Interview originally appeared on The Local Moms Network.
Like many of us, British super chef Jamie Oliver needed a quarantine project to keep him busy—so he whipped up a new cookbook, Together, as well as an accompanying TV show of the same name. “I wrote Together through lockdown, knowing the day would come when we could finally reconnect with our friends and family in the intimacy of our homes. After everything we’ve all been through over the past 18+ months, I wanted to create a book that celebrated the ritual of enjoying great food with your loved ones,” explains Jamie, a dad of five kids (Poppy, 19; Daisy, 18; Petal, 12; Buddy, 11; and River, 5). Both the book and show (playing now on PBS in the U.S.) focus on creating dishes that are full of fun and flavor, and perfect for entertaining after too much time apart.
We asked Jamie about cooking with kids in the kitchen, his favorite recipes from his new book, and more.
Your beautiful family is featured throughout your new book. How do you incorporate them into meal prep?
Buddy is such an asset in the kitchen and he’s been getting amongst it since he was really little. His knife skills are getting really good now. He’s always happy to help out, and to be honest, all the kids have had their moments. Poppy and Daisy are out doing their own thing a lot now but when they were younger they’d always be picking herbs and helping with jobs here and there – Petal’s the same. And River, well if there’s music playing and he can dance while he helps you, he’s there! I passionately believe that cooking is up there as one of the most valuable skills you can teach a child. Trust your instincts and use your common sense to determine what jobs they can help with, depending on their age and skill level. It’s always good to start small, with things like mixing and measuring, picking herbs, washing veg… Then, once they start to get comfortable in the kitchen, think about them doing elements of a recipe and go from there. The more they cook, the better they’ll get. Taking young kids out food shopping with you, especially if you can get down to a farmer’s market or equivalent, is incredibly valuable, too. Most of all, have fun with it, and encourage them to give things a go.
What are a few of your favorite go-to recipes for busy weeknights?
I’ve tried to think of as many scenarios as possible that the modern-day busy person would get themselves into, if they wanted to host a dinner party or make something truly memorable. My Satisfying Veggie Bake is a great one to prep the day before, ready to assemble and simply bang in the oven come dinnertime. It has five of your 5-a-day per portion, embraces the beauty of seasonal veg and makes for the most incredible leftovers – this dish makes me very happy. There’s also a chapter called Fun Family Meal, which is packed with big-hitters that my kids all love, like Crispy Pesto Chicken that again can be prepped the day before, ready to cook, and my Scrumptious Garlic Bread. I must admit that one takes a little effort but, boy, is it worth it, plus I get you to make two trays of bread so you can whack one in the freezer ready to cook from frozen another day. And of course, I’ve got loads of easy recipes on my website, too, that will sort you out when you want to get good food on the table, fast.
What makes a meal memorable for you?
Food has this incredible power to bring people together. When you’re with people you love, and you can just relax and enjoy each other’s company, see their reactions and have a good laugh together, that’s what life is truly all about. I hope Together serves as an excuse for readers to gather their nearest and dearest around the table to create new memories together. Food can be the perfect excuse to unite people.
What’s your go-to holiday menu for Christmas?
I wouldn’t say I have a go-to festive menu. There’s certainly some big-hitters that always appear on the table, but it’s nice to mix things up. The final chapter in Together is a blow-out alternative to the traditional Christmas Day roast that still has all the festive trimmings – think an epic mixed roast of rolled and stuffed pork belly, roast chicken and topside of beef all cooked in one tray! Plus, a fantastic veggie crown, those all-important pigs in blankets (but with a twist), fennel gratin and so much more. Bring on Christmas 2021!
You’ve been promoting healthier school lunches for many years – how do you believe the pandemic has impacted the food our kids are being served?
It’s been an incredibly tough year for schools, but one thing it’s shown us is how important school lunches are as a source of nutrition that so many young people rely on. It’s a mixed picture, of course, but many schools continue to deliver delicious and nutritious food. I was so pleased to hear about California’s decision to offer free school meals to all 6.2 million kids. That’s seriously forward thinking – a recognition that we need to invest in the learner if we want to set kids up for learning. I truly believe that good food can boost our recovery, economically and academically, to set the next generation up for success.
What advice do you offer to busy moms who feel like they don’t have time to cook?
I don’t think you can go far wrong with a roast chicken, and there’s so much you can do with them, so many different ways you can go on the flavor front. Also, the oven does all the hard work, so that always helps. I’ve put a last-minute style feast in the book actually that’s Italian inspired and a really great principle to follow. For starters, you jazz up a load of those shop-bought antipasti, creating an epic spread, then I’ve done a really simple yet elegant pasta for the main, using one of my favorite shortcuts – cutting up fresh lasagna sheets to mimic fresh pasta. It’s such a good timesaver. A nice cocktail or two, and you’re onto a winner.
You dedicated the book to healthcare workers, and in the TV series, you invited healthcare workers, nurses and other essential workers to your home to cook for them. Why did you want to recognize them?
My new show Together was the first time I invited complete strangers into my home – teachers, doctors, midwives and volunteers. It was only a small handful of people, but they represent millions, so it was an absolute privilege to meet them. I’m certainly grateful for all key workers, for everything they’ve done for us – it’s all quite emotional really. I mean, I can only really talk about this in the way that I’m allowed to, which is through food. I think food is just the most incredible excuse to get people together, and a wonderful way of saying ‘thank you’.
What’s next for you?
Well, this time of year does tend to be the busiest. I’m already working on a new book for 2022, which I can’t tell you about yet, but I’m really excited about it. We’ve still got lots to do in the campaigning space if we’re going to meet our 2030 target to halve childhood obesity in the UK, so that continues to be a really big part of our work and focus as a business. Oh, and there’s a new addition to the Oliver family – Conker – he’s a lively little Border Collie so he’s definitely gonna keep us busy