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Q&A: Jamie Oliver, on the Food Revolution

I almost felt like I knew Jamie Oliver when I met him for the first time last week in United’s first-class lounge at Dulles International Airport. He was just like he is on TV: spiky, just-rolled-out-of-bed hair, trademark rumpled T-shirt and the charming Essex accent that allows him to call you “darling” or “babe” without it being the least bit insulting.

Jamie Oliver's prime-time TV series is only the beginning of his campaign for healthful eating. (

The 34-year-old celebrity chef looked tired. He had just completed his last day of filming in Huntington, W.Va., for his first American TV series, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” in which he tried to make over the eating habits of one of America’s most unhealthy cities. To read about the strides he's made thus far, read my (story in today’s Food section.)

Exhaustion didn’t stop him from being forthright and feisty about all the work left to be done. (“Your destiny is predicted by intelligent people, and your destiny is not good,” he said, referring to the nearly $150 billion the United States spends annually on obesity-related diseases.) In a nearly two-hour interview, Oliver talked about why he came to the States, the parallels between our country and England, and why he wants to be Michelle Obama's best friend.

-- Jane Black

Edited excerpts:

You’ve got your hands pretty full in England. Why did you come here?

A couple of things, really. I think ultimately you could say, ‘Oh, he wants to break America.’ But I’m beyond the fascination with breaking America. I love the country. I have many friends here. There is incredible excellence, and I always learn something. My life is really so much based in England. I have a lot of staff, a lot of kids and, like, you say, I have my own stuff to deal with back home.

I guess the best way to explain it is to say it’s my pleasure and honor to do it. I think sometimes in life having a foreigner come in is really important. The first three months in Huntington was really hard. They’re lovely people. They’re really lovely people. A lot of them are really religious so there’s not that much room to be horrible or vicious. But like if you’re not accepted that can be just as tough. Ultimately, I found being a foreigner really powerful and useful for perspective. I do think that a lot of Americans are baffled by bull[expletive]. And I think they are baffled by their own. Sometimes I look at something differently.

For example, something that was very big for me but is very small for you is the fact that there isn’t any [cutlery] in the schools. You could say, 'So bloody what?' Or you could have the institution saying, 'No, no, we don’t give them knives because it’s dangerous,' which is [expletive] patronizing to kids. Because 99.999 percent of kids are not horrible, ferocious bastards. They’re beautiful sparkly-eyed kids. You know.

So I can look at that and say, ‘Well, okay, all of English kids are taught to use knives and forks.' And not having [that] completely underpins the problem in America. If you only design menus that are essentially junk or fast food, the whole infrastructure supports junk. By not having [it], you are endorsing junk for your pretty little 6-, 7- and 8-year-old kids. So I mean that’s me getting pissed off about one little thing. I thought that was really important.

When they are all debating about whether they should do it, I can say: 'France. Spain. Italy. Finland, England. Denmark. Sweden. They all have knives and forks, guys. What are we debating here? Give your kids a bloody knife and fork and let me put some fresh food in front of them they can eat.'

When you arrived in Huntington, you got lots of criticism for coming in and telling people what to eat. Did you experience the same kind of reaction when you started your campaign for better school food in England?

Same [expletive], different country. Absolutely. Regardless of how much it got cut in the show. I kept saying it’s the same back home. The intensity is more so here. You know, I think the important thing to say is, you know, this show is meant to be a provocateur.

What kind of an impact do you think the show has had so far?

In a way, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The fact that we got on ABC in prime time. To be honest, we’ll be genre-defining. Now they’ve let us do it. Now it’s rated and our slot ratings are the best in three years [in that time period], Now that’s happened, commissioners around the whole American platform will commission [new shows like this.] You have a look at what will come out in the next six months.

You’ve essentially made this program before. How was making it in the States different than in England?

Look, this is not being a bitchy thing. This is the most sensitive TV I’ve ever made. There’s more blurring and bleeping and cutting out of brands and logos and litigious stuff than I’ve ever experienced before. In England, you’re allowed to have an opinion -- as long as it comes out of your mouth. If it’s not true or if it’s debatable, then yes, it’s good journalism to make sure the other side is shown. But if it’s true and it’s your opinion then it goes in the cup. No one can take that off. Channel 4 [Oliver's network partner in England] is a commercial channel and we never worry about advertising. It’s not the done thing. I know it’s different than over here.

Your program came on just as Congress is getting ready to reauthorize childhood nutrition programs. Did you plan it that way?

Total fluke. But really, this child nutrition reauthorization is the most profound piece of work that will be done in the next 20 years in this country. The only way we can get change is if parents believe this makes a difference. We have independent research in the U.K. that shows that students with good food in school see their test scores go up. It’s not rocket science. And my interest in it is not because I’m a food lover. Food touches everything. If you’re worried about the cost of the health service, you should be worried about this.

The Obama administration asked for $10 billion more over 10 years for childhood nutrition programs. Congress has proposed an extra $4.5 billion. Is that a step in the right direction?

The amount of money being injected into the system is embarrassing and dangerous. People will baffle you with bull[expletive]. We’re talking about $4.5 billion over 10 years.

Basically, we’re arguing about [expletive] and [expletive]. I think the amount of money I was looking for -- for meaningful change -- was $36 billion. That was a tangible chunk and it would inspire it to be spent in a meaningful way.

Michelle Obama is working to get more money and to spotlight the problem of childhood obesity, too. What do you think of her efforts?

Michelle is basically on the money.

Have you met with her?

I met her once when I cooked for her once at the G20 [summit]. I told her what I was doing in Huntington, and she said she was going to be doing stuff herself. She probably doesn’t even remember me. And certainly it was a pleasure. I am a supporter of the Obama administration.

But she’s a busy lady, and she’s fairly guarded. I would be like her best friend, know what I mean? I’ve got no arguments with the lady. I’m impressed and inspired by her and I completely support her. And in a way, even though no one ever said it, the point of the show is to get the parents out there to support her in Congress.

By Jane Black  |  April 21, 2010; 9:10 AM ET
Categories:  Chefs , Food Politics , Television  | Tags: Jane Black, chefs, food politics, school lunch, television  
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Next: While Flour Girl's away


He makes some great points. We need to shift what we fund publicly, and stop catering to corporate interests. We essentially subsidize the health insurance industry by continuing fund "food science," instead of food.

Posted by: MzFitz | April 21, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

It is wrong to see food as either "good" or "junk." All food has its uses, but some is more useful than others. It is our problem to decide what we shall eat and how much. If a person can get their daily caloric requirements in one meal at a reasonable price, why not let them do that?

If another person wants six meals that day with smaller portions, then let them do that.

I thought the USA was all about personal freedom. Really it is more about minding other people's business. To a fault at times.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | April 21, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

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