ESSEX-BORN chef Jamie Oliver is once again courting controversy in his quest to educate the nation about cooking. The dogged food fanatic talks to Hannah Stephenson.

No sooner does Jamie Oliver’s latest cookbook hit the shops, than the Naked Chef goes and says something which whips up a frenzy.

“Yeah, controversy,” he says, laughing. “There’s always a bit of that following me.”

There was a furore surrounding his recent comments on low-income families eating junk food and spending their money on huge TVs, and immigrants working harder in his kitchens than young Britons.

Even our columnist Jack Monroe spoke out against Oliver’s “class tourism”. She wrote: “Popping into a struggling family’s home to shoot a television programme does not qualify you to talk about how people should spend their money, especially when you have a £150million fortune to go home to.”

But despite the controversy, the country’s most famous chef arrives at his airy North London offices dressed in a blue checked shirt, cotton trousers and open-toed sandals, looking tanned and relaxed, having just returned from a family holiday in Cornwall.

“I guess I should have known better because, more than most people, I pride myself on being involved, getting my hands dirty and seeing both sides of the coin,” he says.

“The reaction is really divided. For the people who think I’m being patronising, rude or offensive, of course I apologise. At the same time, I probably said it because of my continued passion that the knowledge of how to cook is without question the biggest luxury now.

“It’s about priorities. And priorities of any class – how you feed yourself and your children – is a massive subject right now.”

His latest cookbook, Save With Jamie, he explains, is in response to the growing frustration of people who feel their supermarket bills have soared, and who want to make their food go further.

“People just wanted affordable, tasty food. They were caught between, ‘Do I go out for a takeaway or do I save money?’”

Oliver and his family don’t really do takeaways.

“We’ve probably had two this year. The last time I went to McDonald’s was about 10 years ago. Never KFC. I bought KFC, about two weeks ago, because I wanted to see – and examine – what you could get for £16.

“Years ago, I had a chip on my shoulder about certain fast food purveyors, but people like McDonald’s are leading the way in mass fast food and buying Brit-ish and Irish, 100 per cent organic meals and free-range eggs. I never thought I’d be saying that.

“I think they’re trying hard and if they wanted to make vegetables and salad cool, they’d have more power than anyone else on the planet to do it.

“In a way, I’m not anti-fast food. But when it becomes a solution three or four nights a week, we’ve got a problem.”

For the book, he wan-ted to devise dishes that were either a third or half the price of a takeaway. The result is meals that cost an average £1.32 a portion.

If people can’t afford the cover price of £26, he and his publisher, in partnership with the Reading Agency, have donated a copy of his new cookbook to every UK library.

There’s something genuine about Oliver’s passion and down-to-earth attitude. which has helped make him one of the most successful chefs in the country.

Over the years he’s had his fingers in a lot of pies – campaigning to improve school dinners, placing disadvantaged young people in his string of Fifteen restaurants, preparing lunch for then Prime Minister Tony Blair, founding the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation charity and creating Jamie’s Ministry of Food, a network of centres which aim to teach people about food and nutrition. And of course, there have been countless TV shows – including his latest, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals.

Jamie, who began honing his cooking skills in his parents’ pub as a boy, may now be worth an estimated £150 million, but his endless energy comes from a genuine passion and serious work ethic.

His comments in Good Housekeeping that European immigrants are “tougher” than their British counterparts, who tend to “whinge” about too-long hours, again prompted a mixed reaction.

“I wasn’t generalising, It was really about chefs. There are far too many boys coming into the industry who think they’re knackered after 44 hours.

“There’s the concept of mummies phoning up saying we’re working their little boys too hard,” he says. “Our kitchens are hard work. The average was 70-100 hours when I was in there. It’s a tough industry. We’ve got to toughen up a bit.”

So how can British youths develop a better work ethic?

“To be honest, I think mums and dads have got to kick them..”

Oliver says balancing his workload with family life is difficult. He spends more time at home these days – but maintaining his success and being the perfect family man was never going to be easy.

He says: “I have very specific time off for holidays and very specific days off. I try and stick to it.

“I largely work with ladies and a proportion of them have kids. Having a tight, great team, we all want to get that balance between working hard, being creative, and having time for yourself and your family.

“Being a good boss, a good father, a good husband and a good friend. I mean, how the hell am I supposed to do all that?” he adds. “For me, the future is about being positive and trying to keep lifting the bar.”

Save With Jamie: Shop Smart, Cook Clever, Waste Less by Jamie Oliver is published by Michael Joseph, priced £26. His new series, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals, is on Channel 4 on Mondays.