By at least one measure England’s Jamie Oliver is the most popular chef in the world. Such an accomplishment is no small feat for a dyslexic 34-year-old son of publicans nor for someone who dropped out of school at 16 to attend catering college. Today Oliver can boast of having launched several restaurants, authored at least a dozen cookbooks, created the O-like magazine Jamie, starred in countless TV series, served as a pitchman for British grocery giant Sainsbury’s, and amassed a personal fortune estimated at more than $60 million.
This week Oliver will host his first American network television
Oliver’s Food Revolution, a Ryan Seacrest-produced reality
series debuting Friday evening on ABC. In a departure from Oliver’s
previous American shows, which focused on teaching people who want
to cook how do so, Food Revolution is a bold attempt by
Oliver to begin forcing every American to cook and buy only the
foods he thinks we should eat.
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If this were just the story of a marginal chef with some vague ideas, that might be the end of it. But Oliver and his powerful acolytes have used television to ravage the wallets of too many British taxpayers to take him lightly.
Despite, or perhaps because of, Oliver’s immense and growing visibility, critics are divided over the chef. To some, Oliver is a “national treasure.” But others see Oliver as little more than a “fat-tongued twat.”
The surprising root of this debate has little if anything to do with Oliver's cooking or his successes in the culinary marketplace. Oliver’s notoriety stems more from his surprising victories as Great Britain’s most successful food lobbyist. Oliver appears to believe there is something deeply wrong with those who don’t dine in his restaurants, buy his publications, watch his TV shows, or think of food as he does. To him, this deficit of character is so egregious and so widespread that only hugely expensive government re-education programs can rectify it.
From the pork protectionism of Jamie Saves Our Bacon to Jamie’s School Dinners, his exposé on “how little government was spending” on school lunches, Oliver has lately taken to Britain’s airwaves to urge government to regulate and spend at a much higher clip. And the British government has responded, adding a billion dollars to its school-meals budget in response to Jamie’s School Dinners.
The “Naked” Days
Oliver first rose to worldwide fame as The Naked Chef, a boisterous hipster everyman who tossed around words like "pukka" with the emphatic and gratuitous self-assurance his American peers let fly "bam" and “yum-o,” and who scooted about late Cool Britannia London from home to fishmonger to ethnic grocer to indie cheese shop and back home to the kitchen. There, Oliver would cook up something wonderful for a requisite stable of attractive fellow twentysomethings who served as the show’s eye candy, studio audience, and fortunate tasters. What was naked about The Naked Chef? With one known exception, naked referred to cooking without embellishing food.
The Naked Chef, which first aired in America in 1999 on the Food Network, quickly and simultaneously went neon and downhill. But for people like me who watched the show, bought Oliver’s books, and went to one of his live demonstrations, The Naked Chef was all one needed to go from culinary imbecile to capable cook in mere months.
The Naked Chef is one example of the good Oliver the entrepreneur has done. Another is Fifteen, a charitable enterprise and restaurant concept Oliver launched in the early 2000s in London (and later franchised in Australia and the Netherlands), in which Oliver hires and trains as cooks young adults who have been homeless, jobless, or struggled with substance abuse. Oliver has also starred in several TV series based on Fifteen.
Oliver’s “Feed Me Better” & “Ministry of Food” Campaigns
A less savory Oliver emerged in the middle part of the last decade, by which time he was clearly no longer satisfied with changing only the lives of people who sought his help. Oliver launched the Feed Me Better campaign, which he designed with the admirable goal of getting British school kids to eat healthier food. But while he could have argued in favor of parents or kids packing the cheap, easy, and tried-and-true alternative to school food—brown bag lunches—Oliver opted instead to urge more government control and increased spending on big-ticket items.
“Ovens, grills, and cooks drive up costs tremendously,” former Reason Editor in Chief Virginia Postrel wrote in a 1995 piece on school lunches. Oliver did just that, seeking and then winning hundreds of millions of dollars in new British government spending on school lunches, cafeteria-worker training, and kitchen equipment.
Negative reaction to the British government’s nationwide implementation of Oliver’s school-lunch recommendations was swift and widespread. Parents, some of whom labeled Oliver’s food “low-fat rubbish,” pulled 400,000 kids from the school-lunch rolls, choosing to brown bag it rather than have their kids eat Oliver’s “healthier” options. Parents opposed to Oliver’s scheme handed food to their kids through the gates of schoolyards. Some vendors and parents set up shop outside schools and sold food to students. Enterprising students, in turn, sold food to peers in schools, which led to suspensions for pupil transgressions as absurd as “crisp dealing.”