Jamie Oliver is a man with a mission.
In the rarified world of today’s celebrity chefs, some have attained their status because they’ve earned it with in-depth knowledge, innovative or authentic cuisine, and stellar restaurants. The best of the best spawn protégés who, under their tutelage and with their support, go on to establish their own successful careers.
But there are others with little-to-no culinary capability, whose fame is due to perky personalities and media hype. As often as not, what they prepare on air is dreadful – and sometimes downright creepy – to those who know what constitutes good, real food.
Some food critics – at least the snobs among them – put Oliver in the second category when he appeared on the American culinary scene in 1998 with his first TV series. There were reasons for their skepticism. The show’s moniker, The Naked Chef, was a tease: It wasn’t Oliver who was naked, the show’s publicity coyly said, it was his food: stripped down, simple, approachable, honest cooking. And the cute guy with the cute British working-class accent, stylishly disheveled hair and cheeky attitude seemed to fit right in with others who’d become famous for their style, but who had no underlying substance or knowledge (think Rachel Ray). He hadn’t really even been a chef – the closest he’d come was working in London’s highly regarded River Café, where cameras had discovered his appealing on-screen persona during a shoot there.
I was dubious myself at first, primarily because of the “Naked” shtick. Watching those early shows, though, I was impressed. Oliver might not have ever been at the helm of his own restaurant. But he’d been working in kitchens since early childhood – first in his parents’ country pub, then in a series of restaurants, ending with the vaunted River Café. He might not have been an innovative chef, but he was definitely a gifted educator who knew his stuff, and whose enthusiasm for his subject was infectious. And he was cooking – and teaching – exactly what that publicity promised: good, real food.
Twelve years later, after penning nine cookbooks and appearing in multiple television series, Oliver has proven those early critics wrong. In fact, it’s safe to say that no other celebrity chef anywhere has done more to promote eating healthy, real food and to combat the problems engendered by habitual consumption of the over-processed, additive-laden junk that constitutes the diet of so many Britons and Americans.
Oliver started with “Fifteen,” a teaching program to give disadvantaged problem teens the education to become professional cooks, using personal funds and even mortgaging his home to get it going. For the last several years, he’s been on a campaign to improve the school food in Britain (in one instance, when he was working at a school, some of the children’s mothers came to the school’s gates and passed burgers and fries to their children through the railings!) and to teach everyday folks to make a few simple recipes utilizing fresh, wholesome ingredients.
Oliver says what he’s doing is nothing less than a revolution. And now he’s bringing his campaign to America with a television series and cookbook. In the book he says:
“It’s such a shame, but we have a modern-day war on our hands, and it’s over the epidemic of bad health and obesity. The question is, do we wait until it’s too late, or do we do something about it now? I say we do something now. I’ve been told that fewer than a third of Americans cook their meals from scratch these days. And although 75 percent of people in the United States eat most of their meals at home, much like us Brits, over half of those dinners are fast food, delivery, or take-out! Regardless of recessions and credit crunches, we all need to know how to cook simple, nutritious, economical, tasty and hearty food. And once we’ve got this knowledge, we should pass it on through friends, family and the workplace to keep that cycle of knowledge alive.
I brought local cooking demonstrations to [a British town], along with smaller cooking classes where I asked people to teach the recipes I taught them to at least two other people….While I was teaching these cooking classes, I consistently saw the most radical, inspiring and completely emotional change happening to everyone I met, all through showing them how to cook a handful of meals. This change is so fantastic to see, and can literally happen within 24 hours. I know it sounds soft, but it’s true. And I’m not talking about easy, cuddly individuals who thought it might be quite nice to start cooking; I’m talking about people who had never, ever wanted to cook or been interested in food for years: miners, single moms, old-age pensioners and busy dads.”
I got a copy of Jamie’s Food Revolution last fall without realizing that a television show of the same name was in the offing. It’s a wonderful cookbook, and I can’t recommend it highly enough – something that, even though it’s meant to be for beginner cooks, is interesting enough, and the recipes are good enough, to appeal to cooks of every level. Some recipes are straightforward – ingredients and method. But much of the book is dedicated to variants on a theme. The basic stew recipe has four possibilities: beef and ale, pork and cider, chicken and white wine, or lamb and red wine. It can be served as is, or with four different toppings: mashed potatoes, sliced potatoes, dumplings or pastry. There’s a section on “Evolution Salads:” lettuce, carrot, potato, tomato, etc., that start very simply, and by adding more ingredients, become more substantial. There’s another section of chopped salads. There are Asian and Indian recipes, as well as family dinners, simple sautés, and stir-fries. It’s not a diet cookbook, as such, but some dishes are lightened up, and rich and/or fatty ingredients are used judiciously.
