Photo: Nichol Nelson
The flashing cameras, beefy security guards and gawking bystanders give it away: Jamie Oliver and his food revolution have landed in Los Angeles. Clad in a scruffy blue flannel shirt and electric-green sneakers, Oliver wasted no time yesterday telling visitors to his new Community Kitchen space in L.A.'s Westwood neighborhood that he wants Angelinos to eat better. Yet he's the first to admit he's up against major challenges. (See my post from Tuesday for more on Jamie's mission.)
The truth is, Oliver says, he doesn't yet know how he'll go about changing things in LA, or even whether he'll succeed. "I'm just one fella, and I'm only human," he says, cracking a wide grin. The new kitchen space is impressive, which isn't surprising, since it will also function as a television set for the next three months. It has a large demonstration kitchen, an eating nook, small cooktops for cooking lessons, even an area filled with baskets of colorful fresh produce. ("People who don't buy this stuff don't know what to do with it," he says.)
But he'll need more than a nice facility to make a meaningful change in a city this large. Last year, Oliver made a splash in the town of Huntington, West Virginia, (population 49,129) -- but L.A. has almost 4 million residents, and the chasm between ethnicities and wealth here only add to the difficulty. He says he chose Los Angeles exactly for these reasons. "There's incredible diversity here," he says. "Rich and very poor. Poverty and the need for help is within a couple of miles from anywhere, no matter how rich the district."
He knows he needs to infiltrate the city schools to make it happen. Last season, he famously tangled with school cafeteria workers in Huntington who objected when he tried to serve preservative-free food and ditch sugar-laden chocolate milk, but so far, he's been denied access to L.A.'s public schools. "I'm locked out," he says. "I know I'm from a different country, I know I'm British, I know it's probably a bit odd, but where I come from, when taxpayer money pays for a service, as a journalist and a filmmaker, I have every right to go in there and see what's going on."
"The schools are really big for me," he continues. "It's the future of the country, the future of Los Angeles. That one place is responsible for how your child feels about food, how they act around food, by the time they're 20."
So far, the school board isn't budging. And he has other problems. "Jamie's Kitchen" is smack in the middle of a rich part of town -- not exactly ground zero for L.A.'s unhealthiest populations. He says he's going to drive into less affluent communities in a tricked-out truck full of cooking supplies and materials. "I plan on rolling my sleeves up and getting my hands dirty," he says, "and not talking about something that I haven't felt, smelt, or touched." He says it all boils down to making better choices. "I'm not asking Americans to forgo their ice cream or their burgers or their pizza," he says. "I'm asking them to expect more. "
Yet even as he ticks off the challenges he's up against, Oliver is positively beaming. His food revolution is gaining momentum. Companies are forking over cash to the cause – Chipotle recently made a $1 million donation – and his online following is growing. There's no turning back now, he says. "We're not pushing a rock up the hill, we're pushing it down the hill. This is already happening. We're just speeding it up a bit."