I once sat in a room with Jamie Oliver for two and a half hours as he gave five interviews on the trot to the Scottish media. Whether explaining his passion for organic food to a reporter, or pacing the small room in-between bouts, Jamie seemed comfortably himself.
It was 2004, and Jamie hinted his next step was to do something with school meals. I escorted him through the university building where the Soil Association was holding its annual conference (stop press: our next conference is in Bristol this coming November). As he passed the book stall, Jamie bought twenty pounds worth of books on organic farming. We shook hands and I have to report – this guy is for real. He exudes natural warmth and spontaneity.
Now he is on television teaching Rotherham how to cook. And I love him.
The TV show tonight could not have packed-in more touching scenes. Julie used to live on crisps and chocolate – now she cooks healthy fresh dinners. The miner who found food teaches fellow miners how to stir-fry. Stereotypes fall away. So-called feckless single mothers and ‘real’ men, the stuff of tabloid headlines, absorb Jamie’s lessons – eager to learn, brimming with untapped talents.
Jamie takes his inspiration from the wartime Ministry of Food – Marguerite Patten reminds Jamie “the Ministry never lectured…cooking has to be pleasurable.” Wise advice but pity we have to wait for a disaster to get people changing their behaviour.
Such as the obesity crisis that Jamie graphically illustrates when he drops by the hospital to see Julie’s scan (and the baby she might call after him). There is a hoist and equipment that costs £60,000 to help care for extremely obese people. Clinically-fat people who do not need to suffer if – as the NHS medics insist – they had learnt to cook from scratch from the start.
Jamie gets a thousand people together in one go for a mass cook-in. He is working on the theory of passing it on. If I learn a recipe and pass it on to five people then – do the maths. I marvel at the cheffy dishes he chooses for people who have never cooked before: flattening chicken breasts pressed with parma ham. His chief ingredients are chilli, ginger and garlic to get everything tasty – top tips to pass on.
His Rotherham experiment is part of revolution, with cooks as guerilla fighters in the war against junk food.
My recipe: I put flat mushrooms with slivered garlic under a grill, brushed them with olive oil top and bottom so they would not burn. When they had softened, I added a slice or two of camembert cheese that took five minutes to melt. I piled the mushrooms on wholemeal toast and served them with grated carrots and mustard leaves snipped from my potted salad plants.
I hope Jamie would be proud of me.