Jamie Oliver takes on America's fast-food culture

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Jamie Oliver has put the most unhealthy town in the US on a diet for a new show. So how do Americans view this chirpy interloper – and can they stomach his anti-obesity drive? The New York Times' Alex Witchel reports

On his first day in Huntington, West Virginia, Jamie Oliver spent the afternoon at Hillbilly Hot Dogs, pitching in to cook its signature 15lb burger. That's 10lb of meat, 5lb of custom-made bun, American cheese, tomatoes, onions, pickles, ketchup, mustard and mayo. Then he learned how to perfect the Home Wrecker, the establishment's famous 15in, 1lb hot dog (boil first, then grill in butter). For the Home Wrecker Challenge, the dog gets 11 toppings, including chilli sauce, jalapeños, liquid nacho cheese and coleslaw. Finish it in 12 minutes or less and you get a T-shirt.

So much for local colour. Earlier that day, Oliver met with a paediatrician, James Bailes, and a pastor, Steve Willis. Bailes told him about an eight-year-old patient who was 80lb overweight and had developed type-2 diabetes. If the child's diet didn't change, the doctor said, he wouldn't live to see 30. Willis told Oliver that he visits patients in local hospitals several days a week and sees the effects of long-term obesity firsthand. Since he can't write a prescription for their resulting illnesses, he said, all he can do is pray with them.

Last year, an Associated Press article designated the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan area as the unhealthiest in America, based on its analysis of data collected in 2006 by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half the adults in these five counties (two in West Virginia, two in Kentucky, and one in Ohio) were obese, and the area led the US in the incidence of heart disease and diabetes. The poverty rate was 19 per cent, much higher than the national average. It also had the highest percentage of people aged 65 and older who had lost their teeth – nearly 50 per cent.

All of which makes Huntington the perfect setting for the next Jamie Oliver Challenge. While he understands the allure of Home Wreckers and Big Macs alike, Britain's best-known celebrity chef has made it his mission in recent years to break people's dependence on fast food, believing that, if they can learn to cook just a handful of dishes, they'll get hooked on eating healthily. The joy of a home-cooked meal, rudimentary as it sounds, has been at the core of his career from the start, and, as he has matured, it has turned into a platform.

Oliver became famous at 23 for his television series The Naked Chef, which was broadcast from 1999 to 2001, first in Britain, then in America. The title referred not to his lack of clothing but to his belief in stripping pretence and mystery from the kitchen – the idea that anyone can cook and everyone should. He was loose and playful, measuring olive oil not in spoonfuls but in "glugs", making a mess and having a ball. In the years since, that laddish charmer has morphed, somewhat unexpectedly, into a crusading community organiser. Jamie's School Dinners, his award-winning four-part series, exposed the shameful state of school lunches in Britain and made for riveting television – he and the school cooks working feverishly to prepare dishes like tagine of lamb that the students either refused to try or dumped in the trash after one bite. When he eventually succeeded in getting them to abandon their processed poultry and fries and eat his food, the teachers reported a decrease in manic behaviour and an increase in concentration. The school nurses noted a reduction in the number of asthma attacks. Those findings, along with Feed Me Better, his online campaign and petition drive, were the impetus for the British government to invest more than $1bn (£612m) to overhaul school lunches.

In addition to television specials like Jamie's Fowl Dinners and Jamie Saves Our Bacon (exposing the state of the British poultry and pork industries, respectively), Oliver got personal with his series Jamie's Kitchen, based on the Fifteen Foundation, which he created in 2002. Each year it sponsors 15 (give or take a few) young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those with criminal records or a history of drug abuse, and trains them in the restaurant business. To kick-start the program and to finance Fifteen, the upscale London restaurant that would employ them, he put up his own house as collateral – without telling his wife. In addition to the London flagship, whose customers have included Brad Pitt and Bill Clinton, branches of the restaurant have opened in Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne. So far, 159 students have graduated from the programme, at a cost of $49,500 each. Oliver endowed the foundation with proceeds from his book Cook with Jamie, and it now operates as an independent entity.

