Simple, natural and naked might be the three best ways to describe world class chef Jamie Oliver's culinary style.
Known to fans as down-to-earth and approachable - and to critics as a bit of a hippie revolutionary - Oliver got his start in his parent's pub kitchen at sixteen.
From there, he headed to culinary school and while working at the River Cafe, happened to be featured in a TV documentary about the venue. Producers were drawn to his bare essentials, shoot-from-the-hip cooking style, and offered him his own television show. The Naked Chef was born.
Oliver's hands-on, casual style and chummy personality reached out to a new generation of kitchen-counter chefs, inspiring a like-named, best-selling cookbook to accompany the series. A second and third series was filmed, along with more tie-in cookbooks: The Return of the Naked Chef and Happy Days with the Naked Chef.
Tours on the road allowed Oliver to branch out even more, and in 2001 his Happy Days Tour was a huge success with over 17,000 people packing theatres in the United Kingdom. The tour played to sold out crowds in Australia and New Zealand and later that year, Oliver was invited to cook for the Prime Minister of Italy by former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Oliver decided to give back to the catering industry and opened a training restaurant, Fifteen, for jobless youth not enrolled full-time in school. Camera crews were on hand to document Oliver as he spent the year setting up a training program, the restaurant itself and the like-named charity where all resulting profits would go.
The resulting series, Jamie's Kitchen, became one of the biggest hit shows of the year overseas and has aired in more than 35 countries. The tie-in cookbook also became an instant success.
With that triumph tucked under his apron belt, Oliver turned to the lack of nutrition in British school lunches. A national campaign called Feed Me Better was born, along with an online petition that garnered 271,677 signatures. Months later, the petition made it to 10 Downing Street, where the British government pledged an extra $550 million to improve school meals, including providing training for lunch workers and a revamp of prep equipment.
Needing a "change of scenery" after being so heavily vested in his charitable organizations, Oliver took his travels on the road to Italy, where he explored his love of natural Italian food. A series ensued, called Jamie's Great Italian Escape, and was accompanied by his sixth book, Jamie's Italy.
Oliver's most recent series and cookbook, both named Jamie At Home, documents the chef's success in growing his own fruit, veggies and herbs at his farmhouse in Essex, then using them to create fresh-tasting, fuss-free, completely organic meals the whole family can enjoy.
He took a moment to come in from the garden to talk and give me the dish on his newfound love for all things organic, gardening, life with wife Jools and daughters, Poppy Honey and Daisy Boo along with their newest addition, Petal Blossom.
Your new series, Jamie At Home has you foraging for wild mushrooms, chopping up rustic herbs, cooking up hearty, farm-fresh meats like lamb, and basically puts organic cooking and all the glorious gardening, sunshine, and English countryside front and center. You've always promoted organic produce in your books and recipes - do you do the same at home? What is your family's favorite meal?
I am very fortunate that I can only eat organic produce at home. If it doesn't come from my garden, Jools or I shop for organics at the grocery store or farmer's market. If I am in London, I try to get down to Borough Market on a Saturday, which is a brilliant food market in south London. As for the family's favourite meal, it changes all the time but you can't go wrong with a good old free-range roast chicken with all the trimmings.
You were appointed an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List; were named the No. 1 most influential person in the U.K. hospitality industry on the CatererSearch 100 list in May 2005, and are hands down the most famous British export whose cookbooks are bestsellers, and have been translated into 16+ languages. What drives you? Did you ever expect to rise to such acclaim?
I certainly never expected it when I was cooking in the River Café back in the late 1990s. My plan was just to work hard, rise up the ladder and one day open my own little restaurant in the country somewhere. As for what drives me, it's really just trying to inspire people to try different things in terms of food. At the moment I'm working on a project with people who really can't cook at all and it's lovely seeing them getting really excited about food for the first time.
Has the epicurean world ever reacted negatively to your cooking style, restaurants or philanthropic organizations? How do you deal with the critics and negative feedback?
Yes, there are always critics with everything you do and I know that my food and the way I do things isn't everyone's cup of tea. But generally I think people are now mostly supportive and they realize that I'm trying to do good things even if sometimes they don't quite work out as planned.
When you're not filming, writing, touring or overseeing operations for Fifteen, and are home with Jools and the girls, what is a typical day like for you as a family? Is there something special that the girls only do with you?
A typical day is spent at our house in Essex near my parents and sister's family and Jools' mum. We don't do anything special, really. We play in the garden, cook together. You know the usual family stuff. Maybe curl up with Jools and watch a movie in the evening. We're very normal.
Oliver was kind enough to share one of his favorite recipes, so go ahead and get cooking:
This is a simple pan-baked chicken dish - the sort of food I absolutely love to eat. As everything cooks together in 1 dish, all the beautiful flavors get mixed up. This is what it's all about! With a green salad, it's an easy dinner.
Put the potatoes into a large saucepan of salted boiling water and boil until cooked.
While the potatoes are cooking, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Cut each chicken thigh into 3 strips and place in a bowl. Rub the meat all over with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then toss.
Heat a large frying pan, big enough to hold all the chicken pieces snugly in 1 layer, and put the chicken into the pan, skin side down. If you don't have a pan that's big enough, feel free to cook the chicken in 2 batches. Toss and fry over a high heat for 10 minutes or so, until almost cooked, then remove with a slotted spoon to an ovenproof pan or dish.
Pierce the tomatoes with a sharp knife. Place them in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave for a minute or so. Drain and, when cool enough to handle, pinch off their skins. You don't have to, but by doing this they will become lovely and sweet when cooked, and their intense flavor will infuse the potatoes. By now the potatoes will be cooked. Drain them in a colander and lightly crush them by pushing down on them with your thumb.
Bash up most of the oregano leaves with a pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar, or a Flavor Shaker if you have one. Add 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a good splash of red wine vinegar and some pepper and give everything another bash. Add to the chicken with the potatoes, the tomatoes and the rest of the oregano leaves. Toss everything together carefully. Spread out in a single layer in an appropriately sized roasting pan, and bake for 40 minutes in the preheated oven until golden.
Lovely served with an arugula salad dressed with some lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, and a nice glass of white wine.
In Oliver's latest series on ABC, Jamie's Food Revolution, the chef heads to Huntington, WA, otherwise known as the unhealthiest city in America.
Loosely based on Jamie Oliver's wildy popular British series, Jamie's Ministry of Food and Jamie's School Dinners, which saw his successful grassroots efforts improve the school lunches in communities there, the six-part series will see him aiming to overhaul school meal programs in addition to helping people eat more balanced meals and cook with fresh ingredients, not only at school, but at home and work, too.
Convonista says: Watching Jamie Oliver evolve through the
years and having the opportunity to talk about it with him has been
amazing. I first interviewed him in 2005 for another publication,
then again in 2007 for this interview, which was originally
released in 2008.
Maria Pilar Clark is a mom times two and Windy City-based writer.
See more of Pilar's stories here.