Jamie Oliver's Naked Ambition
I have been lucky enough to be in Jamie Oliver’s hotel room. And I doubt there is a woman (or man) alive who wouldn’t feel a little heat rising when the Naked Chef call you "cheeky" in close proximity to his bed (even if you don't have a thing for chefs). That was eight years ago and even then, his passion for food was evident but who knew that underneath the rumpled fauxhawk there was a crusader waiting to come out?
Fast forward to the present day and Jamie Oliver is still the same sexy, charismatic, man-child chef. But now the father of three is on a mission to change the way people cook, eat and subsequently live. And in doing so he may just may change the world. Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but spending time with Jamie Oliver is like that, his passion is contagious even when you are sharing the room with 2300 other fans.
It's hard to imagine any other chef could sell out Roy Thompson hall in Toronto without even a promise of free food or a kitchen demo. He came simply to answer questions from fans, and he did so with honesty and humour. When you hear him talk about his passion for cooking, family, chilis and the nescessity of a food revolution it sounds so genuine. His approachable demeanor could be an act, but if it is, I am buying.
Because the thing that makes Jamie Oliver different than other chefs, many of whom who also preach the benefits of local and healthy food, is the incredibly large goals he sets. He is obviously one of those lucky few people who do not believe in obstacles. Why not change how an entire country feed their kids at lunchtime? Why not change a town's diet and also their life span? And why not run one of the most successful businesses at the same time? As he said, when talking about his not-for profit organization Fifteen: “People say I’m nice. I’m not nice. I wanted to do it, I could do it and I did.”
He had just jetted in to Toronto from Huntington, West Virginia where he wrapped filming of Jamie’s Revolution. According to the CDC, Huntington is the least healthy city in the U.S. with high rates of diabetes and heart disease. The city’s number one employer is health services; and the second? Fast food. Jamie notes the interdependence an ironically raised eyebrow.
So Jamie is in the U.S., trying to teach people how to cook for themselves in a healthy and affordable way. The resulting show, executive produced by Ryan Seacrest, will be shown on ABC primetime in 2010.
Throughout his speech, he kept touching on the evils of corporate food production. How it is up to the consumer to shop, smarter, demand better and cook. Processed food has lured people away from the kitchen and into the fast food restaurants and frozen food aisles. His mission is to restore the “old ways” – get people back into the kitchen cooking whole foods in a healthy way. Though, he doesn’t like the word healthy. “I am about balance, it’s not just about obesity. There are a lot of unhealthy skinny people around,” he says.
He feels that his greatest success so far has been improving the quality of school lunches in British schools. He got almost a billion government dollars infused into the lunch programs to increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables and real meat. “Lunch was a poor quality copy of fast food. Hard to believe.”
But school lunches wasn't the beginning of his altruism. When he was 24 he started the Fifteen Foundation which brings 18-24 year olds into the kitchens of his Fifteen restaurants and trains them to cook. The point isn’t to create chefs but to increase competence and hope. He donates a portion of his own profits to his foundation.
He admits to seeing himself in the youth he is helping. “I was always in the special needs classes”, he says. He has both ADD and dyslexia which made it hard for him to sit and concentrate in school but he says makes him a whiz in the fast-moving kitchen. His restlessness was apparent at the event, despite the fact there were seats on the stage, he wandered around, sometimes stopping in front of the chair hovering over it for a few seconds before jumping off again with a new story and sometimes a dance move or two.
When asked how to deal with kids who are picky eaters, he just laughed. “ I have a strategy to deal with kids” [dramatic pause] “Lying”. And then the man who changed an entire nation’s kids lunch program, and has three kids admitted, “The kids are the bosses, just when you think you know what a kid wants they change.” [another dramatic pause] “Good Luck!”
There are few people who have the ability to hold a crowd or a TV audience the way he does. He started his TV career with the Naked Chef show and book series. And has published 12 books since then, some only available in Britain. Each book has been a success and his recipes rely on fairly simple procedures with strong flavours.
Every time the phrase Naked Chef came up, thousands of women would start screaming but Jamie says that he is embarrassed by the title. But naked or not, Jamie knows how to use his natural charm to increase his following, and his bottom line.
Because alongside his revolutionary ways, Jamie Oliver is also a brand. He is the top-earning British chef and his profits went up this year, during the recession. His name is on kitchen gadgets, table and bath products, ready-made food, a DS game and has even co-branded a dating website. Maybe he is trying to find dates for all those women who are throwing themselves at him?
He doesn’t look or talk like the 150-million dollar man, he jokes about his runners (they look like sh*t but they were nice once) and tells a hilarious story about cooking in the nude, complete with the proclamation: “I think I am fairly well endowed, on a good day.” We can only imagine.
His image is squeaky clean, he married his high school girlfriend, has three daughters all with silly-celebrity appropriate names: Poppy Honey; Daisy Boo; and the baby Petal Rainbow. He hangs out with Becks and Posh other A-listers, as well as his lads from Essex. There have been rumours that his wife Jools was unhappy with how much he works, but it has never gone farther than that.
So who is the real Jamie Oliver? Boy next door made good? Food-obsessed chef on a mission? Celebrity Ego? Who knows? And who cares? As far as I am concerned he can make his millions, give his babies floral names, and hang out with celebrities as long as he keeps fighting the good fight.
An ad for Jamie's School Dinners