If he were just a professional do-gooder, Oliver, who is 34, would be a bore. But food has given his life focus and meaning since childhood, and he has honoured it ever since. Born and raised in Essex, north-east of London, Oliver, the son of a pub owner, grew up hyperactive and dyslexic. In school, he failed every subject except art (he got an A) and geology (a C). By the time he was six, his tough-love father, Trevor, put him to work in the pub, cleaning up. His father's work ethic was such that on summer vacations he would aim the garden hose through Jamie's bedroom window, soaking his bed to get him out of it, at 6.30am. "People die in bed," he liked to say.

It seems to have worked. By the time he was 13, Jamie was turning out between 100 and 120 meals on a Sunday night alongside the pub's chef. In a work-study programme, he spent six weeks at a high-end restaurant, starting at the appetisers station. When the head chef quit, he took over.

Though his father was proud of him, Oliver says, he is mindful that the pub owner's motto remains "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear". Having started out as the ear, Oliver has worked hard to prove his father wrong. Cooking saved his life. He wants it save yours too. "Being in the kitchen is the most simple part of life," he said. "People talk about it like it was some sort of science experiment."

In last year's British television series Jamie's Ministry of Food, Oliver expanded his reach past the school system into people's homes. He chose Rotherham, an industrial town with a high rate of obesity and related illnesses, where 20 per cent of the working-age population was on public assistance. He built a community centre, where residents could learn to cook inexpensively for their families while instilling the idea that healthy eating is not a luxury. "They thought that cooking a meal and feeding it to your family was for posh people," he said. Some participants in the show had never even had a kitchen table. They ate takeout food on their floors.

That project has proved a success and the perfect model for Oliver's mission in Huntington. The community centre here will be called Jamie's Kitchen and will teach both adults and children the basic skills for cooking healthful, economical meals at home. Oliver will also work with local schools on eliminating junk food in vending machines and in cafeterias, replacing reheated processed foods with meals cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients. But there is no guarantee of success. In spite of the resources the British government has allocated for school lunches, Oliver admits that only half the schools are functioning properly; the other half are still experiencing difficulty training cafeteria staff and enforcing new guidelines. And follow-up reports show that, while students now understand the benefits of eating healthfully, many still opt out of their school-lunch plans, reverting to fast food instead.

What's really happening is about more than old habits dying hard or the love of frying. The reason the world is still waiting for the Messiah is that most people don't actually want one, no matter how many fresh fruits and vegetables he's carrying. Oliver expects some of the same pushback in Huntington, whether it comes from recalcitrant teenagers, petty bureaucrats or parents who don't like being told they've failed. It remains to be seen whether the contest between being threatened and resentful versus forthright and true can trump the American intoxication with show business: will this much-maligned area let a Member of the British Empire play Pygmalion and win? In this country, ordinary people seem willing to do or say almost anything to be immortalised in the latter-day vaudeville of reality shows. Oliver's goals here, no matter how authentic, can be thwarted if the balance between camera hunger and social reform goes off-kilter. The six-part series, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, will be broadcast on ABC in early 2010.

Like Rotherham's, Huntington's economy was buoyed for years by the coal mines nearby, as well as by manufacturing jobs in the chemical industry, glassworks, steel foundries and locomotive-parts plants. In 1950 its population was near 90,000. Manual labour took care of excess calories, if not hardened arteries. When the coal industry was modernised and the changing economy resulted in the loss of manufacturing jobs, the population dropped to less than 50,000; hospitals became one of the city's largest employers. Another is Marshall University, home of the "Thundering Herd" football team and the subject of the 2006 film We Are Marshall. Its students are aficionados of the delicacies at Hillbilly Hot Dogs (a sign out front reads, "If you hit it on the run, we'll put it on a bun"), and Oliver doesn't blame them.

"That was 15lb of madness," he said of the trademark burger, jumping into the car outside the restaurant. "But it tasted good." He had been shooting all afternoon and was 90 minutes behind schedule, an occurrence his publicist calls "Jamie Time". He gets so involved in what he's doing that he tends to lose track. He was due downtown in 30 minutes to hold a town-hall meeting to talk about the show. On the way there, he agreed to run through Kroger, a local supermarket, to see what Huntington residents were buying.

