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 show, Jamie 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."
After a particularly vocal revolt against his meals program in the central English city of Rotherham, Oliver decided to fight back. He launched a walk-in training center, which he dubbed his "Ministry of Food," in Rotherham. Oliver took his cue from Britain's World War II-era Ministry of Food, the British government agency in charge of food rationing that also led a training campaign to show Brits with fewer food choices how to do more with less. (The agency, which was originally dubbed the Ministry of Food Control, continued to ration food until nearly a decade after the war.)
Spinning the Ministry's effort like the master propagandist Dr. Carrot, Oliver explained that due to "this incredibly valuable service, people knew how to use their food rations properly and were able to eat—and live—better, even during the war! As a result the British public had one of the healthiest diets of any time in history." (Oliver's better-eating-and-living-through-wartime-rationing cant doesn't hold up to common sense or hard wartime truths, which in addition to food rationing included the quite unhealthy consequences of more than one-half-million British war dead and lengthy periods of nightly Nazi bombing raids on London and other British cities.)
The Ministry of Food, like seemingly every Oliver idea, launched both an eponymous TV series and cookbook. But unlike Oliver's school lunch scheme, the Ministry has not spread beyond the city limits of Rotherham. This is not for lack of effort on Oliver's part. The chef authored an eight-page "manifesto" in 2008 to help pressure the national government to provide "proper funding" to set up a Ministry of Food center in every British town. Launching such an enormous program would cost an estimated half-billion dollars—while training the "girls" Oliver seeks to staff the centers, creating mobile food buses, implementing programs to train adults to cook, and a host of other related spending projects Oliver outlines would cost British taxpayers at least $65 million more.
Last month, in recognition of his combined efforts, Oliver was awarded the 2010 TED Prize. TED, the nonprofit that bills itself as the home of "[i]deas worth spreading," honored Oliver for his work as a "standard-bearer in the fight against obesity and other diet related diseases," and for having "pressured the UK government to invest $1 billion to overhaul school lunches to improve nutrition."
Yet in spite of his zeal for government to thrust its hands ever more into the food business, Oliver told the Guardian that he doesn't believe such involvement—which lies at the heart of all his schemes—will make much of a difference.
"The reason the Ministry is working… is because we went up there and interviewed 30 local boys and girls, and we're not fucking stupid," he said. "If they [local government] did it, can you imagine what the staff would look like? You could have anyone getting a fucking job! You've got to understand food, love food, and understand people skills."
The value of what Oliver brought to Rotherham is questionable, to say the least. The Guardian notes that Oliver's Ministry effort in Rotherham is led by "a non-cook," Lisa, who together with her fellow teachers is doing little more than "running what used to be called home economics lessons."
Oliver's School Lunch Failures
The Ministry of Food is but one of Oliver's dubious endeavors. When Oliver's zeal combines with his inclination toward questionable judgment, the results can be comically incongruous.
For example, Oliver recently claimed—while discussing his newfound understanding of racism and the plight of immigrants—that he is "sixth generation Sudanese," and that he is one of "quite a few Olivers" who "are a bit swarthy and have got curly hair." The Daily Mail, reporting the story, hinted politely "some might see [this] as an attempt to improve his street credibility." And before Oliver was turning Sudanese, he once appeared on one of his shows wearing a shirt adorned with the logo of the Tamil Tigers terrorist group.
Sometimes his gaffes hit at the edges of his programmatic work. Several years ago, for example, Oliver donned a fat suit and posed on a scooter—complete with a wheel broken just for the cameras—to highlight the problem of obesity. To many this looked more like Oliver was instead mocking the obese. Months later the press ridiculed Oliver, whose weight had ballooned since the stunt, saying he no longer needed the fat suit.
Sometimes, though, Oliver's blunders—like the detestable "Lamb Curry Song" or his role in the televised autopsy of an obese man by a controversial surgeon—strike at the heart of both his work and his credibility. And for all his purported expertise in combating obesity—it was his work in this area that won him the TED Prize after all—there exists a very real question whether Oliver really understands healthy eating or even believes his own most basic dietary recommendations.
