They say never trust a skinny chef. But what if the man delivering this age-old piece of wisdom is a chef? One who is not exactly skinny but who is no longer the tubby, pasty-faced geezer he used to be. It raises the question: can you still trust Jamie Oliver?
To keep his mouth shut? Good luck. The loquacious lad from Essex has the mega-watt charisma and undiluted passion that can flog fresh food to fat people, turn around troubled lives, lobby prime ministers and presidents and change a town’s - maybe even a nation’s - eating habits. But if you’re looking for a no-nonsense take on the power of food to transform lives, then the answer is a resounding yes.
“It’s not about getting it right all the time,” says Oliver of healthy eating, as we chat in comfy armchairs in the plush Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney. He leans in close, placing his hand on my arm as if we’re sharing a whisky over a fireside chat. “In fact it’s absolutely vital that you don’t get it right all of the time. You’ve just got to get it right most of the time.” And when you get it wrong? “Get it wrong in style,” Oliver recommends.
You could call it a variation on the 80-20 rule, only that sounds a little too prescriptive for Oliver’s liberal, loose-handed style. Nevertheless it’s a recipe for a realistic approach to nutrition and, indeed, one you could apply to life in general.
MH sat down with the irrepressible chef to discuss his own nutritional journey, from growing up in a pub to becoming a passionate public health advocate. Read on to discover just why Oliver’s a man you can trust with your meals.
MH: You famously grew up in a pub. Were you eating pub grub from day one?
JO: I was lucky really. Dad was one of the first gastro-pub pioneers so we just ate amazing local, home-cooked food. No junk, no shite. I started working downstairs in the kitchen from the age of eight. It was a nice, simple life.
MH: How has your diet evolved since then? It can’t have been easy being surrounded by good food all the time?
JO: As a chef it’s hard not to have too much of anything because your job is to taste. But as you get older you need to adjust, don’t you?
MH: So what prompted you to take action?
JO: I think it was hitting 37 and being in really average shape. I was getting three hours sleep a night, putting on weight and not really getting it. I’d always gone to a trainer but I just fucking hated it. It was really boring.
What I finally worked out was that it’s important for you to do it on your terms. Previously, if I organised training in my time, I hated it. But then I was like, why is it that I can get up for a 3.30am call and be on set and smash the shit out of it and yet getting to the gym is too hard? So I just shifted it so that the gym was on the way to work and it was part of the working day. The minute I did that I got really good at it. It’s totally mental.
MH: When did the emphasis in your cooking change purely from taste to nutrition?
JO: My stories and narratives were always about real food. We’ve got five nutritionists working with us and last year I did a comfort-food book.
People said, ‘You think can you do comfort food and still apply the stealth of five nutritionists?’ Absolutely, because it’s so easy to lose gallons of cream. But if you make it too lean then it’s got to be a genius dish. The thing is, you actually get flavour and nutrition from having a good rainbow of vegies in there. It’s a ninja bit of work.
MH: You use the phrase “nutrition by stealth”. You never saw nutrition and taste as incompatible, did you?
JO: I’ll tell you what I realised. Seven years ago I appointed my first nutritionist but honestly, she was just a department. Then, after about three years, she cleaned up my backlist and we started thinking, instead of treating you like a health inspector, why don’t you become part of the food team? Let’s get in bed. We always take the piss, “taking the fun out of food since 2007”.
MH: Time is the other big factor in your recipes. That must make things tricky?
JO: Yeah, of course. You start thinking, right, well if time is a problem, I’ll address it – 30 Minute meals. Feedback? Not quick enough. Really? Fuckin’ hell. Okay, 15 Minute Meals. Then it was, “Oh, we haven’t got any money”, so it was “Save With Jamie”. Then it was, “Okay, we’re all a little depressed, it’s a recession”, so it’s comfort food.
MH: Campaigning so personally on public health issues wins you loads of plaudits. But you also cop it for being seen to butt in, right?
JO: I probably shouldn’t do it anymore, really. None of those projects have ever been easy but pretty much what happens every time is I start off being hated and then I end up walking away with the key to the city.
MH: What about regular blokes? What can they do to improve their cooking?
JO: First of all, life’s really too short to eat shit. And you only need 10 meals to be genius at for everyday life. The reason a lot of guys think cooking’s quite hard is because they do a recipe once, and then often don’t ever do it again. So you never get the repetition that makes you brilliant.
MH: Speaking of repetition, if you could only cook one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
JO: Really? It’s like you’re asking me to choose between my kids. Okay, probably a curry, a really delicious curry from Kerala. Fast, layered, fragrant but comforting with a little bit of “yes mother” from the chillies.