As we drove there, Oliver talked about his first day in town. He likes to say that the CDC statistics on obesity in the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan area are only a few percentage points higher than the national average. In fact, the CDC's numbers vary from year to year: obesity rates in the last two years hovered near the national average, 34 per cent, but the AP report that brought Oliver to West Virginia was based on 2006 figures that put the area's obesity rate at 45 per cent. From what I saw in one day, the locals were very touchy about their collective waistlines, so Oliver was wise to tread lightly. That is typical of his style. Effortlessly charismatic, he has an easy warmth – happy to shake hands or pat a back, though he takes the business of listening to people quite seriously. When he finds a kindred spirit, a sharp focus, an open mind, he leaps, immediately connecting. He is genuinely polite, which is in itself so rare that it is genuinely winning. Though he is still hyperactive – if he's standing he's pacing; if he's sitting, a leg bounces – his mind seems insatiable.

***



Oliver is at the head of a multinational corporation that has produced 12 television series and assorted specials seen in 130 countries; he has written 10 cookbooks that have been translated into 29 languages and sold almost 24 million copies in 56 countries. In addition to the Fifteen Foundation and restaurants, he has opened six Jamie's Italian restaurants in the UK in the past two years, high-volume yet high-quality odes to a cuisine he loves; he sells his own brands of cookware, cutlery, tableware and gift foods; he publishes his own magazine; and he continues in his ninth year as spokesman for Sainsbury's, an upscale supermarket chain. Because his company is privately held, it does not release its annual earnings, but he is said to be personally worth at least $65m.

All told, 2,150 people work for his businesses. He keeps every fact and figure in his head – no reading, no writing, no notes. The format he has worked out for so many of his series – Jamie identifies a problem, Jamie sets out to fix the problem, Jamie encounters evil forces along the way, Jamie triumphs – comes naturally to him because that's exactly how he has lived his own life so far.

Once inside Kroger we started with vegetables. "I find it fascinating looking at people's trolleys," he said. "The ones here are twice the size they are at home." He picked up a bag of salad greens. "A lot of these are washed in chlorine, so they lose their nutrition," he said, tossing it back. "It takes no time to get lettuce and spin it about." He picked up a bottle of salad dressing. "Four dollars? You can make your own for less than half that price." He looked at its ingredients. "Water. I've never been taught to put water in any dressing."

Well, how about those packages of cut-up fresh fruit? He shrugged. "I don't understand why people can't cut it up themselves. Don't they own knives?"

Two little girls ran past us, playing tag while an older man trailed them, his cart bearing bananas and M&M's. "Two things happen when shopping with kids," Oliver said. "You either give in and buy everything they want, or if you're a strong parent you make certain choices."

We headed toward frozen foods. No one recognised him. Six weeks from now he'd be mobbed doing this. "Or punched," he said. "I'm a respectful person, and I'm going to try to do things in a nice way. But it's almost as if parents here have stopped saying no. It's as if the kids rule the roost." We came upon a table of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. "They're a treat, there to be loved," he said. "But start having them every day, job done. It's harsh to say, but these parents, when they've been to the doctor and keep feeding their kids inappropriate food, that is child abuse. Same as a cigarette burn or a bruise."

Town Hall awaited. Oliver is so practised at doing these series that he spoke automatically in sound bites, sensing it was the moment to build suspense. "Ultimately, I'm a foreigner," he said. "I've got no place being here, but I've got all the right reasons." He headed for the door. "I just bloody hope I pull it out of the bag."

***



The day in Huntington wasn't my first meeting with Oliver. He came to New York in August on business and, in a borrowed apartment arranged by his publisher, cooked us some lunch before we sat down to talk. His new cookbook, Jamie's Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals, is based on the Ministry of Food series and was published earlier this month. He prepared a dish from it that he often makes for his daughters Poppy, who is seven, and Daisy, who is six: mini-shell pasta with a creamy smoked bacon and pea sauce.

A time-out here for self-anointed health Nazis. Oliver cooks and eats all kinds of meat and feels free to use butter, cream and cheese, in sane amounts. He is not a diet cop; he's about scratch cooking, which to him means avoiding processed and fast food, learning pride of ownership, encouraging sparks of creativity and finding a reason to gather family and friends in one place. If you can make pancakes or an omelette, a pot of chilli or spaghetti sauce and know how to perk up some vegetables, you can spend less and eat a healthier meal that's delicious.

Oliver's hyperactivity finds its perfect expression when he's cooking. His movements were almost balletic, charged and graceful, even when he stuck his finger straight into the pot of water to feel if it was near boiling. It was. He cut the pancetta with lightning speed. "I swear I could do that at 10 years old," he said. "Tuck your fingers in, you never get cut."

