A little over a year ago, while he was vacationing in Australia, Jamie Oliver flicked on the BBC World Service and felt his stomach churn. In what one London newspaper facetiously described as "a stirring reminder of the indomitable British spirit," a pair of mothers had mounted a rebellion against Mr. Oliver's attempts to deprive children of "scrotum burgers," Turkey Twizzlers and various other cafeteria goodies of dubious provenance. A television crew had captured the women running an impromptu take-away service through the fence of a South Yorkshire schoolyard, dispensing burgers, chips and soft drinks to a delirious throng of young junk-food addicts.
"My heart stopped, and I got the cold sweats," Mr. Oliver recalled. "And then I thought: That image, of big old birds handing these charging kids that greasy shit, with all the hands poking out. I almost sat back slightly - not in a cocky way, but kind of in a thankful way - and said, 'You know what? In 30 seconds of visual, you've said everything that I've worked for for two years. That is the fucking problem.' "
These are the salty words of Jamie Oliver, Activist Chef, not to be confused with Jamie Oliver the Naked Chef, the Travelling Chef, or, most recently, the Social Worker Chef.
Each of these personae, with their various causes and passions, were on display this week in New York, where Mr. Oliver made a brief stopover to promote his seventh book, Cook with Jamie, and provide a plug for his sixth television series, Jamie at Home, now airing on the Food Network.
At just 32, Mr. Oliver is already a greybeard in the swelling cult of celebrity chefs, and on this afternoon, slumped into a leather-backed chair at a Soho club and swilling a bottle of beer, he feels it. He is outfitted in typically casual attire - a blue-striped hooded sweatshirt, jeans and black running shoes - and he has that rumpled comportment that will be familiar to anyone who has watched one of his recent shows: bleary of eye, tousled of hair, and, more often than not, foul of mouth.
"I was feeling a bit shit about 12 o'clock, because the third day of jet lag sort of kicked in a bit," he confessed. "But I just did Martha, which was good."
Yes, as in Stewart. Even in Las Vegas, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more bizarre example of culinary fusion.
Martha, with her pinched countenance and tyrannical exactitude, carefully levelling off her measuring cups beside Mr. Oliver, effervescing in a fizz of apparent anarchy and improvisation.
This is the shtick that cemented his popularity 10 years ago, when, as a 22-year old sous-chef at London's River Café, he was discovered by a documentary team and offered his own show. Thus was born The Naked Chef, a show in which Mr. Oliver stripped away the "bollocks" of formal cooking, whipped up meals at warp speed, and then invited his mates over to gorge. The message, helped along by Mr. Oliver's manic energy and populist charm, was a comforting one: that making tasty, healthy fare is not only easy, but fun.
That was a decade ago, but looking at Mr. Oliver today, it seems even longer. He is fleshier now, and while he still likes to carouse and joke there is a measure of gravitas - the result, no doubt, of reinventing himself as a chef bent on tackling social issues.
There are calluses, too. Sudden fame invited public barbs from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, a rock-star-like chef who detailed his sordid rise through the culinary ranks (and took some shots at celebrity cooks like Mr. Oliver, before becoming one himself) in the bestseller Kitchen Confidential.
It still rankles, especially considering this is the only book Mr. Oliver has ever finished. He is dyslexic, which makes compiling recipes, much less inspecting his own cookbooks, a laborious chore. He says he falls asleep after reading 15 or 20 pages.