Jamie Oliver says he's 'not about being a food Nazi' on his new ABC series
Jamie Oliver had a tough time this week convincing David Letterman that eating healthfully was possible in America. (Said Letterman: "Soccer. Remember soccer? Well that didn't work either.") Fortunately, Oliver doesn't back down easily.
Still best known as "The Naked Chef" Stateside, Oliver several years ago spent 18 long months shooting a show aimed at changing the British school lunch system for the better -- and he succeeded. Now he's taking on America. In ABC's "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," he sets his sights on Huntington, W.Va., which has been labeled the most unhealthy place in the country. There he finds kids who eat pizza for breakfast and can't identify fresh tomatoes. (In the first episode, one guessed they were potatoes.)
Well Oliver won't stand for it. He wants you to get angry. He tells us why:
It was hard. You saw it was an emotional time for me, and I broke down. I grew up in a pub as a kid, and I love people. I love people! I don't care where they come from. What happened wasn't nice; it wasn't pleasant. But it happened when I did this in the U.K. as well. There [in Britain], I'm as well known as Oprah ... and the parents and the kids back home? Man, it was a dark 18 months. The turning point was when 'Jamie's School Dinners' began airing on TV. Then it was like, 'Oh, yeah, right! We support you!' But before that while we were filming? I was constantly called every name under the sun every day at school. I have more DNA on the back of my coats and jumpers than you can imagine. Hence the fact I'm fairly used to it. I put myself in that position to force and put through change.
What happened there is very natural and normal. People don't like change, good or bad.
Most of the work I've done over the past seven years has involved change, which basically means I've been fairly uncomfortable. But one thing that was loud and clear that I learned here in the States is once you get in people's homes there's a yearning for information and help. It's as consistent as clockwork.
Why did you decide you wanted to do the same type of show for the U.S.?
I'd actually been trying to get other people here to do what I did in the U.K. I mean, let's be frank, I've worked here and I've enjoyed working here for the past 10 years. I used to be reasonably important on the Food Network, but I'm not particularly popular or important anymore. So I approached Ryan Seacrest to do it. I sent him all of the tapes and DVDs of what I did in the U.K. And he quite reasonably said, "This is quite specialized -- you should do it, and I'll help you do it." But yeah, for the past five years I've just wanted someone to do it and get it done. When we did in the U.K. several years ago, all our research was from America anyway -- and not necessarily for all the right reasons.
The people of Huntington seemed to think you were gunning for them.
Literally, my last job? I made six documentaries about the great food of America. I spent the last 18 months in different areas of the country, and the whole premise of the show had nothing to do with junk food or rubbish food. It was, 'What is great American food?' I'm not anti-America at all. There are wonderful people here doing wonderful things. "Food Revolution" is about giving them a platform.
It's not about being a food Nazi or taking away things you adore, because — guess what? — I love the things you love too. I'm all into it. There's always going to be a bad choice — and it's probably the reason health statistics are where they are. This is about spreading knowledge about the good choices. I certainly don't think a healthy life is supposed to be worrying about this stuff every day. But I do think it's gotten so bad that we do need to worry about it for a couple of weeks or months, kind of make your opinions heard.
Is there any indication that what you're supposing — simply, that we eat more fresh foods than processed ones — can work?
Yes, in the last 10 months everything has changed. The attitudes have changed. The open-mindedness to it has changed, from a governmental level to the big commercial companies, some might call them "the baddies." I think even they've started to do valuable and radical things to encourage healthy eating.
When I was shooting "Jamie Oliver's America," your presidential elections were happening. For me, a foreigner who's been coming around for the last dozen years, I just saw Americans contemplating differently and wondering what is the future and what matters. I think food fits right into that. I think people are starting to realize that it matters, that they can't afford to not care. Healthcare's obviously an active issue now.
What do you think can reasonably happen after people watch this show?
If it could inspire even a small percentage of people who watch the show, parents mostly, to get pissed off and ask some questions, then I will have succeeded. All I'm really asking is for the public to expect more and to be confident to ask about what they're eating. "What is it? Where's it from? Can I have a look at what's in those nuggets?"
What is the petition you are asking people to sign?
It will allow me to go to Capitol Hill and present this issue. There's no use of me going with a couple of thousand signatures in a country of nearly 300 million people. I want to get 1 million people at least, just to show they care. My job in this really is telling a simple story and giving the people who are already doing good things a bit more power, really. Put them on the map. Everyone can do a bit.
There's a perception that eating fresh is more expensive. True?
One person, going from junk to fresh? It's a debate. But I've never ever worked with a family of four that live on junk food that don't end up spending less eating fresh. They save an average $100-$150 a week. That's about $8,000 a year. Processed foods are not cheap for four people. The dealbreaker is knowledge -- and there's just as much a drought there as there is of eating fresh food. All I'm giving is really basic knowledge. I go grocery shopping with them. I'm not doing anything magical.
There are still five more episodes this season. Can you tell us whether or not you think you did some good in Huntington?
It's not necessarily a happy ending, because it can't be entirely. It's not me sewing that community together. I'm just mixing things up. You'll see I set up some sustainable things that work and so forth. But it's down to them to come together to actually have a fresh start and make Huntington's story America's story.
The two-hour premiere of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" airs at 8 p.m. Friday on ABC.
— Denise Martin (follow me on Twitter @denisemartin)
Photo credit: ABC
Video credit: ABC