There’s a moment in the first minute of Jamie Oliver’s first cooking show, The Naked Chef, when the then-24-year-old predicts his future. “I kind of get bored of doing the same thing all the time,” Oliver says.
It was 1999, and he was talking about how to change up the flavours of roast leg of lamb (rub it with a mixture of sage, rosemary, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice). That line, however, hinted at what was to come: Twenty-one cookbooks. One hundred forty-seven TV appearances. A YouTube channel with 3.9 million subscribers.
Oliver has shifted how the world cooks, introducing once-stubborn, pantry-dependent home cooks to fresher flavours by way of simple meals. But he’s also pushed the public to think harder about nutrition, often through documentary work that has showcased the horrors of what happens—pink slime, added sugars, tomato sauce as a “vegetable” in school lunches—when Big Government and Big Food collude. His docuseries Jamie’s School Dinners, combined with his “Feed Me Better” campaign, resulted in a billion-dollar commitment from the British government to invest in school food.
In the last 30 years, no chef has had more influence and reach than Oliver. And as he tells Men's Health, he’s not bored yet.
Thirty years ago, you were 13. What would 13-year-old Jamie think of 43-year-old Jamie?
Jamie Oliver: A lot of people know my public side, which is content, recipes, books, and TV. But probably the larger part of what I do now is collaborating with NGOs, advocate work, campaigns, documentaries, and working with governments and CEOs. I’m trying to move this incredibly slow-sinking ship of public health that is the complete shit fight that we’re in in Britain and America. When I was 13, I lived in a pub restaurant. There would be six chefs on a shift. We’d be doing our own butchery and fishmongery. That was the only world I saw in food. I didn’t realize just how diverse and complex the food industry is. I didn’t know it was the biggest employer on the planet. When I was 13 years old, I didn’t understand Food Inc. and branding and brands. Fast food and shitty freezer food was just coming in hard. I am old enough to remember when those things didn’t exist. I remember pre-microwave, I remember pre-McDonald’s. A lot has happened in those 30 years, my God.
What still frustrates you?
JO: Truth is the commodity that is in such short supply. People want to go out and get drunk, they want to go have pizza, and they want to go have a burger. And, in a kind of funny way, your pizza and your burger are the most honest things you’ve ever eaten. They’ve never lied to you. They’ve never fucking pretended to be something they’re not, and we love them, right? But when you go buy a loaf of bread, or pasta sauce, or a cereal, that’s when the world starts to get a bit confusing. In its simplest form, governments can make it easy by having legislation on packaging, front of the pack, no bullshit. In the UK there’s one version of organic. In America, you have a handful, and they’re all completely different and they’re all kind of contradicting and undercutting each other.
What do you wish that men specifically would do to improve how they eat?
JO: Learn to cook. If you learn to cook, you bring yourself a life skill that is potentially more valuable than anything else. You do not die potentially seven to ten years younger because you didn’t get an A in history or geography in school. If you can’t cook, if you can’t grocery shop, if you don’t know the basics of nutrition, if you look at public-health statistics, it really doesn’t look good for you. And by the way, the last 15 years of your life are going to be a bit shit. Find a handful of people you trust. I’m not even saying me. Find someone that resonates with you. Don’t limit yourself to just people from your own neighbourhood or country. You can build relationships on Instagram and on YouTube—people that care, people that share passions. You can find people who cook on a dollar a day, 10 dollars, 15 dollars. It’s a brilliant time for cooking and nutrition content, and I think it’s all there for the taking.
The One Recipe That Changed Jamie’s Life
Squash & Spinach Pasta Rotolo
"Rotolo is a Tuscan dish of pasta, greens, cheese, and porcini, all rolled and baked in tomato sauce," Oliver says. "When you cut through, you get a swirl of the pasta, a swirl of the green, bombs of the white cheese. This is what I was cooking during Christmas at the River Café. It’s the reason I got discovered and ended up on TV. It’s how I got to where I am today."
What you’ll need:
- 1 butternut squash
- 1 red onion
- olive oil
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 10-oz package frozen spinach
- 1 whole nutmeg
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 24-oz jar tomato
- 6 large fresh pasta sheets
- 2 Tbsp feta
- 1 Tbsp Parmesan
- A few sprigs fresh sage (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 175°C. Cook the squash whole on a roasting tray for about 1 hour 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and roughly chop the onion; put it into a medium pan on medium-low heat with a lug of oil, the thyme, and a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the frozen spinach, cover with a lid, and cook for another 15 minutes or until the liquid has evaporated, and then remove from the heat. Cut the squash in half, discard the seeds and skin, then mash up with a fork. Keeping them separate, season both the squash and the spinach with salt, pepper, and a grating of nutmeg.
2. Peel and finely slice the garlic, then put it into a shallow casserole pan on medium heat with a splash of oil and fry for a couple of minutes, or until lightly golden. Pour in the tomato sauce, add a splash of water to the empty jar, swirl it around, and pour it into the pan. Bring to boil, simmer for 3 minutes, then season.
3. On a clean work surface, lay out the pasta sheets facing lengthways away from you. Working quickly, brush them with water, then evenly divide and spread the squash over the sheets. Sprinkle over the cooked spinach and crumble over the feta. Roll up the sheets and cut each one into 4 chunks, then place side by side in the tomato sauce. Finely grate over the Parmesan, then pick the sage leaves (if using), toss in a little oil, and scatter over the top. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes at the bottom of the oven until golden and crisp. Delicious served with a fresh green salad. Serves 4 to 6.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health US.