His next prime time TV series finds the "Naked Chef" hunkered down in Huntington, W.Va., which has been called one of the unhealthiest towns in the United States. Oliver's job on the show is to get inside school menus and local grocery shopping and dining habits and perform a makeover to help Huntington drop pounds.
Oliver's message on the reality program (to air on ABC) is in line with a gospel he has long preached: Use fresh and local ingredients whenever possible, and just say no to processed food.
But it was never his intention, Oliver said, to be the next food evangelist.
For some of Jamie Oliver's favorite recipes, click HERE
"It's not really my original personality to sort of start campaigning and stuff," Oliver said. "I think I'm a fairly regular guy and when things upset me, I think I'll say it like anyone else, but of course my life involves TV cameras, so often that gets aired and then people start agreeing with you. People start writing about you and then you end up on the news ... and then before you know it you've become a [mouthpiece] for food and ethics and farming ... so it's weird. I never asked for it. It's not like I wanted to be a politician or anything like that."
If captain nutrition was never a role Oliver sought, it is a role he has embraced wholeheartedly, notably in his new book, "Jamie's Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals." The publication is just the latest installment in a career that stands out for its brilliance even in the razzle-dazzle world of celebrity chefs. Oliver, now 34, starred in "The Naked Chef" in his early 20s. He followed the hit up with "Jamie's Kitchen," "Jamie's School Lunch Project," "Jamie's Great Italian Escape," "Return to School Dinners," "Jamie's Chef," "Jamie at Home," "Jamie's Ministry of Food" ... the list goes on and on. He has published a shelf full of cookbooks and books on food. These days, with his wife and three daughters, he splits his time between the United States and Britain.
The native of Essex, England, recently sat down for a conversation about how he came to cooking, growing up in front of the camera, bad (and good) parenting and the importance of eating well.
"All of my family have pretty much cooked all of their life really, my granddad, and my dad," he said. "I went to college, trained, worked in France, Italy, London, and ended up doing TV about 13 years ago, scarily. I was very young when I first did TV, a massive bit of luck for my age. When I was young I was fairly good and able, but I had a total baby face so it was kind of apparently compelling that such a little s*** could cook, and such a little s*** had sort of like old man's hands they said. But it was pretty much sort of a ferocious 12 years, really."
Chef's Right-Hand Little Boy
Oliver said the prevailing ethic at home was to cook, and to work.
"My mom did most of the family cooking," he said. "My dad was a chef and he used to work downstairs but I guess kind of like mum used to do a lot of pasta dishes or typical English dishes, stews, shepherd's pies, you know, beautiful homemade pies and stuff like that, roast dinners, and probably the first thing I ever -- well actually the first thing I ever cooked was an omelet, then I started making bread and then I started doing roast dinners on Sunday, all quite young. And by the time I was 8, I was trying to get pocket money out of my dad because all of my buddies were getting like a couple of dollars a week to go and do stuff, and Dad wouldn't give me anything. He said you go and earn it, so he had me downstairs peeling vegetables, sacks and sacks of onions and potatoes and carrots and stuff like that. And he was pretty hard-core on getting me working everywhere."
Oliver's meteoric rise in the cooking world began even before he hit his teens. He started cooking in family restaurants when he was 10.
"By the time I was 13, I was pretty much doing most jobs that were in the kitchen ... sort of like the head chef's right-hand little boy, really, little shadow," he said. "All of my summer holidays were spent in the kitchen. I used to make more money actually, so like an 11, 12, 13-year-old, you know, I'd be earning, I'd be earning $2 an hour but I used to do a lot of hours. You know I used to be doing about 50 hours a week so I'd be walking around in brand new Nikes, Adidas track suit tops, and then I would go breakdancing, I would have the old ghetto blaster and I had my ... little dodgie track suits and stuff like that.
"But it was good actually, I mean I think more kids should -- I mean the thing is, both America and England [are] a bit touchy about kids and work. And it's such a shame really because kids are little s*** and actually giving them, not just giving them something to do in sort of the sense of working in a team but also the ability to earn money and not just expect it, I think was really good for me. It made me save up for things and understand the meaning of hard work really."
Oliver said he tried to instill the same values of hard work and earning what you get in his own children.
