The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Jamie Oliver, culinary expert — and now expat?

Try as I might, I can’t make out why Jamie Oliver has taken it upon himself to save my countrymen from themselves.

I understand he’s trying to start a food revolution. Not only that but I’m a supporter, having signed the online petition. After all, I lived in Japan for long enough to see that if a national diet is in essence health food, there are many fewer incidences of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and people live longer.

But why is Jamie Oliver, of all people, leading this campaign? That’s the part I haven’t been able to fathom. Before going to Japan, I lived in Britain, where Oliver was known as the “naked chef.” Call it a lack of imagination but somehow I never anticipated that the face of the Sainsbury’s grocery-store chain would someday transform himself into a food activist and arrive on my shores. What happened?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Oliver has decided to export his food revolution. For me, his confrontation with the stony-faced lunch ladies at the school in Huntington, West Virginia — which has been called the unhealthiest city in America — goes down in the annals as reality TV at its finest.

(I’m still not convinced those ladies aren’t actors.)

And now that he’s back for a second season of his “food revolution” show, which premiered last night, I’m enjoying seeing him take on the members of the Los Angeles school board, next to whom the West Virginian women seem warm and welcoming. LA is the second-largest school district in the nation, serving over half a million processed meals every day.

I note that this time, Oliver brought his wife, Jools, and their four young children, to live with him in LA. Is he planning to become an expat? Stranger things have happened…

I can’t really explain why Oliver would choose to displace himself and his loved ones in the service of America’s overfed youth, but I can offer some half-baked ideas:

1) He doesn’t like being less well known than Gordon Ramsay.

Ramsay surpassed Oliver some time ago in terms of earnings and visibility. Indeed, last night’s show offered evidence of this in a scene involving Dino Perris, the owner of a fast-food drive through in Glassell Park, a working-class neighborhood in LA. Perris said he’d never heard of Jamie Oliver and thought he might be that “rude guy.”

The only thing wrong with this theory? Ramsay is best known for swearing a blue streak and Oliver for interacting with kids like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Apples and oranges.

2) He is descended from missionary stock (hahaha).

In other words, it’s in his DNA to make converts beyond his own shores.

This theory, however, doesn’t hold water when you study Oliver’s family tree. Most of his people hailed from Cornwall and his great-great grandfather John Oliver was a Royal Navy seaman who did time in prison — not exactly the ingredients from which a food evangelist emerges.

3) He is escaping from Britain because his popularity is on the wane.

His fellow Brits have grown tired of seeing him running around in his green pea costume, so he is seeking a fresh audience.

At first this theory seems quite palatable. Most Americans probably don’t know this, but there was a backlash against Oliver’s “school dinners” program in the UK. It reached its peak when two mothers at a school in South Yorkshire started delivering junk food from local shops through the school fence, claiming that their youngsters didn’t want to eat the celebrity chef’s “overpriced lowfat rubbish.”

Still, I can’t believe that Oliver was ever put off by people who cooked up stunts that are, in effect, straight out of his manual. He loves nothing better than stirring the pot, and besides, he achieved what he wanted: the UK government established the School Food Trust, dedicated to improving the quality of food in the nation’s schools.

Okay, so I have no idea why he’s here. I might as well chime in with Jon Stewart, who, when Oliver appeared on his show last week, summed it up as follows:

You have come to this land you and you would like to help us become healthier, better people. Good luck with that.

And if Angelenos start throwing rotten tomatoes at him, I hope he has the good sense to move across the Pacific. Rumor has it that obesity rates among children in Asia are rising with the invasion of McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, and so on.

If that doesn’t make him fed up, I don’t know what will.

Question: What do you think has made Jamie Oliver cross borders, and would you like to see him become an expat in the United States?

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4 responses to “Jamie Oliver, culinary expert — and now expat?

  1. Return to Norway April 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    As a mother who used to have children in the British education system both private and public schools – I can only say that I LOVE Jamie Oliver – and so did the other mum’s around me. The food in the English public school was disgusting before Jamie got involved. The private schools never served the junk that the public schools served. Jamie and his school meals were very popular in the south of England period 2006-2009 (New Forest area).If Jamie managed to do what he did for English school meals then why should he not do it for American school meals? God knows they need a wake up call!! To me it seams only logical. Jamie is the healthy school meal guy – Ramsay is the ‘who’s the best chef/win a restaurant’ after burning in Hells kitchen’ guy. They are completely different in character and style. As I said – I’m a Jamie Oliver fan – exactly because he took on the school meal project. Jamie Oliver = healthy school meals

    • ML Awanohara April 14, 2011 at 11:42 am

      I can appreciate what you say about Jamie: I’m a fan, too. But my point was about his chutzpah. It’s a rare breed of individual who decides to invade another country’s shores and instruct them on what they should and shouldn’t be eating.

      I mean, plenty of Westerners go to Africa and give the people advice on how to grow crops more efficiently and so on. But it’s practically unheard of for a foreigner to come to the United States — which after all fancies itself as the world’s greatest country — and point out its ignorance on something so basic as schoolchildren’s food.

      Still, as Jon Stewart says, good luck to him!

  2. Steve Davies April 17, 2011 at 10:26 am

    I am never sure what to think of Jamie Oliver. As you say he burst onto the scene in The Naked Chef, which led women to watch it in droves and men to watch it with hands in front of their eyes in fear of a nasty incident with a knife and griddle. Perhaps this inspired the invention of the sheek kebab? However it was not to be. Just some kid in a mockney accent (which to be fair he seems a little embarrassed about these days), who could cook.

    With the current rasher of TV cookery programmes and our current “celeb” culture it takes more than just a chef to be a TV chef these days, hence there is one who might be perceived as of certain bullying nature, a another with the mad scientist persona and JO has moved into campaigning. Perhaps we can look forward to 24 hour Celebrity Big Chef not too long into the future where the viewing public is more interested to see if they have egg on their face rather that the frying pan, where cookery is just incidental to the show. It would be interesting to see how his perceived persona alters long term if he does displace himself to the US?

    • ML Awanohara April 18, 2011 at 11:05 am

      That’s a good point you make about the cookery being “just incidental to the show.” We don’t get to see Jamie Oliver cook very much, and when we do, more often than not he’s doing so in the service of showing us what’s really in those chicken nuggets and burgers we stuff into our mouths without a second thought.

      Still, it doesn’t really bother me somehow. For me, Jamie’s Food Revolution belongs in that rare category of TV that melds together two types of programs, entertainment and education, thereby igniting the sort of pleasure that surpasses one type alone — rather like strawberries and rhubarb, or apple pie and cheese.

      In Season One, which took place in Huntington, W. Va., I was riveted by the sight of Jamie blending the skin and “mechanically reclaimed” meat of a chicken to make chicken nuggets. (To make matters even worse, most of the kids said they would eat what he cooked!)

      I felt the same way in the first episode of Season Two, watching JO do a demo for parents and kids with a live cow. He wanted to show that the U.S. government allows meat from areas that would normally not be fit for human consumption to go into human food — ie, burgers — if the producer does a few tricks to it — like douse it with ammonia.

      I defy anyone to watch those segments of JO’s show and be bored! At the same time, you come away with some pretty indelible images of how the food industry works…

      Jamie may be a crumpet(!?), but he knows how to make his point that fast food is not a pretty picture!

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