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Jamie’s FoodTube revolution


30 Aug 2013
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I KNEW that Jamie Oliver was successful, of
course. How could I not? I knew that he made
television programmes and led social crusades
and sold cookbooks by the container-load, that
there was his website and his apps, that he’d
won an Emmy in America, that the mortar and
pestle my mum gave me for Christmas has his
name on it, and that a rash of Jamie’s Italians
have sprung up on high streets.
And yet, it turns out, I know hardly anything. I
don’t know about his holding company, and
the scale of the retail operation, and that his
restaurant business has outlets opening in
Brazil and India and China and Russia and who
knows where else. I don’t know that Jamie’s
Italian turns over €140m a year, the holding
company another €40m a year. I’ve never even
heard of Barbecoa, his barbecue chain,
Recipease, his cooking school, Union Jacks, his
fish and chips venture, Jamie’s Italian
Trattorias, a restaurant sub-brand not to be
confused with Jamie’s Italians.
Since we first saw him scooting around London
in The Naked Chef, he’s become an
entrepreneur worth an estimated €280m who
employs 8,000 people. 8,000! And he’s in
charge of it all. While still doing all the cheeky
chappie stuff and still making cooking
programmes and berating Michael Gove and
banging on about people with big-screen TVs
eating cheesy chips.
When I turn up at his offices near Old Street —
so-called Silicon Roundabout, the hub of
Britain’s startup scene — to interview some of
the people involved with the tech side of the
business, we can’t, initially, find anywhere to
sit. There are five floors in all in the 50s block
but they’re all full.
“You need a bigger office,” I joke, not realising
until later that it’s just one office building out
of a whole cluster. There are multiple buildings
filled with multiple young folk all dedicated to
burnishing the Jamie Oliver brand, including a
whole team devoted to his social media, his
apps, his YouTube channels.
Because while it’s not quite correct to say that
technology is at the heart of all Oliver’s
businesses, it’s certainly at the cutting edge of
his media empire (as separate from his retail
empire and his restaurant empire) and drives
everything else.
In just over a year, FoodTube has acquired
nearly a million subscribers and is now the
third biggest food channel on YouTube;
DrinksTube has just launched; the app was,
within a few months of launch, the most
lucrative on UK iTunes; the website has eight
million visitors a month and has just walked
away with three Webbys, the Oscars of the
online world.
Jamie Oliver no longer is a TV chef, or a
campaigner, or a cookbook author, or the
owner of several chains of restaurants, he’s
also, as he tells me later, “a very strange
brand, a celebrity disruptive force”. Though
moments later, he says: “It’s a really weird
thing to try to convey without sounding like a
But it’s true. He is a strange one-man celebrity
disruptive force. One who, somehow, manages
to get away with it without sounding like a
nob. It would be impossible to explain Jamie
Oliver to a visitor who’d just dropped by from
Because alongside all the noisy stuff he does,
he is also quietly and strategically using all the
weapons at his disposal, many of which are
technology based, to try to make a real
difference to global public health. And yet, he
is also still Jamie, recognisably still the fresh-
faced, mop-topped Essex boy with a lisp and a
habit of babbling words that don’t quite make
actual sentences; whose company makes nearly
€12.5m profit a year and yet who’s clearly not
all about the money.
When I cross the road, to another office,
another five storeys of Jamie-dom, to a light
and airy room hung with modern art and meet
the man himself, I don’t mean to ask him
about tech right from the off, but the first
thing I notice is that he’s wearing a Jawbone
wristband: the activity tracker that tracks and
quantifies how much you sleep and exercise.
“I’m testing them all. There’s a bit of an arms
race going on at the moment between different
Why are you testing them? “I’m just quite
fascinated by it all. There’s lots of different
bits of technology that measure energy and
altitude and movement and weight and
temperature and heartbeat. There’s a lot of
data that can help different types of people in
different ways every single day. That’s brilliant.
I love it. And I’m testing them all: Fitbit,
Jawbone, Nike Fuel Band, Withings. It’s the
energy-in that’s the sticking point at the
You mean quantifying how many calories
you’re eating? They don’t seem to have cracked
that, do they? “Well, they will. It’s just going to
be how to handle huge amounts of data. But
there’s technology called TellSpec that can tell
exactly what is in food or blood or piss.
