear a bad word. I know we all must sound like mad Jamie disciples but he really did make such a difference in all our lives and we all love him a lot. Being accepted as a Fifteen graduate on Jamie’s Kitchen totally changed my life for the better, forever. Jamie gave us all his mobile phone number, he chipped in when we couldn’t pay rent and listened when we were finding it all a bit much. He took a chance on me when I was an unemployed 23-year-old and living in a hostel. I won’t go into why I was there but I was vulnerable and depressed. I felt stuck and was finding it really hard to get work. I was looking for something to believe in.
Jamie made us trainees feel like his little siblings – he didn’t pretend to care, he really cared. That pattern went on for years, we all still ask him for advice now. Because of that there is now a network of graduates who live and breathe his caring philosophy. We all try to help each other out and celebrate each other’s successes. Who else can say they have created a sprawling family of hopeful young people from diverse backgrounds, all going out in the world with the intention of doing and sharing good?