The current issue of his magazine Jamie (Feb./Mar. 2010) recommends several school lunch recipes the magazine bills as "wholesome meals to take to school." The magazine's suggested meal for Thursday is a tuna Waldorf pita with hot vanilla milk, an oaty biscuit, and a banana. According to the nutrition information provided in Jamie, this youngster's lunch contains an astonishing 1,183 calories, 55 grams of fat (20 of them saturated), and 65 grams of sugar. That's 73 calories, 12 grams of fat (11.5 saturated), and 3 grams of sugar more than the same student would get from eating both a McDonald's hamburger Happy Meal (hamburger, fries, Sprite) and a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal (McNuggets, fries, Sprite).
Unsurprisingly, this "wholesome" lunch by Oliver falls well outside accepted dietary norms. The USDA, for example, recommends a moderately active 9-13 year-old child average 1,900 calories per day. Even without breakfast or dinner factored in, Oliver's tuna Waldorf pita lunch accounts for 62 percent of an adolescent's recommended calories for the entire day. But don't take the USDA's word for it: Oliver himself recommends that "a lunchtime school meal should provide a growing child with one third of their daily nutritional intake."
Reaching a conclusion dramatically antithetical to Oliver's own rarely takes little more than a second look. For example, a new working paper by two academics lauds the impact of Oliver's Feed Me Better campaign. The paper's authors, economists Michéle Belot of the University of Oxford and Jonathan James of the University of Essex, looked at "the causal effects of diet on educational outcomes" in Greenwich, England that resulted from a 2004-05 pilot program for Oliver's billion-dollar school meals program in Great Britain.
Unsurprisingly, Oliver predicted a positive causal effect. "It's proven that real food promotes more effective learning," Oliver writes at his website. Switching to healthier foods, has said, will result in "improved concentration and better performance in the classroom." Belot and James conclude, based on the data, that Feed Me Better "improved educational achievements" in the aggregate.
Fair enough. But the same data also shows, disturbingly, that students from lower-income families who received an Oliver-inspired free school meal (FSM) actually saw their academic performance drop or stagnate compared to the non-FSM students. My own analysis of the data, which Belot confirmed to be correct, shows that Oliver's program—which cost the Greenwich school district an additional $1 million to implement—increased the academic disparity between the FSM kids who had to eat Oliver's food (and whose academic performance did not improve) and the more well-to-do kids (based on their non-FSM status) who otherwise had a choice.
Limiting dietary choices, it seems, turns out to be a recipe for failure. Which brings us to Oliver's current experiment in America.
Oliver Brings His "Revolution" to West Virginia
For his new ABC show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, Oliver imported elements of both Feed Me Better and his Ministry of Food to Huntington, West Virginia, which has been billed as the fattest city in America. With cameras rolling, Oliver established a Ministry-like training center downtown and sought to change public school menus and re-educate school kids about food.
As in Great Britain, Oliver's preferences were not to everyone's liking. A series of promotional videos for the show depict Oliver trying vainly to remake resistant West Virginians in his image. One promo shows a bewildered Oliver as he tries (and fails) to get a room of healthy-looking elementary students to correctly identify tomatoes, a beet, an eggplant, and a cauliflower. (Never mind that the latter three are obvious ringers many healthy adults couldn't identify in their raw forms, that British kids think that bacon comes from sheep, or that decades of Ministry of Food training last century couldn't keep adult Brits from falling for a 1957 British mockumentary on Switzerland's annual "spaghetti harvest.")
A second promo shows Oliver facing stiff resistance from a squad of hardened school lunch ladies. Still another shows Oliver taking part in a Wok-and-spoon-wielding flash mob on the Marshall University campus in Huntington. A fourth shows Oliver sobbing. "They don't understand me," he cries. "They don't know why I'm here."
These men, women, and children of the Mountaineer State may or may not understand Oliver and his British accent and order of chivalry, but they no doubt understand why he is there. They've read the same things I have—that Oliver would like nothing more than an invitation to the White House to make policy with healthy-eating Czarina Michelle Obama.
Though not everyone on the left is a believer, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate Oliver's present and potential influence here in America. Thanks to TED, Oliver already has the ears of heavyweights at Google, YouTube, and Amazon. The same week Oliver won his TED Prize, Michelle Obama launched a $1 billion campaign to battle childhood obesity in America. That money will likely flow in spite of the fact childhood obesity rates in America stopped rising in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
But data be damned. If Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution is a hit, then Great Britain's so-called national treasure may find an Obama White House invitation is just the first step in one chef's quest to subjugate the American diet.
Baylen Linnekin is a lawyer, food writer, and food blogger who lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Washington, D.C. He blogs at Crispy on the Outside.