It can tell if there’s metals or hydrogenated
fats or what kind of vegetable and it’s very
interesting technology that can be used in
phones or with phones in the not-too-distant
future.” His “dream“, he says, is that “stuff like
these wristbands could really help to resist the
rise in diet-related disease and truly make a
difference in a sustainable way”.
“I believe that 100%. Every six months we have
a seminar here at the office and we invite
world-leading, interesting, fascinating dudes:
GPs, specialists, campaigners, etc. We get them
at a table and these are all wonderful people
who are fairly siloed. And everyone’s quite
bitter about it.”
Why bitter? “Because they say, ‘I did this, but
then someone else came along and then they
left’. Because the government comes and goes
every four years and, for the love of God, it’s
just such a waste of money. Change needs to
happen everywhere. To save money and to save
lives. And if I’m boring you, slap me and move
on, but to know how people are living and
what their patterns are to have a more holistic
approach that a GP could have access to could
be huge.”
But then, it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s so
evangelical about technology. It taps into the
same place that seems to have captured his
enthusiasm for food. He is, he says, a “self-
confessed geek”. What do you mean by that? “I
just love intense, high-level weird stuff.” Like
what? “Anything. You want to talk about
biodynamics? You want to talk about making
beautiful fly hooks? You want to talk about the
best wild salmon cure? The best salt on the
And yet, this was the boy who left school with
two GCSEs. Who’s struggled all his life with
dyslexia. Do you think your school career
might have been different if certain technology
that’s around today had been around then?
“My nephew is dyslexic too and, unlike me,
they get fully checked, they get special
assistance in class.
“He’s a really bright boy but he still struggles
with technical bits. So … he can, I’ve forgotten
the word? Touch type? He can touch type. If
you’re dyslexic you struggle with writing, but if
you can touch type it’s like you’re not dyslexic
so technology has the capacity to be a
wonderful thing.”
I’ve interviewed Oliver before, at TED in
California, the year after he’d won the TED
prize and was feted by West Coast tech gurus,
billionaires and campaigners who hoped his
self-styled “food revolution” might make a dent
on the nation’s eating habits.
It was the first time a celebrity, a TV star, had
won the prize, but in some ways, TED and
California was the natural home for his
combination of can-do zeal and hard-to-
repress optimism. Though, in the end, as
anyone who watched his US reality show saw,
it did manage to repress it; the scale of the
problem in the US, the dysfunctionality of its
food industry and food-related health
problems was so vast and intractable that even
Oliver’s cheery Essex boy charm couldn’t make
much headway, particularly after the TV show
was canned.
He still has a base in California. And as a result
of the time he’s spent over there, he’s been
exposed to various Silicon Valley types. He
scoffs when I ask him about the British
equivalent, Silicon Roundabout, AKA Tech City,
even though his headquarters is slap bang in
the middle of it.
There’s some “interesting boys” doing
interesting stuff, he says. “But you just can’t
put it in the same sentence as Silicon Valley! It
would be like my village versus America in a
war. It’s ridiculous.”
He met “the Jawbone boys” a couple of years
ago. “They’re friends with the Instagram guys,
Kevin and Mike. I met them through a friend I
used to cook with who now has a restaurant in
San Francisco. That’s the thing about San
Francisco, it’s quite hard not to have a coffee
and meet someone who’s doing a startup.
“So I met Kevin and Mike and they’d just
started an app called Aperture. I’m a geek and
it was just a good bit of tech: if you took a
picture you could add depth of field to it. And
then they built in a camera and filters and, of
course, that’s Instagram.”
So, you met them before they’d done all that?
“They’d been going a handful of months and so
I was one of their very early adopters but only
because I enjoyed it and because it worked.”
He’s been hooked ever since. “I use Twitter,
but the challenge of getting so much out into
so little digits, and it’s just words … I’m no
psychologist but it just seems to bring out the
worst in humans. It can provoke bile and I try
and avoid negativity as much as possible. With
Instagram, because it’s just images, it’s a much
warmer audience.” http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/features/jamies-foodtube-revolution-276025.html
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