Most everyone has heard of Jamie Oliver—either through one of his cooking shows, his many appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, his TV series Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, one of his many books, or through any of multiple other sources. But it’s one thing to follow such a person from afar—and quite another to be able to communicate directly with him. Even knowing who he is and having seen him as others have, I was quite startled by the sheer optimism, directness and enthusiasm of this chef, entrepreneur, author, food advocate, and all-around casual genius.
I’m sure his humble beginnings had no small influence on his down-to-earth, street-level approach. “I grew up in my parents’ pub and I’ve been cooking since I was seven years old,” Jamie told Organic Connections. “Cooking was the one thing I did really well. I was terrible in school, so I just kept cooking.”
From the Essex pub in which he first worked (still run by his parents, Trevor and Sally), Jamie went on to graduate Westminster Catering College, not long after which he took a job at London’s famed River Café. He was there for three and a half years, working with two of his biggest influences, renowned chefs (and owners of the River Café) Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. “The women really influenced me,” Jamie said: “Ruth Rogers, Rose Gray, Elizabeth David and Alice Waters.”
It was while at the River Café that Jamie was discovered by a film crew doing a feature on the restaurant—and The Naked Chef was born. Jamie has never looked back.
The thrust of The Naked Chef, and the many books and television programs that have followed, has been the instruction of others in the cooking of simple but delicious cuisine. Jamie has never believed it difficult—and he has spent a considerable portion of his time trying to convince everyone else of that. “With just the littlest bit of instruction, anyone can learn to cook tasty, inexpensive and lovely food,” said Jamie. “The problem isn’t accessibility to food; it’s accessibility to food education. Our parents’ generation didn’t grow up learning how to cook, so they didn’t pass on the skills, and the schools have all but stopped teaching people about food and cooking. That’s why I’m trying so hard to get food education back into schools. Cooking is a necessary skill.”
When one hears the words “Jamie Oliver” and “schools” in the same sentence, one cannot help but think about his many endeavors in this arena. Probably the most public of Jamie’s activities has been his hard work in the transformation of food in schools. His initial foray into this arena was in 2005 in the UK, with the series Jamie’s School Dinners. The effect from the show was profound: substantial changes were made to the food being served throughout the UK schools.
As shown in the series Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Jamie then came to America (Huntington, West Virginia) to work with the city, which, at the time, was listed as having the highest obesity rate in the nation. Over the six weeks he was there, he seriously impacted lives and, perhaps more importantly, gave broad public exposure to the crises of food quality within our schools.
For the following season, Jamie chose Los Angeles and began filming the show. In the third week of shooting, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District pulled Jamie’s permit to film the program within the schools.
This did not stop Jamie—in fact it hardly slowed him down. Immediately on the heels of the stoppage, Jamie and his foundation began circulating a petition, garnering tens of thousands of signatures. They created a Facebook page that quickly grew to 10,000 members—the largest Food Revolution concentration in the country. They connected with local organizations and began formulating a plan.
Shortly thereafter, a new school superintendent took over. He was greeted on his first day by representatives of the Food Revolution, along with 10 other organizations in collaboration, and was presented with an enormous collection of letters from local citizens, including over 500 from school children.
Throughout the following summer, local events were held including a screening of the first episode of the show. In September, when school opened, the school district unveiled a brand-new menu with more fruits and vegetables and less processed food. Some of the least nutritional items were removed, such as Tater Tots and chicken nuggets. The new superintendent appeared with Jamie on Jimmy Kimmel Live and agreed to remove flavored milk from the menu as well—which he then followed through on.
Have we made progress? “I’d like to think so,” responded Jamie, “but really it’s two steps forward, one step back. In L.A. we got flavored milk out, but they put pizza back in as a vegetable. It’s decisions like that that make me crazy. It’s absolutely the government’s responsibility to feed children properly at school, 180 days a year. Properly means fresh food, cooked from scratch by someone who cares. It’s not rocket science; it just takes training for the cooks and education for the kids. And yet school boards and governments resist. I give a lot of credit to Mayor Mike Bloomberg in New York City. Banning supersize fizzy drinks is bold and brilliant.”
The television series have been but one part of his work with food education in schools. Jamie’s Kitchen Garden Project—operated through his charity, the Jamie Oliver Foundation—aims to help schools build the facilities and provide training and resources for teaching children the wonders of growing and cooking their own food. “Kids love growing stuff,” Jamie said of the program. “And when they grow fruits and vegetables, they are really happy to eat fruits and vegetables. As the foundation expands, we hope to do more kitchen gardens too. In L.A. we put a garden into a school and the students took great pride in it.”
Despite the claims of parents to the contrary, Jamie has always found children open to the idea of healthy food—when patience is utilized. “They are open to everything!” Jamie maintained. “So many parents tell me that their kids just won’t eat anything. In my experience, whether in the UK or US, it simply hasn’t been true. It takes some effort to get them to try new things, and they may not like everything, but there will always be some vegetable or dish that the kids will eat.”
Jamie’s training has also extended to older students and young adults. A second program run out of the Jamie Oliver Foundation is the Fifteen Apprentice Program, which each year recruits 18 unemployed young people between the ages of 18 and 24 and puts them through an intensive 12-month apprentice program at the Fifteen London restaurant kitchen.
Jamie himself has learned an interesting lesson from this program—that of support for these people outside the program itself. “I’ve learned that family is so important,” he observed. “What we realized is that the program can’t just be when the students are ‘at work.’ We need to create support for them outside of work too. Most of these kids have terrible family situations, and when we’ve been able to replace those with the Fifteen family and keep the positive messages coming, then the kids are more likely to succeed in the long term—versus slipping back into their old habits.”
Another educational approach Jamie has utilized, called Jamie’s Ministry of Food, takes its inspiration from a British initiative during the Second World War. At that time of widespread shortages and severe rationing, the government set up a national network of food advisors and cooking teachers to educate the public about food and nutrition so that they would be able feed themselves properly with the rations available.
In 2008 Jamie decided to reintroduce this concept, opening centers around the UK for cooking and food education. According to Jamie’s website, the concept has now gone global and there are allied projects in Australia and the US.
“I’m still surprised that the governments aren’t funding the programs,” said Jamie. “We’ve shown them how the people love the classes, get newfound confidence, and make significant changes in their lives after just a few lessons. It seems a no-brainer for them to dedicate a little money to putting cooking centers all over the UK.”
In Los Angeles, the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation has set up a “Big Rig” Teaching Kitchen, a large mobile kitchen that has traversed the Greater Los Angeles Area hosting cooking classes for children and adults alike. The big rig has averaged 320 students per week. “The truck is killing it in Los Angeles,” Jamie reported. “The US Foundation team has created these fantastic classes that the kids and parents love.”
It is evident that Jamie’s message continues to spread far and wide. A few months ago, Food Revolution Day saw events standing up for real food in over 500 cities, in more than 60 countries around the world.
One would think, with all Jamie is doing—and we didn’t mention his two new first-class restaurants and many of his other activities—that he would have some favorites.
This is not the case, when we directly asked him about it. “Oh, mate, there is no way I could possibly answer that question,” Jamie replied. “I’m very lucky because I love almost everything I am doing. I love working with the new restaurants, Jamie’s Italian and Union Jack’s; I love writing the books and making telly. Although the campaign shows are pretty rough on me, I can look back and be proud of what I accomplished. The foundations are really starting to kick off, which has been fun—the first Food Revolution Day took place in more than 60 countries. I was so honored and proud that people care that much about real food to take the time to be part of it.”