"My mom did most of the family cooking," he said. "My dad was a chef and he used to work downstairs but I guess kind of like mum used to do a lot of pasta dishes or typical English dishes, stews, shepherd's pies, you know, beautiful homemade pies and stuff like that, roast dinners, and probably the first thing I ever -- well actually the first thing I ever cooked was an omelet, then I started making bread and then I started doing roast dinners on Sunday, all quite young. And by the time I was 8, I was trying to get pocket money out of my dad because all of my buddies were getting like a couple of dollars a week to go and do stuff, and Dad wouldn't give me anything. He said you go and earn it, so he had me downstairs peeling vegetables, sacks and sacks of onions and potatoes and carrots and stuff like that. And he was pretty hard-core on getting me working everywhere."
Oliver's meteoric rise in the cooking world began even before he hit his teens. He started cooking in family restaurants when he was 10.
"By the time I was 13, I was pretty much doing most jobs that were in the kitchen ... sort of like the head chef's right-hand little boy, really, little shadow," he said. "All of my summer holidays were spent in the kitchen. I used to make more money actually, so like an 11, 12, 13-year-old, you know, I'd be earning, I'd be earning $2 an hour but I used to do a lot of hours. You know I used to be doing about 50 hours a week so I'd be walking around in brand new Nikes, Adidas track suit tops, and then I would go breakdancing, I would have the old ghetto blaster and I had my ... little dodgie track suits and stuff like that.
"But it was good actually, I mean I think more kids should -- I mean the thing is, both America and England [are] a bit touchy about kids and work. And it's such a shame really because kids are little s*** and actually giving them, not just giving them something to do in sort of the sense of working in a team but also the ability to earn money and not just expect it, I think was really good for me. It made me save up for things and understand the meaning of hard work really."
Oliver said he tried to instill the same values of hard work and earning what you get in his own children.
"The kids came up to me and said, 'We really want a skateboard,'" he said. "And I don't really, I really don't want my kids to grow up being spoiled brats, so I'm like, 'No you can't have it,' and they're like, 'Please, please, please.' And I'm like, right. So I gave them an unrealistic task, and I said 'If you learn 30 herbs in the garden, then you can have a skateboard.' And of course, the little bastards learn every single one of them. And as they were doing it and learning it, I was going, 'Well how can I make it harder?' And so I was like well, 'You're going to have to smell it and taste it blindfolded.' And I really did! I wouldn't give them the skateboard until they got all 30 right."
The path from mere celebrity chef to chef-activist, said Oliver, ran through schools, where he would consult on lunch menus, or talk to kids about eating right. His time with the primary school set has left him with a lot of faith in the young ones, though not always with their parents.