Superstar chef Jamie Oliver became a hero in England by convincing his countrymen to eat better. Now he's on the case in the U.S. with Food Revolution, an ABC series in which he exposes the evils of processed fare, sends Americans back into the kitchen, and learns firsthand just how much we hate to change our recipes.
“Look at that!” Jamie Oliver says.
He’s holding his phone up to my face, and what I see on the cracked screen is very strange. It’s a picture from the Internet of two horned sheep with fleece so thick and matted that they might easily be mistaken for a pair of woolly mammoths. The sheep are native to Scotland, but you won’t find them scampering about the Highlands. In the picture, in fact, they are standing on a driftwood-strewn beach a few steps from the waterline.
They’re known as North Ronaldsay sheep, and they’re partly feral, as the 36-year-old British chef, activist, and TV star explains with the kind of excitement you’d see in a schoolboy pitching his first tent in the woods. The sheep wander the shores of the northernmost of the Orkney Islands. But what interests Oliver most about the beach-roaming beasties is their diet. “They only eat seaweed, so their nutritional content is through the fucking roof,” he says. “Because seaweed is the superfood of the world, pretty much.”
Not long ago, Oliver became so enraptured by the existence of these kelp-gobbling creatures that he embarked on a small-plane quest to sparsely populated North Ronaldsay, where locals butchered and prepared one of the sheep for Oliver. Whisky was involved, naturally, as was a proper Scottish roast. “It was amazing,” he says.
As he tells the story, Oliver is sitting by a window overlooking the streets of New York City in a communal space at Soho House, a private club in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District that’s a magnet for young, willowy beauty and square-jawed ambition. Oliver’s the most famous person in the room, but he’s also the one who comes off like a feral sheep in a stable full of thoroughbreds. Unglamorously dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt and looking very much like the sleep-deprived father of four that he is, Oliver speaks in meaty, unruly chops of language that are heavily seasoned with conversational salt. He can be funny and charming, especially when he’s presiding over a press conference or flirting and bantering with a group of young agricultural pioneers at, say, an organic rooftop garden in Brooklyn. But his is a pugnacious strain of charm—that of a bloke who could be found dicing vegetables and pulling pints in his family’s Essex pub long before he was old enough to drive.
“You’d be wrong,” he says, “to think that I am slick or professional.”
A decade or so ago, Oliver became the Naked Chef, a tousle-haired, scooter-riding, drum-pounding chap who got famous and made a fortune with a cooking show (airing on the Food Network in the U.S.)—and then a flurry of cookbooks—that helped convince a new generation that it was cool to make a perfect roast chicken. The global foodie movement was turning young, iconoclastic chefs into rock stars, and Oliver was suddenly the scene’s Billie Joe Armstrong.
Oliver could by now have slipped into the lucrative routine of a celebrity chef: open another restaurant, crank out another cookbook, host a giddy game show involving elaborate cupcakes. Instead, much to his own surprise, he’s become a polarizing advocate for something that, on the surface, wouldn’t seem to need a whole lot of advocacy: he wants people, especially children, to eat better food.
On Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, his Emmy-winning ABC series, which premiered in 2010, it’s not the chef who’s naked—it’s an emperor’s-new-clothes American school system that subjects kids to a smorgasbord of processed junk with barely a carrot in sight. On the show and in his appearances around the world, Oliver lobbies for a remedy that seems winningly simple: Let’s make kids sharper, stronger, and more disease-free by improving the quality of their school lunches. Let’s give them fruits and vegetables. Let’s cut down on the sugar and starch. Let’s teach them how to cook. Something we can all get behind, right?
Well, no. In return for his good intentions, Oliver has come in for a whole lot of grief. In Food Revolution’s first season, set in Huntington, West Virginia, he plowed head-on into the forces of apathy and opposition. Bureaucrats who wouldn’t budge. Parents who didn’t seem to care. Corporate shills who blocked his path. As the show was first appearing, David Letterman invited Oliver onto the Late Show and pretty much called him a delusional fool.
For the second season, ABC gave Food Revolution a prime slot on Tuesday evenings—and a chance to shine during TV’s critical sweeps month in May. This time Oliver took on the Los Angeles Unified School District, and things got even tougher: officials prevented him from entering the schools. In a piercingly dramatic stunt in the first episode, Oliver filled a school bus with sand to show how much sugar L.A. kids consume in their chocolate and strawberry milk in a single week. “If that doesn’t upset people,” Oliver proclaimed, “then I don’t know what will.”
And yet, even with the lure of Oliver’s celebrity, only a handful of parents turned out to observe the spectacle. Worse, Food Revolution’s ratings were lackluster, leading ABC to knock it from sweeps in favor of a Dancing with the Stars recap. The remaining four episodes were shunted to Friday nights during the sleepier TV month of June.
It turns out that Oliver is up against much more than a sullen army of lunch ladies. He’s challenging an entrenched system of values. As one wag put it, Oliver “just doesn’t get the fact that excessive consumption is woven into our national DNA.” And maybe supersized Yanks aren’t so keen on being lectured about their floppy guts by some pretty-boy chef from the land of Scotch eggs and clotted cream.
“Everyone talks about change,” Oliver says with a sigh. “But change is a really hard thing to do.”
