Walking into the restaurant at Brooklyn’s DUMBO House club, Jamie Oliver spots a rotisserie spinning cauliflower and cabbage heads where you might expect to see chickens. “This would not have happened five years ago,” he says, grinning. “It’s a sign of the times.” So is the success of the British chef’s 23rd cookbook, Ultimate Veg. His first all-vegetarian title shot onto Amazon’s bestseller list last month—a victory Oliver, 44, is savoring after some difficult years.
“I’m really good,” he tells PEOPLE. “Better than I’ve been in a long, long time.”
The onetime food wunderkind—who was just 24 when his show The Naked Chef helped propel the Food Network to success two decades ago—has watched his restaurant empire crumble. Eight months ago the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group went into administration, a form of bankruptcy protection.
Its creditors are expected to lose up to $106 million, and 22 of his 25 restaurants have closed, with roughly 1,000 jobs lost. “We smashed it for eight years, and we struggled for four years,” says Oliver. Though he says the demise was “tough on every level,” Oliver also feels a sense of relief since entering administration: “The pain’s gone. The hemorrhaging of cash is gone. And there’s a result. It’s not the result I wanted, but now you move on.”
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By his side from the beginning has been his wife, Jools. The former high school sweethearts will celebrate 20 years of marriage in June. “It’s not always easy,” he says. “She probably hates me 40 percent of the time, but 60 percent is pretty good.” They have five kids—Poppy, 17, Daisy, 16, Petal, 10, Buddy, 9, and River, 3—and Jools, 45, a kids’ clothing designer, is trying to persuade him to have a sixth. “Can someone please have a word with her?” he jokes. “I am so done, but I like to support her.”
Amid his restaurants’ downward spiral, coming home to his family was “the best antidote in the world,” says Oliver. He cherishes the moments when he can give Jools a foot rub or watch Buddy fillet a fish better than any chef twice his age. “When you’re tested like I’ve been,” says Oliver, “all that matters is friends, family and health.”
Before owning restaurants, Oliver grew up in them. The son of Trevor and Sally Oliver, who own the Cricketers pub in Clavering, England, he started busing tables at age 8. After culinary school he landed a job as sous-chef at the River Café in London, where he was discovered by a BBC producer. The Naked Chef, named for Oliver’s stripped-down approach to cooking, aired on the BBC in 1999 and hit the Food Network a year later. As his popularity grew, he opened the Barbecoa and Jamie’s Italian chains in Britain as well as Fifteen, a nonprofit eatery that trained underprivileged youth—all now closed. (Oliver continues to license his name to 70 restaurants globally and still has three locations at London’s Gatwick Airport.)
But it was hard to make a profit from selling high-quality ingredients at a mid-market price, says Oliver, who also blames the economic slowdown caused by the anticipation of Brexit. He put more than $15 million of his own money into the business in a last-ditch effort and personally paid every employee until the doors shut, he says: “I feel grateful for a master class in the best and the worst. If you haven’t been tested, you’re not trying hard enough.”
Now Oliver is concentrating on his cookbooks—he’s the bestselling nonfiction author in the U.K.—and starring on the British TV series that accompany them. He’s also continuing his crusade to make food healthier for kids. His latest project, Bite Back 2030, aims to cut childhood obesity in the U.K. in half in the next 10 years.
“I want to be useful,” he says. “You do wise up. Hopefully I won’t make the same mistakes, and I’ll keep being creative and trying to make positive change.”