By Maria Pilar Clark
Well known for his recent work in changing eating habits in British schools, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is using his star power to aid the success of others.
Known as “The Naked Chef,” English celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has made his Essex accent, simple use of organic foods and keen wit famous as he reaches millions of viewers via various Food Network and British Broadcasting Co. (BBC) cooking programs every day.
Oliver literally was born and raised in the foodservice industry. He grew up working alongside his parents in their pub-restaurant, The Cricketers, where he peeled potatoes, shelled peas and prepped vegetables. According to Oliver, he “could chop like a demon,” by age 11.
After attending culinary schools in England and France, and then working at top-notch restaurants throughout England, Oliver found himself employed at London’s River Café. During his fourth year at the restaurant, a documentary about the cafe was filmed, and the film’s editors decided to “show a lot of this cheeky kid who was so into the cooking that he’d answer back to the crew,” Oliver recalls.
The day after the documentary aired, five production companies clamored for Oliver to have his own cooking show, which eventually became “The Naked Chef.”
Seven cooking shows, seven cookbooks, a wife — Juliette, aka “Jools” — and two young daughters — Poppy Honey and Daisy Boo — later, Oliver turned to more humanitarian efforts, kicking off a school dinner program called “Feed Me Better,” which champions the consumption of fresh, nutritious food. In addition, to being a school lunch crusader, Oliver also founded The Fifteen Foundation and restaurant, which, according to its mission statement, “exists in order to inspire disadvantaged young people — homeless, unemployed, overcoming drug or alcohol problems — to believe that they can create for themselves great careers in the restaurant industry.”
“Being a good cook isn’t about being born to it, it’s about discovery and growth,” he says. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as a person who doesn’t like cooking, they just don’t know it yet.”
Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery recently asked Oliver about life in the foodservice industry, the balancing act of food and family, and his non-stop plans for the future. Here’s what he had to say.
Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery: What inspired you to start your “Feed Me Better” school lunch campaign? Your manifesto is quite detailed.
Jamie Oliver: I’ve been very lucky and been very successful because of food. When I looked around and saw what our kids were being fed, I just had to do something. I have to say, though, if I knew then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have taken it on. It’s such a big project, and it’s still going.
SF&WB: Why is it so important to educate our youth as to the benefits of well-rounded meals?
Oliver: Because the U.K. has the fattest kids in Europe, and the U.S. has the fattest kids in the world. Our kids are the first generation who isn’t going to live longer than their parents. That is a big problem, and food is a pretty good place to start.
SF&WB: What kinds of meals appear on your “Feed Me Better” menus?
Oliver: Affordable ones filled with fresh vegetables and fruits, and real, non-processed foods.
SF&WB: Have any of The Fifteen Foundation graduates surprised you with their success and drive?
Oliver: My students are all so different. To be honest, they all surprise me. It’s a tough course, and very different from what they’re used to. And they still show up and want to work hard. As long as they have support every step of the way, they can overcome the worst beginnings that they’ve had.
SF&WB: What advice do you have for parents as they pack their children’s lunchboxes?
Oliver: Give them food that’s good for them and tastes good, and they will eat it. Also, get them hooked as young as possible. We had a much easier time with the primary school kids.
SF&WB:What kinds of bread trends are particularly popular with consumers right now? Artisan? Organic? Whole grain?
Oliver: I haven’t noticed my customers paying attention, really. They just like good bread — everyone does, really. And good bread tends to be made by hand in the old-fashioned way. Doesn’t matter if it’s white or wheat, really.
SF&WB: Do you have a favorite sandwich?
Oliver: A bacon sarnie.
SF&WB: Similarly, what kinds of sweets trends are making sweet-toothers’ mouths water? Chocolate? New takes on traditional ingredients such as mascarpone or crème fraîche? What about exotic touches such as wasabi, chipotle pepper or pomegranate?
Oliver: I try to keep it simple. A great semifreddo, a good brownie, affogato.
SF&WB: While filming your travelogue, “Jamie’s Great Italian Escape,” you mentioned undertaking the journey in the first place to rekindle your passion for cooking. What about the trip reenergized you and brought back your enthusiasm?
Oliver: Everyone in Italy is passionate about food. The hardest thing about school dinners was that just so many people didn’t care about food at all. It was depressing.
SF&WB: What motivated you to put together The Fifteen Foundation?
Oliver: Again, the restaurant business has been very good to me. It’s hard work, and I wanted to give other kids the opportunity that I had.
SF&WB: On your cooking programs, you promote the use of straight-forward, organic ingredients. What kinds of simple, easy and great-tasting meals can home kitchen counter chefs put together for their families?
Oliver: So many. A little salad with a little olive oil and lemon juice. A simple pasta. Cooking’s not hard. You just have to try a few things out and stick with them.
SF&WB: As a professional chef, do you find that you don’t cook for yourself at home since so much of your time is spent cooking for others?
Oliver: I love cooking and cook for my family as much as possible.
SF&WB: Do Jools, Poppy and Daisy cook with you in your home kitchen?
Oliver: Absolutely … since they could stand up. We make bread and pasta together on the weekends. They love to get their hands in the dough.
SF&WB: What sorts of challenges do you face in your daily life as a celebrity chef?
Oliver: That’s it really, all the juggling, there’s never enough time, although I committed to my family to take weekends off to be with them, and it’s been working pretty well.
SF&WB: Any projects planned for the future that you’re able to share?
Oliver: I am just finishing a [TV] series, “Jamie at Home,” that I am really proud of. It’s really simple, just growing stuff and cooking stuff. And there are 26 [episodes], so maybe you Yanks will get a chance to see them. SF&WB