Oliver is the first to insist that the whole trip he’s been on is little more than a lucky kitchen experiment. As a youngster, he struggled with dyslexia; in his teens, he forwent university for Westminster Catering College, mostly because working with food was one of the few tasks that didn’t make him feel clueless and adrift.
“This is really how it is,” Oliver tells me. “Small-town boy from a village. Loves cooking. Does it all his life. Special-needs kid at school. Fucked up everything at school, but he could cook. Goes to college in London. For once in my life I get A’s, so I get a bit more confident. Wicked. At 21, I’m a young sous-chef working at one of London’s best restaurants.”
This was the legendary River Café, an Italian eatery that introduced the city’s kidney-pie palates to the wonders of fresh herbs and extra-virgin olive oil—and forever changed the course of British gastronomy. One day in 1997, a crew materialized in the kitchen with cameras and boom mikes. Oliver wasn’t even supposed to be present, but a fellow cook had failed to show up. “Out of the blue,” says Oliver, “I end up in the background of a documentary. The phones ring like mad the next day. Three production companies ask me to do my own show. Born was The Naked Chef”—the title referring to his stripped-down recipes—“and by the time I’m 24, I’ve got two million pounds, I’ve sold like four million books, and I don’t know what the fuck’s happened.”
It was fast. It was awesome. It was weird. “It wasn’t the way my dad brought me up, really, where every quid you made was for your own sweat,” Oliver says.
Oliver’s new role as food crusader can be traced, like a bounty of things in his life, to a goad from his father, Trevor. After the Naked Chef books and shows had turned Jamie into an international brand, he made a random crack to Trevor about the crap that British students are forced to swallow at school. “My dad said, ‘Actions speak louder than words. Get on with it,’ ” Oliver remembers. With that stern retort as fuel, he spent months creating Jamie’s School Dinners, a 2005 documentary series about the sorry state of the English school lunch. It was a hit, and the young crusader launched a campaign called Feed Me Better that spurred the British government to create the School Food Trust, an agency devoted to improving the health of British students.
As Oliver saw it, the only country that needed more help than England when it came to school lunches was the United States, so he set about exporting the show’s formula, with the idea of making an American chef the face of the effort. “I never thought I was the one for the job, because I was hidden away on the bakery slot of the Food Network,” he says. “I started trying to rally an American chef to pick up a similar kind of fight.”
His attempts to spark another TV series originally went nowhere. “I did seminars at Yale University with [organic-cooking pioneer] Alice Waters, and for three years it kept hitting a wall,” he says. “No one had the guts or inclination to engage with me on this project. It felt like the American broadcasters were too scared to potentially upset an advertiser.”
In 2009, Oliver pitched the idea to Ryan Seacrest, of American Idol fame. Seacrest loved it but insisted that Oliver host the program. With Barack Obama in office, Oliver sensed that “America was in a unique frame of mind,” and he and Seacrest, who signed on as an executive producer, met with ABC and CBS, both of which wanted the show.“With Ryan at my side and the Obama thing, there was a change in tone. It felt very different,” Oliver says.
Even now, though, he seems uncomfortable that he ended up in the starring role. “It was never supposed to be like this. It’s not like I’ve got delusions of grandeur or I like the sound of my own voice,” he says. “It was just a snowball of things.”
You'd think Oliver must relish a fight.
“I don’t actually like it. It makes me feel sick,” he tells me at Soho House. “I have a massive and genuine belief in the American public. The stirring of the pot is very much needed. But my career’s in England. My career is being an author and a restaurateur. This is financially the worst use of my time. I think I’m an odd soldier to do this.”
Plenty of people would disagree. In fact, it might be Oliver’s joyous, ramlike persistence, along with an utter lack of piety or pretense, that makes him the ideal food warrior of the moment.
“He deals with obstacles very well,” says Adam Perry Lang, an acclaimed chef who is collaborating with Oliver on a restaurant in London called Barbecoa. “Basically, he ignores them. He is constantly upbeat.”
And constantly productive. Besides running Barbecoa and 20 other restaurants in the UK, Oliver is planning further forays into the western colonies. This October he’s releasing Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes—an adjusted-for-American-kitchens twist on a cookbook of his that became a phenomenon in England—and researching a potential Los Angeles branch of his restaurant chain Jamie’s Italian. He’s also trying to sell another reality-TV show, Jamie’s American Road Trip, a Kerouacian Wanderjahr through some of the wilder precincts of the United States that aired to high ratings internationally but has yet to pique the interest of stateside TV execs. Meanwhile, he tries to be at home with his family in England as much as possible. When I met with him in New York City, he was frantically tracking down American Girl dolls to bring back to his three daughters.
Regardless of how Food Revolution plays out, Oliver is clearly committed to the cause. As he put it to me at Soho House, “I don’t go away”—a quick quote that could double as a mission statement. In June, with Food Revolution back on the air and new L.A. school superintendent John Deasy committed to a ban on flavored milk, I e-mailed Oliver to get a sense of where the fight might lead if ABC doesn’t pick up a third season of the show. About 90 minutes later, he sent me an expansive and enthusiastic response that made it clear he has no plans to skulk away.
"Ultimately, my belief is that TV absolutely can empower people to find the campaigner or activist in themselves to make not only personal and local but national change," he wrote. "TV that is reality, and TV that gives a shit, and TV that doesn't mind sticking its neck out to tell the truth, has a future. The food revolution will crack on no matter what."