Jamie’s Food Revolution, the television series, appears on ABC Fridays at 8 p.m. Past episodes can be seen online at www.hulu.com. Oliver is in Huntington, W. Va., a city of 50,000 that statisticians say is the “unhealthiest city in America.” The episodes so far have been gripping as Oliver tries to bring about positive change in spite of a sarcastic disc jockey and others whose attitude is “Who the hell does this British guy think he is to come here and tell us how to eat?” Through it all, Oliver is encouraging, and supportive, never condemning, as he talks to a tearful teen so grossly overweight that her physician has given her only a few more years to live, to a family whose deep fryer is their primary way of cooking, to deeply suspicious “lunch ladies.” There are setbacks as he discovers that federal government rules and regulations actually discourage the use of fresh food in the schools, and that their guidelines support school lunches consisting of chicken nuggets, fries and chocolate milk, that the children are often eating the same sorts of meals at home, and that fresh food is totally unknown – and initially unappealing to them.
But as the series continues, Oliver’s enthusiasm appears to be making headway. In last week’s episode, he manages to get 1,000 people cooking a stir-fry in his teaching kitchen or in their workplace, or even in the street in a single week, winning a bet with the cynical disc jockey, who ends up cooking along with everyone else, including some of those dubious lunch ladies and local officials.
Yes, it was a bit of a gimmick – just as the “Naked Chef” was. But it’s a gimmick in service of a good cause. So watch “Jamie’s Food Revolution,” buy the cookbook, and, as Jamie Oliver says, PASS IT ON!
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.
Oliver says of this recipe:
“OK, this is easy, but it’s a quick one, so you’ll have to concentrate and stay on the ball. Sweet and sour pork is an absolute classic and was one of the first Chinese-style dishes introduced to Britain. I’ve tried to make it fresh, light and full of wonderful crunch, sweetness and flavor. I’ve also brightened it up by introducing some lettuce leaves, which add texture and freshness. It’s best to cook this for two – perfect, fast, one-pan cooking for nights in.”
Oliver refers to “lugs” of oil – presumably a British term for “dollop,” which I interpreted to mean about a tablespoon. I also toasted the sesame seeds by putting them in a dry skillet over medium heat until lightly browned.
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 c. long-grain or basmati rice
- ½ lb. pork tenderloin, preferably free-range or organic
- 1 small red onion
- 1 red or yellow bell pepper (or ½ of each)
- A thumb-sized piece of fresh root ginger
- 2 cloves of garlic
- ½ - 1 fresh red chile, to your taste
- a small bunch of fresh cilantro
- peanut or vegetable oil
- 1 heaped teaspoon five-spice powder
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 2-3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1x 8-ounce can of pineapple chunks
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 small heart of romaine or ½ butterhead lettuce [torn into large pieces]
- 2 teaspoons sesame seeds [toasted if desired]
To prepare your stir-fry
Bring a pan of salted water to a boil and add the rice. Cook according to package directions. Drain the rice in a strainer, put back in the pan, and cover to keep warm until needed.
Halve the pork tenderloin and cut into ¾ inch cubes. Peel and halve the red onion, then dice into ¾ inch cubes. Halve the bell pepper, seed, and cut into ¾ inch cubes. Peel and finely slice the ginger and garlic. Finely slice the chile. Pick the cilantro leaves and put them to one side. Finely chop the cilantro stalks.
To cook your stir-fry
Preheat a wok or large frying pan on high heat and once it’s very, very hot, add a good lug of oil and swirl it around. Add the pork and five-spice powder and toss or stir them around. Cook for a few minutes until browned, then transfer to a bowl using a slotted spoon.
Carefully give the wok or pan a quick wipe with a ball of paper towels and return to the heat. When it’s really hot, add 2 good lugs of oil and all the chopped ingredients. Toss or stir everything together and cook for 2 minutes.
Stir in the cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Let everything cook for 30 to 40 seconds, then add the pineapple chunks with their juice, the browned pork and balsamic vinegar. Season with black pepper and a little more soy sauce, if needed.
Break open a piece of the pork, check it’s cooked through, and remove from the heat. Reduce the sauce to a gravy-like consistency by cooking for a few minutes more.
To serve your stir-fry
Divide the rice and lettuce between two bowls or plates. Spoon the pork, veggies, and sauce over the top and sprinkle with the sesame seeds and reserved cilantro leaves.
“From JAMIE’S FOOD REVOLUTION by Jamie Oliver. Copyright © 2009. Photographs by David Loftus. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.”