CHEEKY, CHARMING BRIT chef Jamie Oliver first won hearts (and stomachs) a decade ago when his cooking show, “The Naked Chef,” debuted on the BBC. Since then, he’s harnessed his popularity to help promote healthy eating in his native U.K. Oliver carries his cause to this side of the pond in the new ABC show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” (Fri., 9 p.m.), in which he tries to tackle the bad habits of locals in Huntington, W. Va., recently named the unhealthiest city in America by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A two-hour premiere tonight at 8 kicks off his crusade.
» EXPRESS: You’ve made great strides transforming healthy eating in the U.K. Why tackle the U.S.?
» OLIVER: I’ve been working here for 10 years, and America’s always been good to me. Whether people admit it or not, lots of countries follow where America goes, so it seemed like bloody good use of my time.
» EXPRESS: Did you face opposition to starting a food revolution in the U.S.?
» OLIVER: We tried for about five years, to no avail. No one was really interested. But in the last 12 months, everything’s changed.
» EXPRESS: Why?
» OLIVER: Look, let’s be really honest about it. I’ve been on the ass-end of the Food Network for the last seven years — a fairly unimportant talent, although they liked me and thought I was interesting. But I’m not important in American TV. And then all of a sudden, I get a prime-time ABC show in the “Desperate Housewives” slot. There’s a reason for that. People finally think that something radical needs to happen. America’s ready.
» EXPRESS: Despite that, you weren’t welcomed in Huntington with open arms.
» OLIVER: The best work I’ve ever done has always been uncomfortable. And I had uncomfortable days there, but there are lots of parts of America that would’ve been way worse. It’s not supposed to be easy — if it was, everyone would be doing it.
» EXPRESS: What eating habits did you see that shocked you?
» OLIVER: There’s so much of this story that we just couldn’t feature. From a school point of view, Huntington, honestly, is probably some of the best of the “normal” in the country. There’s way, way worse happening in other parts of the country. Lunch boxes are just as guilty — if not worse — than school lunches themselves. Just go into any random school and open up 50 boxes and have a look inside. The amount of 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-year-old kids with tins of Red Bull or energy drinks in their lunch boxes, or eating cold McDonald’s with no fruit or veg in any form whatsoever, is incredible. Just highly processed bread, highly processed meat, and way too much chocolate and chips.
» EXPRESS: Who’s to blame for these problems?
» OLIVER: It’s not just the parents’ fault. It’s not just the schools’ fault. It’s not just the government’s fault. It’s everyone: It’s the fast-food industry; it’s the supermarket. All could do loads to make really powerful change. I have a list as long as my arm of wonderful brands and big companies that have done small but really important things.
» EXPRESS: Can you give an example?
» OLIVER: McDonald’s U.K. as opposed to USA — totally different. It’s the same brand, but [in the U.K. we have] 100 percent organic milk, 100 percent free-range eggs, high-grade beef patties. I can’t even believe I’m saying it myself, but in the last three-and-a-half years, that has happened.
» EXPRESS: How did our eating habits get so bad?
» OLIVER: The public at large has become very disassociated with food production and the food industry. And it’s when people don’t really care, or don’t really know, then an army of [expletives] will run companies and, ultimately, the dollar will always come first. Without question right now, the dollar is way more important than kids.
» EXPRESS: And you think you can change that?
» OLIVER: I don’t think I’m Superman, but I’m hoping what we can start is a seed of change. And from that, wonderful things can happen.
» EXPRESS: Where does the battle go from here?
» OLIVER: Ultimately, I believe the most powerful force in America is the parents. I want to inspire the parents to expect more, to question things and to feel allowed to go into a school and talk to a principal or a lunch cook and say, “What is this?” Loads of menus sound great, but if you look at the box in the freezer, it’s full of additives and other horribleness. You have every right to ask those questions. Information is a massive part of this movement.
» EXPRESS: Do you feel like you’ve been successful so far?
» OLIVER: I was just reading some research on the plane on the way over, and Huntington is not the most unhealthy area in America anymore. It’s No. 7 [on the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index of the most obese metropolitan areas in the U.S.]. And that’s just in one year.
» EXPRESS: That seems like a powerful testament to your efforts.
» OLIVER: I feel like I’ve done the best I could. The stories speak for themselves. I thought that, being in America, the show was going to be a lot more sugary than the hard-core stuff we do back home. But, actually, it’s really honest and clear, and I’m just hoping people are touched by it.
» EXPRESS: In the show’s opener, you’re dressed as a giant pea pod. Do you have a wardrobe of food costumes?
» OLIVER: Unfortunately for me, especially when working with young kids, I generally have to dress up like a raving idiot. In England, I performed as a corn on the cob, and the ironic thing was that none of the kids knew what it was, because they didn’t know their veggies. So, I just looked like a strange alien. And, unfortunately, it was a Velcro outfit, and it started to unpeel as I was dancing around. So, I ended up doing a moonie to a bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds and their parents. They weren’t very pleased!
» EXPRESS: And now, you’re clad as a pea pod.
» OLIVER: The pea pod is what I’m doing for the States, but, generally, I find myself in stupid outfits quite regularly. And if you’re wondering if I enjoy it or not, no, I don’t.
» EXPRESS: You were spotted in D.C. just a few weeks ago. Any plans for a return visit?
» OLIVER: I’m, hopefully, due back in the next six weeks. We’re doing an online petition to support change at Jamieoliver.com/petition, and we’d like to get that up to a million people. I want to be there to formally deliver it to Capitol Hill.
Photo by David Loftus