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Jamie Oliver on microwaves, activism and the foods he can't live without

Jamie Oliver in New York City

neville elder The Globe and Mail

Jamie Oliver emerged as a culinary celebrity more than a decade ago, as the baby-faced host of BBC's The Naked Chef. Countless awards, multiple TV series and cookbooks, and one food revolution later, Mr. Oliver has proven he's not just a cheeky, telegenic personality, but a tireless activist , spearheading a movement to get people cooking and eating wholesome, nutritious food.

"I'm not a doctor, I'm a chef," he said in a stirring TED talk last year, explaining he aims to save lives in his own way. "I don't have expensive equipment or medicine. I use information, education. I profoundly believe that the power of food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best bits of life."

His quest to combat obesity and encourage schools and families to abandon convenience foods in favour of home cooking is hardly, as Mr. Oliver would say, "easy peasy." And not everyone welcomes his help, as he discovered this year, when his show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution was shut out of the Los Angeles school district.

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The British chef, however, has legions of followers at home and abroad. His latest book, Meals in Minutes: A Revolutionary Approach to Cooking Good Food Fast, has remained among the top 10 best-selling culinary books in Canada for weeks. When it was released in Britain late last year, it set a record for being the fastest-selling non-fiction title of all time. We reached Mr. Oliver via e-mail.

What five ingredients could you not live without?

Chilies. Garlic. Dried pasta. Tomatoes. And I'd struggle if I couldn't have some steak from time to time.

What is your earliest food memory?

The smells coming up from the kitchen at the Cricketers [a pub his parents owned]when I was about 3.

What did you eat for school lunches?

The school food was good for a while, but after a few years, it went downhill, so I took a packed lunch. But I always used to make extra, so I could sell some to my mates.

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When was the last time you ate fast food or packaged convenience food?

I honestly can't remember. A long time ago.

What are your three favourite cookbooks?

I collect cookery books and one of my favourites is a very old, hand-written book by, I think, a cook in an English manor house in the 1700s and she's just written down all the wonderful things they used to cook. Apart from that, I love the books of my mentor, [London-based Italian chef]Gennaro Contaldo. As for the third one, it's hard because there are so many, but maybe something by Marguerite Patten [one of Britain's earliest TV chefs]

Given that food is increasingly political, does being a chef necessarily mean being an activist?

I don't think you have to be an activist. There are plenty of chefs who just stay in the kitchen and do great food and that's perfectly fine.

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How responsible are chefs for fetishizing food, and what's their role in the obesity epidemic?

I don't think you can blame chefs at all because most chefs are fully aware of the nutritional content of their food. I think that where chefs do have a role to play is in educating about food and passing on their knowledge, particularly when it comes to cooking using fresh ingredients.

What's the last meal you made for your family?

I made them breakfast this morning. Usually, I'll be home all weekend and I'll be doing all the cooking with some help from [daughters]Daisy and sometimes Poppy. Jools [Mr. Oliver's wife]does the cooking during the week, but if I'm home early in the evening, or I don't have to leave for work too early in the morning, I'll do breakfast or dinner.

How long did it take you to prepare it?

It was just American pancakes and fruit, so it was about 10 minutes.

What's the proudest moment of your career so far?

Receiving the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2003]from Her Majesty the Queen was up there, along with getting the British government in 2005 to find £280-million [about $430-million]to invest in school food when I'd been told that there was no spare cash available. It's amazing what a bit of public and media pressure can do if it's for positive reasons.

Your lowest moment?

I only really get low when either I've come up against people in authority who really shouldn't be doing the job they do, or when I've got the media on my back when all I'm trying to do is improve people's lives. I suppose that one of the low moments was in California when I was told again and again by the former superintendent of the [L.A. school district]that I wasn't welcome in their schools, even though I wanted to make some positive changes.

For the first time, you've put out a cookbook that requires a microwave. Why the reluctance - is the microwave a cheat?

The thing is that microwaves are fine, I think, so long as you use them properly and not just for heating up ready meals. So many kitchens today have a microwave that I would have been mad not to have included them in a book, which is basically there to help people save time and prepare fantastic food in double-quick time.

British households waste an estimated 3.6 million tonnes of food a year. In North America, it's likely to be much more. What's the best way to avoid waste?

The easiest way would be to work out your weekly shop and write down only the ingredients you need when you go shopping because it's easy to end up putting extra things in your basket and finding when you get home that you've got too much food, and all these use-by dates don't work for you. Only buy what you need and keep an eye on those use-by dates. You'll save money too.

Jamie Oliver's serving tips for fast and meals

Jamie Oliver's recipe for good family meals isn't just about the food. In Meals in Minutes, he has some time-saving serving tips to make the dinner more fun and informal:

  • Use large wooden cutting boards that can double as serving boards.
  • Buy frying pans and pots that look good enough to go straight to the table for serving.
  • Use teacups or cappuccino cups for desserts (they don't have to match).
  • Keep flatware on the table in large beer glasses or jars (so you don't have to set it every night).
  • Have a 1-litre glass pitcher for serving water or drinks.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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