Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Potluck party plays into Jamie Oliver's passion for fresh food, public health

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Maybe it's the twinkling blue eyes. Or the comfy and familiar way he greets you with, "Hello, how are you, darling?"

Then again, it could be that he's so pukka, to use the British vernacular -- so deeply authentic, genuine and solid -- that it slips past your radar on the first go-round.

But don't kid yourself.

Jamie Oliver, the tousle-headed lad who grew up in an Essex pub, the boyish Naked Chef, the fresh-focused cookbook author and 39-year-old father of four kids with whimsical celebrity names like Buddy Bear and Daisy Boo, is a roistering, sabre-rattling, take-no-prisoners activist. His conversation is peppered with impassioned words like revolution, hijacking and resistance. He talks -- a lot -- about the failure of politicians to protect public health. And he doesn't shy away from jabbing a well-aimed finger in the chest of multinational corporations more interested in food speculation and "selling crap" than the public good.

In 2012, for example, he was instrumental in agitating for McDonald's to stop using "pink slime" or ammonium hydroxide-processed meat filler in its U.S. restaurants. All this and the man knows his way around the perfect omelet.

And that's at the heart of who Jamie Oliver is, the idealist who believes that good, fresh food should be available to everyone on the planet and that, regardless of income, they should know how to prepare it at home.

According to the World Health Organization, food poverty, or a diet reliant on fast food or prepared meals high in saturated fat, sugar and salt, is now responsible for 30 per cent of life years lost through early death and disability. In the United States, the fastest-growing urban issue in nine major cities is "food deserts," in which "it takes 40 minutes on the bus to get to a fresh-food market," Oliver says, but just minutes to walk to a burger joint. In Canada, Sobeys-funded research found that Canadians are no longer confident in the kitchen, with just 18 per cent having one meal a day made from scratch.

"It's quite political because no government in the world is fixing the decline in public health," he observes in an interview. "I'm focusing on children and what we feed them at school and how most countries don't have compulsory food education plans that are relevant. That's the new responsibility."

It's one he takes very seriously indeed. Although not as hard-line as his wife, Juliette Norton, when it comes to junk food ("She's stricter than I am. If I know they get a good breakfast, school lunch and dinner, but eat complete crap at a kids' party every once in a while, I'd rather not freak out about it," he says), he does believe that taking control of your kitchen and shopping is critical to a longer, healthier life.

Spearheading that push is his Food Revolution Day on May 16, which, this year, will involve a Guinness World Record attempt at getting a million children in 92 countries to take the same cooking lesson within a 24-hour period. From Sierra Leone to Sydney (where 3,000 kids will take a cooking class at the Olympic Stadium Australia), his vision is largesse itself.

In Canada, the lead-up to Food Revolution Day will involve Canada's Biggest Potluck Party, a venture undertaken as part of his three-year contract with Sobeys, in which Canadians are encouraged to host a potluck supper between April 28 and May 16, and for anyone posting pictures with the hashtag #PotluckChallenge, Sobeys will donate $1 to Cooking Towards Independence, a Children's Aid Society initiative to improve health outcomes for youth leaving the child-welfare system.

Although the Canadian potluck is foreign to British homes, says Oliver, it's in line with his principles.

"We don't have potluck in the U.K., but I love the idea that you have the joy and a giggle at seeing what people come up with. The point of food is that it's a contribution from a group," he says. "A lot of what I'm passionate about is using local people to teach local people -- it doesn't have to be a chef or someone with specific experience."

Of course, Oliver walks the line between countryman Sir Richard Branson's jovial world domination and the bloke next door who pops round for a cuppa, a slice of pound cake and a bit of a gossip. For example, he owns 34 Jamie's Italian restaurants in the U.K., another 15 overseas and one or two privately backed ventures, such as Montreal's Maison Publique, owned by his best mate. (His first Italian restaurant appeared in Dubai because, as he says with a laugh, "I thought I'd like to do it in a quiet place where, if I got it wrong, no one would know.")

Then, there's the TV appearances, which have been slightly overtaken by his big- picture approach to world health. "For the first 10 years on the Naked Chef, a lot of chefs hated me and didn't understand the nuances," he says, a finger to his nose and without naming names, "but now the ones who despised me most are doing more on TV than I do."

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2014 D1

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