Interview

Jamie Oliver Injects Some Health Into Our Holiday Menu

The former "Naked Chef" looks back at the British holiday special that launched his career, then shares a few healthy, delicious dishes... and one unhealthy one that's totally worth it.

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(Photo Credit: Paul Stuart)

Jamie Oliver started his career as a boyish chef who became an international star with a series of hit British cooking shows. He’s got restaurants all over the world and has long led the campaign to make school lunches healthier. His new book, “Everyday Super Food,” is full of quick, nutritious recipes. So Rico spoke to him about planning a healthy holiday menu.

First though, he asked Jamie about the day, back in 1997, when a BBC crew, filming a Christmas special, accidentally made him a star.

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Jamie Oliver: It was really interesting. I was basically at work. They were doing a Christmas TV show with my bosses. They’d been filming for weeks.

Rico Gagliano: At this restaurant, The River Room, correct?

Jamie Oliver: The River Cafe — it’s probably one of the most famous restaurants in London. One Saturday night, I had off, but someone called in sick, and they asked me to come in and cover it. That’s when there was a crew kind of stalking me.

I was doing slow-cooked shoulders of pork… beautiful homemade, handmade raviolis… and tagliolinis with wild mushrooms. They just kept asking me, “What you doing? How you doing it? What is it?” To be honest, they were in my way. So I was kind of pushing them out of the way and getting on with it, answering their questions. But of course, I loved it.

Jamie Oliver: Then, a couple of months later, it went out at Christmas, I ended up sort of laced throughout the show. And then the rest was kind of history! Loads of phone calls. The BBC was kind of courting me — I was only a young boy. And I didn’t even know that I’d been on the show.

Rico Gagliano: You didn’t see the episode?

Jamie Oliver: I was working the night it went out, and no one had told me!

The next day when I came into work, obviously everyone kind of knew about it. The general manager was kind of internally phoning me up pretending to be the BBC. Then halfway through service, the real BBC phoned up, but I thought it was him again!

So, the real BBC phoned up, and I literally threw the most incredible, inappropriate abuse because I thought it was my colleague. And this poor BBC researcher was going, “But! But! But! But! I just wanted to do a pilot and…”

Rico Gagliano: “We thought you were charming and nice! On video you seem so good.”

Jamie Oliver: Yeah, no, I definitely wasn’t. And it was hilarious. But no, he said the word “pilot” and “commission” and I realized that I’d made a massive error.

Rico Gagliano: So, not long after being discovered, you had your first of many BBC cooking shows called “The Naked Chef.”

Jamie Oliver: Yeah, and it was all about stripping restaurant food down to its bare essentials.

Rico Gagliano: Indeed. And if you don’t mind, I would like to play a clip from the Christmas special “Naked Chef” ran — in, I believe, the year 2000.

Jamie Oliver: Wow.

Rico Gagliano: You are demonstrating how to prepare a warm salad that probably would not appear in your new book. First, you tear bread into strips, and then you add this secret ingredient.

Rico Gagliano: You were just piling on bacon.

Jamie Oliver: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: And the next recipe you demonstrate in that show is a fish dish that also gets topped with a bunch of bacon.

Jamie Oliver: Beautiful.

Rico Gagliano: And now, 15 years later, you’re leading the charge for healthy eating. You’re putting out a book of healthy recipes. What changed things for you?

Jamie Oliver: Well, listen, I still love bacon. But it’s about balance, really. I think the kind of mad thing that’s happened to everyone’s diets in the last 40 years is it’s really easy to have bacon and ham and then a nugget, and kind of repeat that seven days a week.

I’d always been about fresh cooking. But, I think, as you build a kind of meaningful relationship with the public… your job, really, at that point, is to really absorb their worries and the things they panic about and then broadcast solutions. You know, is it cost and money and value? Or time and speed, or comfort?

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, and health has definitely become a worry.

Jamie Oliver: Yeah. And for me, hitting 40 this year, 17 years on from the recording you played, you realize you want to make the most of the second part of your life and be optimal.

Rico Gagliano: Well, let’s turn to the holidays and maybe apply some of the healthy recipes in this book to holiday parties. Can you maybe give us a fish dish? I always cook for the Feast of Seven Fishes, the kind of traditional Italian Christmas Eve feast. What recipe from the book could I deploy there, and maybe people wouldn’t even realize it was good for them?

JO Super Food_Sizzling Moroccan Prawns, Fluffy Couscous and Rainbow Salsa
Moroccan prawns with couscous and rainbow salsa

Jamie Oliver: Well, I mean, you know, everything from like, sizzling Moroccan shrimps with beautiful, fluffy couscous and a whole rainbow salsa. You know, beautiful little jewels of pomegranate, yogurt, and chili in there — delicious. Good finger food. A little spice there as well, so it’s good with the drinks.

Rico Gagliano: All right, I’ll take it. How about turkey? The centerpiece of many a holiday meal. I am of the opinion that you cannot make it work without adding… you know, brining it in a ton of salt and adding a bunch of butter under the skin. Can you do a turkey healthfully that is still actually good?

Jamie Oliver: Well, look, without sounding awfully condescending…

Rico Gagliano: Go right ahead.

Jamie Oliver: … Largely, in America, because you’ve mastered mass farming, you have very lean, fast-growing turkeys. But if you go back to your ancestors, to the Bronze turkey, their intramuscular fat is way more. And they’re older birds, they’ve grown at the right speed, organically. That way, they not only cook a third quicker, but you don’t need to brine them, because they’re fully juicy because they’re marbled with beautiful natural fats. And actually, you can find these farmers that do really bad-ass turkeys that are just so good.

Rico Gagliano: OK. So, it’s not so much a preparation as just “heirloom” turkeys, as they call them.

Jamie Oliver: Yeah, man, like the original. The way they should be.

Rico Gagliano: Finally, what’s the holiday dish that you cannot make tastily and healthily? Like, is there one dish that even you would make with a quart of lard?

Jamie Oliver: Yes. The ultimate cheese toastie. I think I have one of the best-in-the-world recipes.

Rico Gagliano: Wow.

Jamie Oliver: And I can give you the key right now if you want it.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, no, no. Don’t.

Yes, give us the key.

Jamie Oliver: Well, I call it… it’s a “cheese toastie with a crown,” right?

Rico Gagliano: It’s basically a grilled cheese, we would call [a toastie] in America, right?

Jamie Oliver: Yeah, and what’s really interesting about it is you can’t get too healthy on the bread. It’s got to be kind of filthy, fluffy white bread. And stuff it with a blend of cold cheeses: Red Leicester, cheddars. Maybe sort of like a comté from France. Whatever you like, but something melty. Get it in there. And then, obviously, you’re frying it in a little olive oil, maybe a little nub of butter.

Jamie Oliver: As you’re turning it, getting it crispy, it’s melting in the middle.

But… BUT… importantly… you take the perfectly golden toastie out, and you just finely grate the cheese into the pan. Just a little bit. Like a doily, just scattered. And then you put the toastie back in there, and it creates this kind of mental, crispy, bonkers outside… And when you pick the toastie up, the cheese around it sags around it, and it looks like a queen’s crown, right?

Rico Gagliano: Oh, man.

Jamie Oliver: And then… I love a little pile of ketchup, a little pile of mango chutney, and you just find a quiet space… don’t let anyone interrupt the moment… Cut it in half. Eat it. Enjoy it. And feel your heart slow. And then go and do a ten-mile run.