Jamie Oliver: Food fighter
Jamie Oliver presses a “happy cow” veggie burger on me with the fervor of a believer handing out religious pamphlets. He asks me whether I love it, but his smile is pure certainty that I will -- and even love him for making it. He’s stepped out from the kitchen at Patra’s, a Glassell Park drive-through where his crew is taping footage for “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” a TV show that’s not just about healthy food but also about converting skeptics and unbelievers. The chef who’s been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire has an empire of his own -- TV shows in several dozen countries, foundations and charities, restaurants and books. His crusade for quality food in schools and homes has changed British food-itudes and menus. He’s brought himself, his cameras and his good-food ardor to L.A., with an emphasis on kids. But the LAUSD has closed its cafeteria doors to him, so far. Characteristically, he’s found other projects and causes, like his offerings at Patra’s; as the man from Essex asks anxiously, “How’s that slaw salad with your burger, luv?”
You moved here temporarily with your family to shoot a new season of “Food Revolution” in the L.A. Unified schools, and the district said no. What happened?
How do I explain it? I guess they didn’t want me.
It’s been pretty tough, but at the same time there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been asked to produce a three-week menu that they might work into their system, which has to be taken as progress. I do have faith that I will have some kind of meaningful relationship with the LAUSD. They presumed I was just going to come in and knock them, but actually I wanted to see the situation and the stresses and pressures they’re under.
At the end of the day, sustainable and large-scale change is the only true benefit I can achieve. Just walking through and saying, “That’s crap, that’s crap,” is not productive. [For a while] I got into West Adams Prep [a high school run by MLA Partner Schools under contract with the LAUSD], which was a bit of a crack in the armor. I went in as an educator, and I honored all my promises of not filming the food or going in the kitchen or cafeteria, just so I could get access to the young people. We showed how easy it is to wrap food and food issues around any subject, so in a way we’ve learned so much more by getting kicked out of the kitchen.
Was the LAUSD just expecting you to be critical and manufacture conflict?
You look at their struggle and their history, the large-scale procurement of even an apple for 670,000 kids a day. If someone’s going to start asking questions about where and when and how you get x, y, z, just from a money point of view, I guess they didn’t want their laundry washed in public. I know in my heart I was going to do it honorably because it’s important that I sleep well at night, but I think my time will come. It’s a funny old thing, really; I don’t think of it as a job, it’s a responsibility, to be able to tell stories from the home to fast food to the school -- what’s in your food.
How are food attitudes different here compared with Britain. As a small example -- when you showed kids in the U.K. all the gross parts that go into chicken nuggets, they wouldn’t eat them. But here kids still prefer them.
I’m not saying that experiment is like a survey, but even young teenagers’ attitude toward their health and mortality and their worries and their control of food choices seem a lot more vulnerable and emotional here. The thing that just breaks my heart is when you’re surrounded by bad [food] choices, and you’ve got two or three generations of non-cooks like we have in England or America -- you just wish that there was food education in every school.
We’re talking about the basic stuff. Where does honey come from? Where does butter come from? In Huntington [West Virginia, where Oliver taped a season of “Food Revolution”], we’d hold up tomatoes on the vine and they didn’t have a clue what they were. [But] you hold up a pizza and they’d be all over it. That was a defining moment. We need to arm our children; we need to make them streetwise.
Eighty percent of all milk given to children across elementary and high schools in America is flavored, and that flavored milk per ounce has more sugar in it than a can of Coke. And for a school to get reimbursement, that milk’s got to be offered.
It’s not about being a food nazi. The madness of health in America is just the amount of [bad] additives -- frankly, things that are banned in Europe. There’s nothing wrong with a burger, but if you add up all the ingredients, all the additives of a cheap dodgy burger It’s about goodness and whole foods and nutrients versus the lowest form of stuff.
Why do we have such poor-quality food in such a rich country?
I guess it’s a paradox. Some of the most amazing food experiences [are] here, but if you’re talking about what the norm is -- I’ve been in central-ish L.A. and there’s food deserts like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve met mothers who make two-, three-, four-hour roundtrips just to buy a couple of bloody carrots. There’s junk food on every corner. I even considered doing a drive-through supermarket. There’s so much that could be achieved. L.A. as we all know is the city of a million permissions to be granted. As far as supermarkets, the posh ones and everyday ones, when you grant them permission to open, we need to be saying, if you want to open one over here in this lovely area, then you [should] open something over there in this other area, and that will fast-track your permissions.
