The Naked Chef
As you might expect in our line of work, Elizabeth and I are often asked to name people who we personally find inspirational.
It’s pretty easy to pick out some of the ‘usual suspects’ like Barack Obama or Martin Luther king but I guess the person, if I were asked, I would name is Jamie Oliver.
Not an obvious choice I’ll grant you, and I have to be honest; it wasn’t an immediate thing for me either, although I have followed his career from his earliest forays in television as a sous chef on the programme about ‘The River Café’
So what changed that means I now find him so inspirational?
In a word it’s the courage he demonstrates and his desire to do the right thing, even though that is often quite difficult.
It’s true for many Jamie is best remembered for his eminently watching programmes about cooking tasty food, whether it’s touring round Europe or in his back garden. Over the last 15-20 years he is probably more responsible for getting men in the kitchen than any other chef in the country. This combined with his TV persona of being a cheeky chappy, who can knock up a decent plate of food, has certainly done him no harm over the years and actually made him a very wealthy individual.
However in that time he has also taken on a number of ‘food’ related issues that he clearly feels passionate about. The most recent of which was his campaign to introduce a sugar tax on sugary drinks, the proceeds of which will be spent on sports activities and breakfast clubs in schools.
However it was a few years ago, when my perception of Jamie changed. It was 2010 and the programme was Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. In this series he went to Huntingdon, Pennsylvania supposedly the unhealthiest town in America.
In the series Jamie’s mission was to encourage people in the town to eat more healthily. It became clear very early on it wasn’t going to be an easy task, as there were examples of people regularly having pizza for breakfast or fries (chips to me and you) with every meal.
Undaunted Jamie set about teaching people to cook better and educate them in the value of more nutritious meals. He also tried to influence the school system into providing better meals for the kids, just like he did successfully in the UK.
Now you might have thought all this work he was doing would be gratefully received. But actually the opposite was true. Almost no one in the town wanted him there raising awareness and talking about the problem. At every turn possible the locally elected officials and people within the school system tried to block his path and put barriers in his way.
Most people might well have given up at that point and decided the town was a lost cause. It would have been easy to turn around and head back to the UK and say I tried, but they just weren’t having any of it.
But not Jamie – he wasn’t about to quit on something he felt so passionate about.
I still remember watching one clip of him talking to camera crying in frustration that he wasn’t making progress. He knew what he was doing was the right thing to do but couldn’t seem to get his message across. But he never gave up; he got even more determined to do the right thing.
Finally when people began to realise that he was serious about this and wasn’t simply there to make a programme to humiliate and belittle them, they actually started to listen. Little by little he managed to get a few people on side and their voices began to be heard, until finally the same people who a few months ago were telling him to go back to the UK were singing his praises.
More than five years on many of the changes Jamie campaigned for in Huntingdon are still in place and the school system has dramatically changed and is rightly proud of its approach to catering for the students with nearly all its food prepared fresh.
It could have been so different had Jamie turned his back when he initially encountered so much negativity. His sheer determination and courage to see it though and not take the easy option, made all the difference.
I think back to the times in my career when I towed the line even though in my heart I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, and I wish I’d demonstrated the same levels of courage as Jamie did. Who knows what I might have achieved. However I’d like to think that now faced with some of the same situations, knowing what I know now, I’d choose a very different path.
So when people ask me – ‘who do you find inspirational?’ – my answer is always Jamie Oliver.