So British Chef Jamie Oliver is once again on the campaign trail, promoting healthy eating in the States in his ‘Food Revolution’. And yet there’s a niggling ambivalence about his energetically promoted self image. What’s it to be then - straight up family guy, Essex wide boy, shameless self promoter, pioneering activist? To add to the confusion, he is the TV face of international supermarket chain Sainsbury’s in the UK. This is not a health food store, but a massively successful business fuelled by profit, and certainly he is not averse to making a few bob himself.
The money generated by his holding company Sweet As Candy has placed him in the (British) Sunday Times list of the richest Britons aged under 30. Odd choice of name that, as he forever bats on about how bad sugar is, although who can argue with that? Yet It seems he is not overly selective in the signals he sends out around healthy eating, as long as it puts (fresh and organic) food on his own table, and helps to bring home the (preferably British) bacon.
Oliver has monopolised British TVs since his first cooking series ‘The Naked Chef’ was shown on British Channel 4 in 1998. The ‘naked’ of the title did not refer to himself, but to his signature cooking style – fresh and unprocessed - however the title did hint at the controversy to come. He went on to tell us to buy home grown pork, free range chickens, sustainably sourced fish - and just fresh, organic food in general. This is all very laudable - but what about the cost?
When he helps young offenders find work in the hospitality industry, however (‘Jamie’s Kitchen’, 2002), or ensures that British schoolchildren are fed healthy food (‘Jamie’s School Dinners’, 2005) who can carp at that? Well, quite a lot of people it seems – not least the mothers passing their kids take away food through the bars of the school fence. But without dissension, where’s the drama? It all makes for good TV after all, and when the British government subsequently pledged £280m to spend on school dinners over three years, Tony Blair acknowledged this was due to Jamie Oliver’s TV campaign.
He has even been given an MBE – Medal of the British Empire. Not bad going for an ordinary Joe from nowhere, and with each pushing of the bar, each new pioneering programme – moving above and beyond, and even across The Pond, he just gets brasher, louder, more convinced – though perhaps less convincing?
In Season One of ‘Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ set in Huntington, West Virginia, he challenged eating habits that have created a growing epidemic of obesity in the US, and received an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Reality Program’. And it is no bad thing to address this issue - around two thirds (68%) of American adults and just under a third (32%) of children are overweight – and obesity contributes to 70% of heart disease and 30% of cancer in the States.
So continuing on in this spirit of missionary zeal and geared up by high TV ratings as well as critical acclaim, the series, along with Oliver’s family - his wife Julia and four children, Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom Rainbow and Buddy Bear, moved to Los Angeles for Season Two. Is it facetious of me to question the judgement of a food ‘revolutionary’ just because he calls his kids by names better suited to room freshener plug ins or cuddly toys? But this is my inner dilemma – morally, who can knock his intentions – we do eat too much junk food, we are all getting too fat and if not all children are well fed at home, they surely deserve to be nourished properly at school. Yet – there’s something about his manner and his methods that grates.
For a start – he doesn’t look that healthy. He’s podgy and pasty faced - and his ‘tell it like it is’ appeal seems fairly limiting – does everyone want to be called ‘brother’ in that condescending way? And there’s the daft gimmickry – why did he overflow a school bus with 57 tons of sugar exactly? Visual appeal aside, how does one bus filled with cardboard cut outs of school children being swamped with white sugar equate to all that is mixed in with a week’s worth of milk, for schools throughout the LA district? Even writing it down is tortuous. It just didn’t work.
And when Deno Perris agreed to let ‘Food Revolution’ check out his fast food diner before telling us ‘I’ve never heard of Jamie Oliver. I thought it was the guy who berates people’, you just knew Oliver was on shaky ground. Clearly this man expected Gordon Ramsay to sweep in, swear a lot, give his business a makeover and change his fortunes – all with profit in mind. Instead he got Jamie – aflame with revolutionary fervor and all set to cook up a burger made with ‘Black Angus, grass eating, California grown’ beef, that cost more than twice the price of beef from his usual supplier. Oh, and he mixed a milk shake made with yoghurt. His business instincts, remarkably, seem even shakier than the milk.
By the end of the first programme in Season Two of Jamie’s ‘Food Revolution’, and by now banned from the district’s schools, you had to wonder where Oliver can go from here. Must he say goodbye to his American dream, pack up his family and beat it back to Britain to carry on campaigning on home turf? Well at least in the UK we’ll soon find out what happened next. Meanwhile in the States, his ratings were so poor the show has been postponed until sometime in June. Let’s hope for the sake of the ‘Oliver’ brand, Stateside, there’ll be nothing more exciting to watch on other channels at the time.
Jamie Oliver - Jamie At Home [DVD] UK
Jamie Oliver - Jamie's Kitchen
Eileen O'Sullivan recommends these DVDs from Amazon. Doing what he does best - Jamie Oliver is an excellent, Italian inspired cook,with a pleasant, easy to follow delivery. She watched Jamie Oliver on British TV.