He dressed the salad, which he filled with fresh herbs, tossing it with his hands. Then he threw frozen peas into the pan with the pancetta. Two women who work for him moved in and out of the kitchen, talking on cellphones. "The key to life is to surround yourself with lots of women," Oliver said. "Men would just lie to me. Girls say, 'Give me half an hour and I'll find out.' They're intelligent, more loyal and they make things happen. Everything I do is about team, really. So 90 per cent of my team are women." The dish was done within minutes. (It was also done within minutes when I made it at home, at a more leisurely pace, the following day.)

We sat at the dining-room table. "The key to life is to know what you're good at and stay away from what you're bad at," he said. Well, the pasta was certainly delicious. As for the bad part, we talked about school. He said he recently ran into his special needs teacher, Mrs Murphy, and actually blushed as he told me, "I gave her a big hug and kiss, and she said she was really proud of me." Oliver has often recounted the story of being one of five children out of 150 pulled from regular classes each week to learn how to read and write, as the other kids taunted them, singing the phrase "special needs" to the tune of "Let It Be".

He left school at 16 and graduated from Westminster Catering College. After a brief stint cooking in France, he returned to London to work at Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant, where he met his mentor, Gennaro Contaldo, who taught him to make bread and pasta and to love all things Italian. (Contaldo now supervises bread- and pasta-making at the Jamie's Italian restaurants.) Then Oliver moved on to the trendy River Café, where a camera crew came to shoot one day and found him to be a natural.

Since 2000, Oliver has been married to his longtime love, Juliette Norton. A former model, she is known to his viewers and fans as "the lovely Jools". They live in the Primrose Hill section of London and spend weekends at his farm in Essex, near where he grew up. His father's pub, the Cricketers, is still in business. Oliver says: "I have my two girls waitressing there. Poppy is gentle, sensitive. Daisy is sort of a bit mad, incredibly funny. She eats for England. She's only six, and she'll eat squid, she'll try anything."

Poppy and Daisy have an infant sister, Petal. Really.

"That's Jools," he said, easily. "My opinions in the name department don't get much of a look-in. We live very segregated sort of lives, really. Jools isn't into anything workwise that I do. It means that home is home, and when I'm there I don't talk about work. Like a lot of working mums or dads, I see the girls a bit in the morning, and then I really don't see them until the weekend, which is the way it's always been, so I don't feel bad. Mum does a great job of being a mum." But Oliver doesn't just come home from work; he comes home from being an international entertainment conglomerate. That seems hard to leave at the door.

"It's the battle of life isn't it, trying to get the right balance," he said. "The problem with me is, no one truly understands how I tick as a person, even my wife." That includes his parents, he added. "When I started the Fifteen Foundation and opened that restaurant, I spent all my savings. It was kind of reckless, and the key people around me, the business accountants and my parents, it took them five years to get it. That's why I try and take them to every graduation to meet the kids. You know my old man's saying was 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear,' but I've spent the last eight years disagreeing with that. I like giving people a bit of extra."

But his father still doesn't understand him? Oliver's leg bounced ferociously. "He's really proud, but he doesn't know how I manage to multi-task. I don't know if it's part of my dyslexia, but I can jump from one place into another, into another. So whether it's the restaurant or the charity or the direct-sales business or the next book – there's probably 30 things going on now – I think it scares my dad because he's always been very good at one thing. But he's starting to relax. I think he thinks I'm happy, and ultimately you're only as happy as your most miserable child, aren't you?"

What is his mother, Sally, like? "She's hilarious. A hundred-miles-an-hour avalanche of energy. She's superbright and fairly encyclopaedic about stuff, but at the same time she's a complete liability. She just worries and flusters and runs around the place, saying inappropriate things. She's fairly similar to me, really. But growing up, she was a brilliant mum and a great friend. Dad was strict, hardcore, waking me up with the hose."

Oliver got his revenge – or at least tried to. Before he started cooking in the pub, he and his friends set off a stink bomb there during dinner time, sending 30 people out onto the street without paying their bills. "That was just stupid, really," Oliver said, crestfallen that I mentioned it, and seemingly still ashamed. "That was an attack on a family business by a moron child."

