British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has perfected his anti-obesity recipe over the years: blend a passion for nutrition with reality TV, garnish with a catchy moniker, et voila! — "Food Revolution."
But Oliver's recipe has uncharacteristically curdled since he arrived in Los Angeles last fall to shoot his second U.S. TV series. "I've had a tough time here," he conceded wearily in an interview. "Nothing that was planned has come off."
'Too much drama, too much conflict'
The six-episode show was to revolve around one of Oliver's favorite causes — making school lunches healthier — but ran under a rolling pin when the Los Angeles Unified School District objected to the chef's key ingredient — TV cameras.
"We're interested in Jamie Oliver the food activist, not Jamie the reality TV star," said Robert Alaniz, district spokesman. "We've invited him to work with our menu committee, but there's too much drama, too much conflict with a reality show."
It was quite a twist for Oliver.
The 35-year-old is a household name back home, where he's been decorated by the Queen and cooked at 10 Downing Street. He heads a multimillion-dollar eponymously branded empire that has produced 20 TV series and specials, 14 bestselling cookbooks, 20 restaurants, cooking schools, a catering company, an array of cooking and dining products, supermarket endorsements, as well as a charity for disadvantaged youth.
School lunches are a particular passion
You'd never know it, though, from his tousled hair that looks like he just rolled out of bed and a wardrobe of jeans and plaid shirts. The one-of-the-lads demeanor underscores the earnestness of his pitch for home, not haute, cuisine.
The son of a publican, he grew up cooking "pub grub." He quit school at 16, after struggling for years with dyslexia and hyperactivity, and enrolled in catering college. In 1999, he landed his first TV show "The Naked Chef" after the BBC was filming the restaurant where he was working and saw he was an on camera natural.
Oliver's concept is simple: obesity kills and cooking meals from scratch using fresh ingredients will save lives. It's a message he wields with zeal in home kitchens, school classrooms, and corporate boardrooms.
He encourages the food industry to believe that caring can be commercial.
"They can make ethical change that will genuinely shift toward health and away from obesity," said Oliver, who's in constant motion— even seated his leg bounces furiously.
School lunches are a particular passion for Oliver, a father of four. He revamped cafeteria cuisine in Britain and then turned his sights to Huntington, West Virginia, for his first U.S.-based TV show after an Associated Press poll labeled the area America's unhealthiest.
Kids weren't enamored of new dishes
Part of the show focused on a menu makeover in Cabell County Schools, a 12,700-student district. It wasn't easy, said Jedd Flowers, district spokesman.
Oliver's recipes didn't adhere to state standards, food costs were higher and new suppliers had to be located, staff had to be rejiggered and new equipment bought — a $200,000 industrial potato peeler, for example — to stick to the freshly prepared mandate.
Cabell County kids weren't enamored of new dishes like honey carrots and more started bringing brown-bag lunches. Lunch participation has since rebounded as kids' tastebuds are getting used to the new food, which includes Oliver recipes like creamy coleslaw and chili con carne, Flowers said.
"He had the children's interests at heart. The quality of the food is much better," he said. "But the TV show was quite an ordeal. It was disruptive and used gimmicks. I can't say the television show was a benefit, but looking at the process was."
A second shot, this time in L.A.Oliver decided to set his second U.S. series in Los Angeles, home to the nation's second-largest school district, which enrolls 650,000 mostly low-income children and serves 1.2 million meals daily.
"It's such an amazing amount of meals a day," said the chef.
The district said no. A previous sour experience with reality show "School Pride," which used reenactments of made up incidents and left the school district with a bill, factored into Superintendent Ramon Cortines' decision, as well as reports from Cabell County Schools, district spokesman Alaniz said.
However, West Adams Preparatory High School in Central Los Angeles, which is run by nonprofit MLA Partner Schools under contract with LAUSD, allowed Oliver on campus as a curriculum addition. After two weeks of filming, the district caught wind of it and booted the show.
"We aren't happy about it," said Mike McGalliard, president of MLA Partner Schools. "I told the district you guys are making a big fuss over nothing. It's not an expose. It's an incredible program."
Nearly half of West Adams students are obese, he said, and all qualify for free lunches which feature items such as chicken nuggets and corn dogs, with sides like raw broccoli.
Oliver planted a community garden, mentored culinary arts students, lectured about portion size, caloric intake and diet-related disease, and set up a nearby community kitchen to give free classes in cooking fare such as roast chicken.
"They think Jamie is the threat. The threat is diabetes and high cholesterol," said senior Caleb Villanueva, 17.
Sophia Ruvalcaba, 17, who has diabetes, as do her mother and sister, said Oliver came to their home for dinner. "He was just trying to make a healthier meal for us," she said.
Made-for-TV stunts don't sit well with all
Oliver said he's not trying to cast the school district in a bad light. He calls his style "documentary with stunts." For example, he filled a school bus with 57 tons of white sand to represent the amount of sugar LAUSD kids children consume weekly in flavored milk.
Those kind of made-for-TV stunts are exactly what LAUSD finds unappetizing.
Alaniz said the district remains willing to work with Oliver — off camera. They've suggested that he lend his expertise by coming up with three weeks of meal plans, adhering to the district's food budget of 77 cents per meal and state standards.
Alaniz noted the district has been on its own culinary crusade for years, banning junk foods, soda, additives, dyes and certain fats and oils. Next year, chicken nuggets and pizza will be taken off the cafeteria lineup, replaced by student-taste-tested dishes such as California sushi roll, chicken tandoori, and Israeli couscous and veggie salad.
Oliver, however, is not one to give up a food fight.
He has a team of chefs working on the district's menus and hopes the new superintendent slated to take over in April will be more flexible. In the meantime, he's setting up four more community kitchens around LA, funded by the American Heart Association at a cost of about $180,000 each, to offer free cooking classes, and will be taking his mobile kitchen set up in an 18-wheeler around Southern California.
"I want the American public to expect more," he said. "It might take a couple years to get there, but I'm deeply passionate that when everyone comes together, stuff changes."