It must have been heartbreaking to see those West Virginia kids dumping your broiled chicken and fresh fruit in the trash in front of you.
We’re used to the nuggets; we’re used to the burger. It’s comforting. When something new comes along, there’s a whole cultural piece to get them to buy into this new thing. If I went into a school and just changed the food, that is simply not enough; that alone is not good use of the taxpayers’ money. You need food wrapped around [the curriculum].
Look, there’s the home, advertising on TV for kids, there’s the fast-food industry, the supermarket industry. But if I had a magic wand and one wish that could maybe influence and stop the vicious circle of bad health and obesity and early death, it’s school, school, school, school, where the future of your country goes 180 days a year.
How does what you do differ from Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, and her schoolyard gardens?
I know and love Alice, and in a funny sort of way I’m kind of one of her children, really. Alice has her way and she doesn’t compromise and she is a goddess. I’m much more grass-roots and street level.
What else are you doing in L.A.?
We’re opening five kitchens with the American Heart Assn., providing free cooking lessons in [poor] areas. We’ve got a massive truck that’s going to be going around L.A. for a whole year, [to] different schools, thanks to TED [the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference]. The Food Revolution, as a campaign, not the TV show, is really trying to bring together everyone’s efforts.
I’m [also] working with an old place called Patra’s. [The owner’s] dad set it up in the ‘70s; it’s beautifully retro inside, and he let me have half the menu board and I’m trying to prove that fast food can be affordable, profitable, nutritious and better for you. It’s really about owning what goes into the burger and the burrito and the milkshakes. Hopefully my side of the menu will be a success. I’m trying to get it all under 500 calories, and every burger goes with a salad, so it’s a complete meal.
I must ask: You killed a live lamb on TV. I was horrified, but at least you faced up to the reality of what it takes to eat meat -- killing a living being.
I couldn’t really say no. I’ve probably ordered about 10,000 in my career. When you’re there in the village, and it’s their normal tradition, I actually felt quite shallow if I didn’t do it. Did I like it? No, it was bloody horrible. Will I do it again? Probably not. But if everyone in the world had to do that, maybe there’d be more vegetarians, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I think it would make everyone respect [what they eat]. To be a meat eater -- I feel so strongly [about] having respect for it. It was a really quite emotional moment for me.
Do you have any favorite L.A. food?
L.A. is a city full of little diamonds. About a year and a half ago, I did a documentary on beautiful food in L.A., which ironically never came to America; it went to 180 countries in the world and it didn’t come here! But that time I spent here, I was blessed to be welcomed into the Homeboy Industries family. We’re buying our whole-wheat buns [for Patra’s] from Homeboy. The salads at the Homegirl Cafe are just outrageous.
Sunday’s my day off, and I’ve done different farmers markets. I’ve had some wonderful bread, and I just love the different ethnic sort of stalls. Asian stalls, they’ve got all the different cabbage and bok choy and herbs so beautifully wrapped. The Mexican stands. The celebration of ethnic food in general, the different lemons, ones that aren’t sour, a woman who does a million different herbs -- wow.
What do people say to you in the markets?
It’s a bit like preaching to the converted. [After] getting locked out [at the LAUSD], I would go down to a farmers market on Sunday and everyone just patted you on the back and said, “Don’t you dare give up,” and they really meant it. Not that I’m one for giving up, but when you get your ass kicked quite a lot, you think, maybe I’m not the right one to be stirring the pot. And then that gets said to you.
Certain people start saying, “Bloody chefs, they’re trying to do all this posh cooking.” It’s not just me teaching people to make gourmet meals. I’m not bloody stupid. We’re trying to keep things relevant, and we’re trying to save them cash.
If you say, can I teach you how to save money for the rest of your life? They say, of course, yeah, and taking people shopping is one of the most incredibly [informative] opportunities. You show them how to buy local stuff or how they can cook fresh, instead of reheating something that [seems] dead in a tray.
You cook for your family when you get home. Aren’t you tired of cooking and kitchens by then?
No, I’ve never really been like that. I kind of find it therapeutic, actually. Put on some music, have a little drink. It’s very different to cooking in a school kitchen. It’s like having a massage, really.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.