James Oliver: If you can't cook, you'll probably die younger

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By Gemma Dunn

Jamie Oliver has made no secret of his desire to educate the masses.

In the past two decades alone, the Essex boy-turned-political crusader -
who shamelessly has the same amount of hours in a day as us - has
tackled childhood obesity, with the goal to shake up school dinners;
overhauled the nation's sugar intake; revolutionised home cooking; and
provided a platform to train apprentice chefs from disadvantaged
backgrounds.

All the while building his own empire - worth a rumoured £300 million.
Phew.

"If you analyse what I'm saying," he recently told The Guardian of his
ideals. "There's nothing clever and there's nothing really that
controversial; it's really basic common sense."

The friendly TV chef and restaurateur has the same dogged determination
when we meet - an infectious energy that sees him bound from one topic
to the next.

"If I had a magic wand, if I could make one wish for the planet, I'd
want every child, at 16, to be able to cook 10 recipes to save their
life," begins Oliver, 43, barely pausing for breath between sentences.

"I want to teach them the basics of nutrition, and the basics of
shopping and budgeting," he says simply. "If you were to gift that to
children, we would be in a much happier, healthier, more sustainable
place."

He halts, before adding: "The structure of education in most countries
is science, maths, language and they think cooking is this f******
periphery. A romantic, middle-class luxury: 'Oh isn't it cute?'

"But if you look at public health and death, if you can't cook, then
your life has a certain curve to it and you'll die at a certain age," he
goes on.

"Of course, some people don't, but if you take 10,000 people that can't
cook, they're dying shorter than the ones that can.

"Obviously I'm biased [but] I'm not dramatic, because I think child
health and public health is so important."

The latest target of his epic anti-obesity drive is junk food
advertising. A movement that's seen him call for the Government to
impose a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts.

"Kids are bombarded, day-in, day-out, with ads for food and drink that
are high in fat, sugar and salt. We've #AdEnough," he tweeted back in
April.

"Interestingly, we have all the science and data from the cleverest
people you can trust, that say junk food advertising needs to [happen]
after nine o'clock at night," he reasons, resolute in his mission.

"But the heads of the advertising organisations and these channels are
saying advertising doesn't make kids eat more stuff!"

He has another strategy, however: "One of our suggestions is that you
shouldn't be able to use cartoons on cereal [boxes] or food that is
unhealthy. They should be used for good, not for bad," he explains.

"And if you look at all the graphics, the animations and the Disney
characters, it's nearly all of it," he says, exasperated. "Disney's
legacy should not be in getting kids 'iller', but getting them
healthier."

Point made.

But it's not all campaign trails and government-penned letters for the
busy father of five (Oliver shares three daughters and two sons with his
wife of 18 years, Jools).

The much-loved star - whose fame accelerated after his 1999 hit series,
The Naked Chef - has written enough bestselling cookbooks to fill a
small library. Not to mention fronted endless small-screen triumphs.

His latest TV foray - Jamie Cooks Italy - is, in fact, the reason we're
sat in his plush North London office today.

Joined by his long-time friend and mentor Gennaro Contaldo, Oliver will
travel to eight different regions - from Puglia in spring and the
Aeolian Islands in summer, to Tuscany in autumn and Rome in winter - to
uncover the wisdom of the locals, experience seasonal foodie delights
and learn the art of traditional Italian home cooking.

Who will put them through their paces? The true masters of the Italian
kitchen, of course. The nonnas and the home cooks who have perfected
recipes that have been lovingly handed down over generations.

"I love the Italian approach to life - it fills me with such joy!" quips
Oliver, whose love for the cuisine saw him open his first branch of
restaurant chain, Jamie's Italian, in 2008.

"To be a foreigner in Italy is a real gift; it's really nice, it's very
simple.

"Italians, generally, are very wonderful people, and as long as you're
polite and you smile, and they can tell that you love food - not because
you talk about it but because they know you're a foodie - they'll
constantly go 'Try, try'," he says, holding his hands out animatedly.

The eight-part series also means quality time spent with his 'best
friend' Contaldo, who he first met during his time as a pastry chef at
Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street restaurant in the Nineties.

"He's 69, I'm 43, I think we're both feeling a little bit fragile,"
Oliver confides. "Not because we're vulnerable, but we're just looking
at the next 20 years, and his 20 years looks a bit different to my 20
years," he elaborates.

"So we want time together - we're good together. He looked after me when
I was a baby boy, he was my boss. And now I look after him. It's a
cycle."

On the recipe front? "I've got all occasions covered. Fast and slow
options, simple dishes for you and a friend, family suppers, weekend
treats and epic celebratory feasts," he promises, with book Jamie Cooks
Italy complimenting the series.

"I'd love everyone to take a bit of the Italian heart and soul of the
nonnas' approach into their cooking."

Jamie Cooks Italy starts on Channel 4 on Monday, August 13.

Catherine Devane