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12.01.09

Jamie Oliver's Fat Revolution

As the Naked Chef tries to slim down America’s fattest city for an ABC series, Nina Simonds goes to England to see whether his original Ministry of Food project actually worked.

Jamie Oliver speaks with the passion of a true believer. “I look at this as a crusade,” he tells me. “I don’t feel I have a choice.” For the past seven years, the man who achieved worldwide fame as the Naked Chef—a moniker he now disdains—has wrapped himself in a battle that seems strange for someone who cooks for a living: obesity.

He’s just finished taping “thousands of hours” for a six-part reality-TV series titled Jamie Oliver’s Revolution in Huntington, West Virginia, a poor mining community dubbed "America’s fattest city." Oliver’s mission: to work with the residents in their homes, schools, churches, and hospitals, showing people how to cook with fresh ingredients and improve their health. The series will air in prime time on ABC early next year. Oliver hopes the show will not only make for riveting television, but will inspire this country to learn how to cook basic, delicious food.

“Let me tell you, I’ve put my life on the line, my marriage on the line.”

“I’ve been trying to get a program on network TV in the U.S. for five years, he says. “ I didn’t even bother to go to the Food Network. I actually pitched it to ABC and CBS by saying ‘Do you dare show this type of a program? Are you willing to take a chance and do this type of TV? And amazingly enough within 12 hours we had really positive feedback and offers from both. I went with ABC because I felt more comfortable with them.”

Oliver produced a similar TV reality series, Ministry of Food, in the U.K. city of Rotherham, described as the U.K’s ground zero of obesity, which concluded last October. In an effort to see whether his West Virginia initiative has any shot, I recently traveled to the Rotherham to see for myself whether Oliver delivered results.

Situated in South Yorkshire, an area renowned for its beautiful rolling countryside and picturesque villages, the walk from the train to the city center was anything but scenic. Countless ethnic takeout restaurants and package stores lined the way. The village square was spacious, but deserted. In the center, a small storefront with large open windows and a bright blue sign proclaims “Jamie’s Ministry of Food.” It was a school vacation, and brimming with children taking special food classes during their break.

Inspired by the original Ministry of Food, a British government agency established during the Second World War, Oliver has opened “Food Advice” centers offering free cooking demonstrations all over the country. Rotherham had demonstrated outright hostility to his previous efforts to reform school-lunch nutrition. Oliver’s classes promote 10 recipes, simple, healthy recipes, in the hope that they in turn would teach them to others—“pyramid cooking,” as he calls it—passing the dishes like a viral marketing scheme.

From the beginning, the Ministry project was fraught with unexpected difficulties. The series provoked strong and often radically opposing feelings. One writer hailed the shows as “the most powerful political documentary in years.” Others castigated Oliver for trying too hard to start a “social epidemic that couldn’t be kick-started.”

Eighteen months later, despite the initial resistence, the Rotherham center seems alive and thriving. The Rotherham City Council took over funding once Oliver’s underwriting ran out and 14 other councils are now making plans to open similar centers starting with the nearby city of Bradford, to be followed by the large industrial center of Leeds.

“We did have some negativity at the very beginning,” admits Lisa Taylor, the center’s energetic manager. As she talked, she was effortlessly preparing a homemade tomato sauce for the pizza being taught for the next children’s class. Nearby, 15-year-old Thomas Baracha, who is one of the six kids who volunteer on weekends and during school vacation, sliced fresh vegetables for the topping. “ A lot of people didn’t think it was going to work,” Taylor continued. “Others were annoyed about the television series and the way it portrayed Rotherham. Basically our motto was to put our heads down and get on with it and we’re still here 18 months later.”

Taylor says that the program really took off once the cameras had left. It was then that people realized it was Rotherham’s project, rather than Oliver’s and it was meant to be more than a gimmick for the TV series.

The center offers single classes as well as 10-week courses covering such diverse dishes as pancakes, pasta, soups, different types of egg dishes, and chicken fajitas. The center has also begun working with a number of social-service professionals including parent support advisers for low-income families, pregnant teenagers, the elderly and disabled, as well as drug and alcohol treatment counselors. Taylor and her colleagues are attending nutrition classes to further expand their expertise.

“We’ve probably had approximately 6,000 students since we’ve opened,” Taylor says. “Even if they only cooked two or three dishes from what they’ve learned, that’s making a large impact and we hope that they’ve been teaching their children as well and passing it on to friends and family members.”

Not everyone agrees. “Jamie Oliver has a very noble heart in the right place and he likes a crusade, but I question whether those who are neglected and struggling to provide are getting the help," says Tom Sharpe, staff writer for Rotherham Advertiser, the paper that broke the story in 2007 about an infamous mother who was delivering junk food to her son and classmates because they didn’t like the food Oliver’s school program was providing to students. “Are they taking advantage of the center and its resources? I think it’s a popular cookery club—no more.”

Sharpe says that TV show was “a project the production company saw as a ploy to sell books and grease the Jamie Oliver machine.” He thinks the shows lacked focus and didn’t bear fruit, especially if compared to the results of Oliver’s school-lunch program.

Oliver’s dedication has not come without a cost, especially in his personal life. “Let me tell you, I’ve put my life on the line, my marriage on the line,” he says. “I have three small kids and a baby who is only six months old, but if you love people, it makes you want to do something. But it’s a big, old ball and chain to carry around. My wife, Jools, is very supportive, but it’s hard to be supportive when you have a baby on the tit.”

So how will Oliver’s crusade play in West Virginia?

"We went to Huntington because of the statistics, but statistics don’t move you,” he says. “People move you and that’s what happened. Not one member of my crew or me hasn’t bawled their eyes out in the months that we’ve been filming there.”

“I think something really special happened there,” he adds. “We met people whose lives had been seriously affected by this obesity thing. There was someone who had lost a father and another a dear friend. If anything, my experience there makes me even more committed to try harder to make a difference and help make change. But, we just have to see. Sometimes all you have is a big cocktail of hope. In time we’ll see what happens. I’m not Clark Kent, luv, or Superman and I can only do so much.”

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Nina Simonds is an award-winning cookbook author, journalist, and video blogger.