Jamie Oliver has leveraged his celebrity to become a political player

Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver is on top of the world — or, more accurately, on top of Toronto. On a grey afternoon last week, he found time between book signings to play tourist and visit the CN Tower. “I’ve been wanting to do this for ages!” he exclaims on the long way up.

Thanks to a group of high school kids challenging the weight-bearing qualifications of the glass floor, Oliver goes unnoticed in the tower until he gets to the 360 restaurant. And then the group following his tour grows. The head chef and other restaurant staff greet Oliver as he and the dining floor revolve. The extra attention doesn’t seem to faze him, though. It’s something he’s had to get used to since moving from the kitchen into the political arena.

It’s normal, expected even, for a celebrity chef to have a cookbook (or 10), to have a TV series (or 10) and to have a cookware line (one for now, with T-Fal), but to have a secondary career as a lobbyist? It’s unorthodox, and Oliver is the first to admit it.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like that,” Oliver says. “I don’t know where it came from really, but of course, what’s happened is now that I’ve got a billion and a half pounds out of the British government, everyone keeps looking to me.”

In the past three years, the 33-year-old chef has raised awareness of the unhealthy cafeteria food offered to schoolchildren in the U. K., and had a hand in convincing Tony Blair’s government to spend £280-million on remedying the situation. (The show Jamie’s School Dinners was the catalyst for commitment from the government.) He championed the benefits of raising and eating free-range chickens, and is now taking up the plight of British pork farmers. And this year, he opened his Ministry of Food in Rotherham, England, a community centre that offers complimentary cooking demonstrations and classes to anyone wanting to learn. The plan is to open up more centres across the country.

“I was never political as a kid, and I never understood it,” Oliver admits. “I think when you start to pay tax you realize you have a voice and an opinion, and damn right you should as well.

“Obviously, through telly and media, I had the opportunity to question government about specifics in Jamie’s School Dinners. I know that I know my s–t , and I know that I’ve got a platform. The public know that I wear my heart on my sleeve. And they know that I’m not always perfect, but they know I’m passionate. I’ve never ever lied to them. So what’s happened now is that everyone keeps looking at me to fix s–t .”

Everyone includes Greenpeace, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other animal-rights groups.

Oliver admits he brings this responsibility on himself. “I’m just as bad. I see stuff and read stuff — I only make programs about stuff I get outraged about,” he says.

And love him or hate him — and Oliver is well aware that the numbers on either side of that argument are even, particularly in Britain — you can’t really wrong the man for wanting to fix what makes him angry. Oliver is simply trying to help you. He wants to make sure your kid isn’t just eating a bag of chips for lunch at school; he wants to make sure farmers can provide you with healthy, fresh food; he wants to make sure you know how to cook a few dishes so that you can sit down with your family and enjoy a meal together.

The projects he’s worked on thus far have made him more passionate, he says. “And it’s made other people get involved — even ones that didn’t like me and found me highly annoying.”

Oliver’s most recent TV series, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, aired in the U. K. last month. He says people loved him at first, then vilified him, then blasted him for swearing too much on TV and accused him of only showing the worst cases.

“I see two people in life at the moment: I see people who want to see the truth and want to do something about it, and then you get other people that are like [putting his hands over his ears], ‘La, la, la, la, can’t hear it.’ They don’t want to know about it.

“I guess I just have to get used to being slightly provocative and pissing people off.”

Earlier this year, Oliver was asked what his job is now. For the first time he didn’t have an answer: “I said, ‘I don’t know. I kind of feel like a professional s–t disturber.’ ”

Oliver is still committed to his causes and to the public, and accepts that if he continues to lobby government for help, his to-do list will only grow.

Of course, what this all means is that Oliver, whose wife, Jools, is pregnant with the couple’s third child, will have less time than ever to play tourist.

This story ran in the National Post (November 22, 2008)