"The kids came up to me and said, 'We really want a skateboard,'" he said. "And I don't really, I really don't want my kids to grow up being spoiled brats, so I'm like, 'No you can't have it,' and they're like, 'Please, please, please.' And I'm like, right. So I gave them an unrealistic task, and I said 'If you learn 30 herbs in the garden, then you can have a skateboard.' And of course, the little bastards learn every single one of them. And as they were doing it and learning it, I was going, 'Well how can I make it harder?' And so I was like well, 'You're going to have to smell it and taste it blindfolded.' And I really did! I wouldn't give them the skateboard until they got all 30 right."
'I Want Them All Sacked'
The path from mere celebrity chef to chef-activist, said Oliver, ran through schools, where he would consult on lunch menus, or talk to kids about eating right. His time with the primary school set has left him with a lot of faith in the young ones, though not always with their parents.
"Kids are clever. I mean I've spent the last five years working with kids in schools ... kids are amazing. And actually the biggest problem with kids today are the parents. Without question. Honestly, if you create the right environment, either at home or in the classroom at school, kids will try ... just about everything. I find them a constant inspiration, actually, kids. I mean I've worked in hundreds of schools over the last five years and I've never found kids a problem. It's always the parents."
Oliver indulges a penchant for unvarnished talk when he gets on the subject of school lunches, and what children have been taught to eat.
"For the last 40 years, people ... entrusted with a lot of responsibility to make good decisions, for say, our kids at school ... have all been idiots," he said, talking about the U.K. and the U.S. "... The way that I look at it is that adults have made very bad decisions for our kids for 40 years. And the health statistics of today are because of that. So frankly I want them all sacked, I want them all out. ... Because actually the kids want better. And when they say that, and when they tell you that their hearts have been broken because their father has died because of obesity or because of diabetes... you can't argue with that.
"I think that's why I get pissed off about it, and that's why I'm inspired to get up every morning and frankly have 10-12 hours of, you know -- a lot of what I do doesn't necessarily involve people wanting me there or liking me, and it takes quite a lot of time to get over that sort of issue. And it was the same back home in England."
The lessons of how to cook well, in no more time and for no more time than it takes to eat poorly, have been largely lost, Oliver said.
"When I look at a box of processed food that is really cheap, full of three ingredients that I understand and 50 that I don't, you know, I see it as s*** and poison and the person buying it being mugged. Do you know, it's like you are going to buy a posh Gucci handbag and actually it falls apart ...it's a bootleg. You know you can put a stew together in two minutes flat. Put it in an oven, let it cook for three hours flat, you can go out, watch football, go shopping, go to work, whatever, and come back to a house smelling like heaven.
"Some cooking is a bit of extra effort ... Actually a huge proportion of cooking is actually just really boxed-down and simple stuff, and quick, but I think America and England have had 40 years where mum and dad are both gone to work, so they're not passing the cooking down. So really cooking has been strangled over 40 years. You know, Food Network and cookbooks are all great, but really passing it on person to person is the key."
'There Hasn't Really Been Control'
All of those lessons were driven home for Oliver by his time in Huntington, he said.
"Huntington has become a very important part of my life now, and I've fallen in love with the town and the people," he said. "And they certainly don't want to be famous for being the most unhealthy town in the country -- which they are not actually, there was never any data that said that that town was, but certainly the area has got a lot of trouble. ... I want America to see this show. ... Hopefully it's not too much to the point where people, you know, I want people to watch it for all of the right reasons."
Oliver called for more government oversight of what goes into our food.
"I think kind of what hasn't happened yet is kind of the CEOs of the fast food companies and the supermarkets, and ... within government to really cap or control or put limits on the amount of fast food restaurants in a square mile, or the amount of fat content in 100-gram portion. There hasn't really been a kind of control of the s*** and mainly that is because it's hard to tell business what to do because this is a country where business, even more so than England, is king."
With the holidays on the way, Oliver fondly recalled the social Christmas-time of his youth.
"As a kid, [I] loved it, obviously I lived in the pub as a kid, so my Christmas involved about 300 people downstairs until about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and then it went all small and sort of 10-12 people, and sort of same as we do today really, just a different house and it's exciting. It's a great time of year. What do we do?
"You have a good laugh and you open presents."