Tonight, ABC airs the two-hour premiere (including the “preview” episode that aired last week) of Jamie Oliver’s new reality show, Food Revolution. As you may recall, the six-part series finds the Naked Chef on a quest to transform the “most unhealthy town in America” (Huntington, West Virginia) by teaching its skeptical lunch ladies that French fries aren’t an acceptable vegetable and “breakfast pizza” is an oxymoron. Oliver has made great strides in this area in England, so some are wondering, why come here (other than to chat up Tom Colicchio)? We asked the TED winner just that.
Why come to the States? Doesn’t it dilute your mission across the pond?
I have never left the English one; I have teams still on it monitoring various stuff. But in our research, America was always there as being in the same or worse situation. Eight or ten months ago everything seemed to change over here. Things kept biting and things kept sticking, maybe because of the new administration, or the atmosphere of Americans pissed off at so much bad news and not much solutions. For some reason, it’s important right now.
So the obvious question: Were you able to change the people of Huntington?
Ultimately there’s never going to be a happy ending — it’s just going to be a hopeful question mark. The idea of the show is it makes you laugh, cry, throw things at your TV and understand the problem. It’s not like black-and-white statistics; you’re seeing the statistics in the characters and in real lives. It’s about observing something that will hopefully want to make people kick up a fuss. It’s about going to various cornerstones of food — the supermarkets, the fast-food industry, the parents and the home, what their kids eat, the workplace. What’s the corporate responsibility in the workplace if you feed your staff shit?
Here in New York, there’ve been complaints about the “food police.” A councilwoman wants to limit fast-food restaurants in poor neighborhoods and another wanted to ban salt in restaurants. Do you support such laws?
I think Bloomberg is sensible — he’s a pioneer. It’s not telling everyone what to do, it’s giving clear sign posts. The people whinging about it are just whingers and they’ll whinge anyway. [Regarding calorie postings,] some people will ignore them, some will never see them, and a third will use them and they’ll make them bounce to another product when they find out a muffin is a third of their daily intake of calories and they’re trying to lose a little weight. Diabetes and obesity kill way more people than any form of murder or gun crime.
Your petition that you’re planning to take to Michelle Obama is just about 60,000 strong. But where do you go from here? What’s the next concrete step?
I suppose the answer is I don’t know — it’s not a straightforward campaign. The petition is just to solidify the learnings of the show, but ultimately the most powerful force is people and the parents. I think they’ll be key to driving radical change. All I can say is, I’ve been given this opportunity to tell a story on prime-time network television, which has never been heard of. I’m hoping the public will speak out and it will find a natural rhythm, and everything will be debated, and news stories will pick up on different elements. I don’t know if anything’s going to happen, but I hope it does.
Obviously a big part of the show is that you’re a British disciplinarian, à la Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay. Do you think there’s something about the American character that makes it harder for us to make the sort of strides you’ve made in England?
No, there’s not one situation that I’ve filmed that I haven’t seen and filmed in my own country. Yes, you’re more advanced structurally on fast food and a few more issues such as portion control, but basically it’s all the exact same. Ultimately, if America changes the rest of the world will be looking to it and doing it, too. When Americans get on something, there ain’t a country quicker in the world that moves. When they do get on something, magic can happen. Whereas in England, things can happen, but things can be a bit more lethargic.
What about criticism that the show “regurgitates the worst of reality show TV pap”?
What is the foundation of this show and what drives it is the campaign of change that is not funded by ABC and has nothing to do with any production company. Sometimes I need to tell stories in certain places to be relevant and help the storytelling. If you look at the whole series and compare it to reality TV that usually has a winner or loser, this is a way more old-fashioned English-style documentary than it is a hyped-up, structured reality TV.
But what about stunts like dressing up as a pea?
I’ve dressed up as more vegetables that you know. It’s not because I want to, it’s because the only way to engage 5-year-olds is as Mr. Pea — they don’t know who Jamie Oliver is. And let me tell you, when I do dress up as vegetable, they don’t know I’m a pea. They think I’m an alien, because they don’t know what vegetables are in the first place!
Do you have any sense of how much bringing this change to every town in America would cost?
It’s going to cost more money, but what’s more important? Obesity costs $150 billion a year and it’s set to double in eight to ten years, which is horrific. This is good bang for your buck. Congress is talking about spending $4.5 billion over the next ten years for these kinds of initiatives which is insulting, rude, and absolutely illogical. Afghanistan alone costs $7 billion a month. They’re paying for people in various industries that are putting their business and bucks over the health of kids and they’re stopping Michelle [Obama] from doing her job. For the last 30 years, adults have let kids down. Maybe this is a load of hype and a cute little story, but at some point in time it will have to change and it will involve love, care, attention, and investment. Will the parents of America demand that? They will. But will they demand it in five years, or in ten years, or twenty years? Or will they demand it now?
On another note, how’s the London restaurant with Adam Perry Lang going? Is it still looking like global barbecue?
I’m really happy; the menu’s looking great. Adam is in Japan researching. We’re opening in October. I think we’re not going to mention “global” or any specific country, because if you start saying Asian this, Indian that, everyone’s like, “Ah, fuck me, it’s like Disneyland.” We’re just going to write a bloody good menu and have a nod to different countries. But we work well together and we’re bouncing off each other a lot.