An Interview with Jamie Oliver: On Corporate Money, TV, and the Mixed Blessings of Both Jamie Oliver Speaks About Food Revolution's Problems in Los Angeles
At the L.A. launch of his Food Revolution, Oliver talks about the show's successes and failures, as well as his favorite place to eat in the city.
Yesterday morning, Jamie Oliver brought his Food Revolution to Los Angeles—but as my colleague Liz wrote, it has already hit a significant roadblock with the refusal of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board to grant the ABC show access to their schools. At a press conference to mark the opening of his Community Kitchen, Oliver was visibly frustrated, asking for the media's help in recruiting parents to put pressure on the seven elected Board of Education members, each of whose names he read aloud.
This is Plan B. If it doesn't work, he's going to go to smaller school districts in the city that are controlled by the mayor directly, and/or charter schools. Meanwhile, he's working on opening a fast food restaurant ("to understand the pressures of speed, economy, and cost") and spending more time with families. The Revolution will go on, as the television cameras roll.
It's pretty easy to poke holes in Oliver's efforts. For starters, his Community Kitchen is decorated to look like a cross between Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie, and Whole Foods—and it's in Westwood, one of the most affluent areas of the city and home to Millionaire's Mile. While admitting that the space was basically a film set for the next few months and that the majority of his work will be done out of a mobile kitchen in a huge truck, specially designed by David Rockwell, Oliver still claimed that his Community Kitchens—which already exist in the U.K. and Australia, and which he aims to open in every state in America—provide the "best bang for the buck," in terms of "skin-on-skin, true, tangible change."
He fluffed names and spent most of his time on the defensive ("I didn't ask for this opportunity..."), anticipating our criticism ("You're all wondering who the hell I think I am coming in here..."), admitting that he spoke no Spanish, and confessing that had no idea how he would make a difference in a school district that covers more than 700 square miles.
I found this honesty refreshing, and, in my opinion, many of those who criticize Oliver's Food Revolution have simply evaluated his efforts using the framework of reality TV. Of course the children don't like the healthy menus, which cost more than the USDA will reimburse, and people backslide once the TV cameras have left town. But why on Earth did you expect a happy ending? After all, we're talking about food, one of the most complex, misunderstood, and intractably embedded systems in the developed world. As Oliver concluded, "On a good day, the best I can to is provoke a thought or an action, and that's it."
That's it, and that's important.
After the conference, I sat down with Oliver to ask a few questions about the influence of corporate dollars and whether television is a help or hindrance in reforming the food system—you can read our conversation below. I should also note, given the theme of the current edition of GOOD's crowd-sourced cookbook, that I overheard Oliver telling People magazine that his favorite comfort food is a plate of spaghetti all'arrabbiata accompanied by "a nice cold beer and some rubbish telly."
GOOD: Why do you think that the LAUSD Board is not letting you in?
Jamie Oliver: I know why they don’t want me in. They’ve used the excuse of this being reality TV—which it’s not, by the way. I don’t give a shit what category it was in at the Emmys, this is a documentary. But they’ve used that excuse because it’s easy and believable. But let me tell you—just try broadcasting anything on ABC that’s not absolutely truthful—America’s so litigious that they’re all over it like a rash. Everything is blurred out, left, right, and center—it’s not like back home in England.
So that’s a crap excuse. The reason they don’t want me in is that they don’t want me looking at what’s going on and showing it to the public. But my whole thing is not about saying you’re bad, it’s about admiring what you do well and then saying, here’s where you have problems. I think if you run an organization that feeds 650,000 kids a day, there will be a long list of problems and I’d like to know what they are and if there are any solutions for them—and maybe offer up some based on my experience. And I’m not just some little kid that walks up and wants to be a pain in the backside. I mean, I’ve done stuff. I’ve worked with governments and big budgets and big districts. Some people are very proactive and some people just have a can’t do attitude.
At the moment, we’ve got nothing. We’ve got no access. I can get most of the information I need through the back door, but that’s not how I want to work. We haven’t done anything to deserve being treated like this. Over the last 10 years, I haven’t been erratic. I’m consistent and the stuff I’ve started five or seven years ago is still running. We’re still plugging away on those projects
They’ll have already had a board meeting today about it. The minute you get on the Ryan Seacrest radio show, they have to pay attention. It’s a big show, I know, but the phones were red hot, and there are loads of pissed-off parents and there’s good reason for that. All I want is to go in and see what’s going on.
GOOD: You've said that the Food Revolution is a campaign, not just a TV show.
Oliver: It’s really both, if I’m being honest.
GOOD: So if the LAUSD said that you could go in without cameras, would you still do it?
Oliver: I probably would do it, yeah. But it’s a bit like us saying to you, “Yeah, you can ask Jamie questions, but only over email.” I don’t know—I just think my gift and my strongest weapon and my ball and chain is these guys [Oliver gestures at the ABC cameramen, who are filming our conversation].
But you know, at the moment, we don’t even have that offer. Look, you’re English, you understand—not being allowed into a taxpayer-funded area to make a documentary that is in the public interest is illegal back home. Somehow they’re allowed to shut me out over here. That’s why we’re trying to rile up the parents.
GOOD: I have a question about ABC and their advertisers.
Oliver: Oh God bless you. OK, fine, go for it.
GOOD: You’ve been criticized for not saying anything negative about junk food advertising in the show. Does ABC tell you can’t say things about certain products or foods that are made by corporations who are major sources of advertising dollars for them?
Oliver: It’s not just ABC—that’s like any network. I wasn’t here watching the show on ABC when it broadcast, so I don’t know who was advertising during the show, but in theory it’s out of my hands. And you kind of have to—look, it’s no different from anything else—you kind of get massaged off of areas. In England, that doesn’t happen, but here, that’s just how it is. I think ABC deserves a lot of credit, though. There’s no other network doing this sort of TV. They don’t know what I’m going to deliver them in two month’s time. That never happens. My commissioner is incredibly trusting—presumably based on the team and myself and the fact that we haven’t delivered total shit before. In our own way, this is a bit of a revolution, what we’re even allowed to do. Normally, everything locked down and handed to the network in a pretty box with a ribbon round it.
The benefits of being on a big network like ABC are far and above the negatives of whoever is advertising on it. I used to be so against the big brands, but, bizarrely, I think, if I’m actually being really philosophical about it, they’ve got more to offer if they’re nudged in the right way than if you’re just slagging them off. So, you know, that’s kind of where we’re at.
GOOD: I’ve also been following your work on the Big Fish Story, which is airing in the U.K.
Oliver: Yeah, I finished that about a month ago, but it only started yesterday on TV. That is really important work, actually.
It’s a really, really hard story to tell, that one. The Food Revolution and other stuff is easy in comparison. Talking to obese kids and carving up rainforests is very visual, but you have no idea what's at the bottom of the sea. It’s more complicated and less emotional, but I think we did a quite good job.
GOOD: OK—one final question. What’s your favorite thing to eat in Los Angeles?
Oliver: Oof. [pauses] It’s got to be Mexican, Yeah, man. East L.A.
There’s also a great place down there called Homeboy, which is this little café where they name the salads after customers and all the chicks make salads and all the ex-gangsters make cakes. I haven’t got down there yet, because I haven’t had a day off yet, but hopefully soon.