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

Jamie Oliver is relentless in his bid to revolutionise home cooking – but change must start with restructuring education, he tells Gemma Dunn

Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo present Jamie Cooks Italy, starging next Monday
Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo present Jamie Cooks Italy, starging next Monday

JAMIE Oliver has made no secret of his desire to educate the masses. In the past two decades, the Essex boy-turned-political crusader has tackled childhood obesity via shaking up school dinners and putting sugar intake in the spotlight, revolutionised home cooking and provided a platform to train apprentice chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And all while building his own business empire, worth a rumoured £300 million. Phew.

When we meet the friendly TV chef and restaurateur displays the infectious energy that must surely underpin his dogged determination.

"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," Oliver (43) begins, 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."

The latest target of his anti-obesity drive is junk-food advertising, which has 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.

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

He has another strategy: "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."

It's not all campaigning for the busy father-of-five (Oliver has 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 and fronted many TV programmes.

His latest TV foray – Jamie Cooks Italy – is the reason we're sat in his plush London office. 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 handed down over generations.

"I love the Italian approach to life – it fills me with such joy," says 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 (69), who he first met during his time as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street restaurant in the 90s.

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.

"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.