07 November 2010

Jamie Oliver, Food Revolutionary, On Change

Excerpt from The Guardian, 11 October 2010

'..."I hate making TV documentaries," he says with feeling. "Because it takes quite a lot of energy to know that you're going to get your arse kicked and people will hate you, or fight you, for large proportions of time. You know when I did School Dinners I got so much abuse for a year and a half, and the people who were getting in the way of some of the biggest progress...you know, once the show was broadcast, all of a sudden it was 'authentic'. But until then it was just lots of – well, people hate change. So I don't particularly enjoy doing the stuff I'm most proud of."

...You know that government advertising campaign, Change4Life, cost £20m on billboards? I could have built over 100 Ministries of Food in towns all over the country for that. The public doesn't need to know that we're in a f*cking state, that we need five a day. What it needs is skin on skin, it needs beacons locally where you can find out stuff for free, and have lessons. It's the only way forward, and it won't blossom through cuts."

Jamie's Ministries of Food have been established in four cities now, where the public are taught basic cooking skills in a bid to wean them off processed food and ready meals. But the future of the original Ministry in Rotherham is now in doubt, threatened by cuts, and Oliver is incredulous.

"The reason why I'm so passionate about the Ministry of Food is that we're fully booked, and if we had another staff member we could put another third on the numbers. We do about 8,000 people a year from one little cheap £130,000 setup grant from Rotherham council. We're fully booked, we're busy. It works. But they're all looking at me now for money, and the thing is I don't have it. I haven't got dough sitting in banks for me or for anything else."

Some readers may think come off it, you're really rich, I suggest. His wealth is routinely reported to be anywhere between £25m and £45m; could he not write a cheque for £130,000?

"I can't. I can't. I just can't, it's as simple as this. I've got my businesses that I look after, I don't have venture capitalists swoop in and pay for everything. Basically everything I've got funds my restaurants, the vulnerabilities are all mine. I've got 18 months of wages for my staff in the bank, but I'm not spending their money."

Oliver has recently extended his campaign to America, where he made a series called Jamie's American Food Revolution, set in the nation's most obese town. It won him an Emmy, and has been recommissioned, but far from celebrating, Oliver is still recovering. "The town didn't react very well to me being there, and there was one fellow on the radio who did a lot of shit-stirring that caused basically six weeks of aggro for me. No one really wanted to get involved or help, they thought we wanted to make them look stupid." With hindsight, I ask innocently, does he feel he made any tactical errors?

"No," he shoots back, "it was brilliant. You know, change is very hard – structures, organisations, businesses, people, anyone really. And if you're shining a light on one of the most unhealthy places in the world, it has to be a car crash, there's no pretty way. I knew what I was flying over there for, I knew it would be horrible, but I hadn't done horrible without my family. When you have shit days you need to be able to go and hug your kids, do you know what I mean? I didn't have that, and it was hard, really hard."

And yet, I say, it's these documentaries which make us love him. "But there's still lots of people who don't like me," he counters straight away. "You can tell that if you go on any blog. I annoy lots of people. You know people often don't like the good guys, and I try to be a good guy, I'm consistent. You know, I've been consistent in my direction, the beliefs that I have. And people hate that."...

"No one understands me. No one. My wife doesn't even understand me in terms of what I want to do. Everyone thinks everything's about money. You think I'm going to America to make money? That is probably the worst financial use of my time in the world, going to America next year, cos there's no money in TV, and they don't buy books. I don't want to break America, I don't want to move there, I'll be there for three months next year but I don't want to be making that show, I want Americans to be making that f*cking show. I'm not pleased I got the Emmy cos I got the Emmy; I'm pleased because it will get other people to make these shows, and get the public active, and get McDonald's to start doing some other shit instead of the shit they are doing.

"I have a fairly low regard for money to be honest, it doesn't really add that much to a lot of the things that give me pleasure in life. However, if you have an idea, and you've got it, you can do it. If you haven't got money and you've got a great idea, it's hard to get it done. So for me I want to get in a position where I can do stuff myself. I want to be able to go into Essex and say: 'I want all your schools.' I want to set up a company that would be not for profit; I want to set up a company that would be like the government used to be, where we train dinner ladies militantly, where we'd fit the kitchens out and deliver on budget. But it's not just Essex, you see, it's trying to create things that can be rolled out elsewhere. But it all comes down to money."

In the end, Oliver believes that change will only come through public pressure. "Although they don't know it, the public is still king. So what I try and do is shit-stir. In America, what hasn't happened yet is the public haven't really told business what they want. For instance, McDonald's America and McDonald's UK are totally different. You've got one public that's fairly well informed, which is here, so you know you've got organic milk, 100% free-range eggs; they do a huge amount of salads, they've done a huge amount of inward thinking in the last five years. So although they've been the enemy for many years, you've got to take your hat off and say well done, and carry on. America hasn't even done that, they've done nothing in comparison. The only difference is the public ask for more."

So if he had to choose only one element of his empire – the cookery shows, the restaurants, the books, Fifteen, or the campaigns – which one is closest to his heart?

"I'd love to be elitist, cos that's where my heart is – I'm a food geek. But it's f*ck-all use to anyone, absolutely no use to anyone, it doesn't change anything really. I really want to get school food sorted, and it ain't going to get sorted by the government. It needs investment, entrepreneurialism, expert management – and it's not going to happen, cos they'll never put their hands in their pockets or be there long enough to change anything."'

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