High jinks aside, he said that his parents consistently supported him and his younger sister, Anna-Marie. "I was brought up in a family where they would wish the best for you," he said. "But doing these projects like School Dinners and Ministry of Food, it amazed me that around so many of these people there was no positivity. With one woman, if she started doing good stuff for herself, people that were her own flesh and blood got jealous. With Fifteen, one of the biggest problems we have is the students' families, the lack of positive role models. That's why I disagree with Dad." He spoke proudly of his graduates, mentioning one who works in New York at the renowned gastropub the Spotted Pig and another who is about to become the head chef at Jamie's Italian in Guildford. Five years ago, Oliver said, he was on the South Bank of the Thames in a courtroom getting that young man out of jail.

"Look, I think the brilliant and beautiful thing in life is that anyone can do anything," he said. "When I used to go to special needs, we got laughed at, but we're not supposed to all be academic. What is education? A bunch of stuff that people think we should know. Ultimately, if you can put a wall up, if you can paint, if you can work with other people and, most important, if you find out what you are good at, that's the key. Kids can do detailed, technical things – and they can do them well. Have you seen them on skateboards and surfing? It doesn't have to be a BMX – it can be a pot and a pan and a knife, but we wrap them up in cotton wool and treat them like babies and they're not."

It certainly didn't hurt him to have started early. "No," he said, "but it's ironic that the one thing I hated I sort of specialise in now," referring to the cookbooks. He added, good-naturedly, "When I do writing, it's more imagination than sentences as we know it." But he is very visual – remember that A in art – and he works on every aspect of the books' photography and design. "Almost 24 million copies, by someone who swore he'd never ever do any revolting reading and writing when he left school," Oliver said with smile of pure delight. "It's funny how things work out."

***



After our dash through Kroger, Oliver arrived at City Hall and disappeared backstage. The auditorium was less than half full, and the front rows were filled with local reporters. Mothers brought young children with an eye toward the camera. One even armed her daughter with an oversize school menu as a visual aid. Another woman seemed to have mistaken scratch cooking for American Idol – she raced back and forth, trying to persuade someone, anyone, to ask Oliver to listen to her daughter sing.

Oliver picked up the mike. "Hi, guys," he began. "Some say this is the most unhealthy town in America. We're going to spend the next few days getting under the skin of the problem, and we're asking families, individuals, schools and churches to spread the word. Here, the odds are against you – you live an unhealthy life and die young. That's what the report said. So, this is not a sparkly, pretty show. It's about finding local ambassadors for change."

He asked people to raise their hands if friends or family were affected by obesity and bad health. Almost every hand went up. Oliver nodded. "What do you think the problems are?" Among the answers were: too much processed food in school cafeterias; a need for better pre-natal nutrition; a call to stop putting Kool-Aid in toddlers' sippy cups (earlier, Oliver heard about infants' bottles filled with Coca-Cola); suggestions that restaurants offer smaller portions and that children's menus offer alternatives to burgers and fries.

Oliver took it in. "This isn't a freak show here," he said. "You're only a few per cent away from the national average. Every child should be taught to cook in school, not just talk about nutrition all day. Good food can be made in 15 minutes. This could be the first generation where the kids teach the parents." That earned a round of applause.

"I got a billion dollars out of the British government and put it into the school system," he went on. "But it's still in transition; it's not all glossy yet. When parents get angry anything can happen. So I'll need your help. Hopefully over the next few months, we'll do some really good things together."

After he left the lectern, the crew restaged the applause they would use for his entrance. It was thin before, but now it ended with a standing ovation. The townsfolk seemed as quick a study on theatrics as they were on health reform; many angled to be interviewed, to establish themselves as characters.

They were actually so intent on chasing the limelight that few seemed to notice an untended table outside the rear of the auditorium. There, in what seemed the ultimate mixed message, was the 15lb burger Oliver helped make that afternoon. Sitting near a bowl of candy and a half-eaten plate of sandwiches, it filled an enormous platter. It had been cut into pieces, but hardly any had been taken.

As Oliver spoke to the camera downstairs and audience members jockeyed for position upstairs, the table stood ignored. Until two little boys stormed it, prompting their mother to pull herself free from the media hubbub. They stopped just short and stared at the bounty before them.

"Is it free?" one son asked. She looked around, nervously. "Yes," she said. He reached past the burger and grabbed a box of Milk Duds. Then she got back in line, to be on television.

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