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Looking back at Jamie Oliver’s Huntington food experiment

By Staff | Nov 23, 2010

“I can’t believe we won an Emmy,” tweeted celebrity British chef James Oliver on the “Best Reality Series” win for the six week series “Jamie’s Food Revolution,” which aired in 2010 but was shot in the Fall of 2009 in Huntington.

Earlier, the English chef known for tasty healthy recipes that blend herbs, spices and other ingredients to enhance flavor had been quoted by AOL NEWS as stating that the nomination of a series based on a “real live campaign is always a challenge, so anyone involved should take this nomination as an encouragement to keep on fighting the good fight.”

The ABC series competed against: “Antiques Roadshow” (PBS); “Mythbusters” (Discovery Channel); “Undercover Boss” (CBS); Kathy Griffin: “My Life on the D List” (Bravo); and “Dirty Jobs” (Discovery Channel).

FALL 2009

Actually, the filming of the six-week series came amidst the ingrained attitudes of West Virginians sold on their biscuits, gravy and full range of hot dog establishments. Many had called the campaign an effort by the “Naked Chef” to convince Tri State residents to eat lettuce.

Complaints surfaced concerning a video clip in which a child stated he did not know the difference between a “tomato” and a “potato,” and a British interview in which Oliver was accused of making fun of Americans and West Virginians.

Feeling a “little bit offended,” councilwoman Frances Jackson said, “It seemed to me he was making fun of us. West Virginians have been made fun of a lot, so I guess we are thin skinned. Like the little boy who thought [tomatoes] were potatoes. I know the child knows potatoes… I really did not care much for his approach. Maybe he wanted the shock factor of the fat going into the dumpster.”

On the other hand, she continued, “If he wants to help, I’ll support him. I don’t think pizza is healthy for breakfast. I don’t think French fries are healthy for lunch, although I love them. I guess I’m seeing a double thing; he could have handled the whole situation better than the clip. I know they say we’re the unhealthiest city in America, but there are some one breath away from us. It’s an epidemic in the United States. I think it’s all over and you have to start somewhere, if he wants to start here fine,” Jackson said.

After tart words from the community, the Ryan Seacrest (“American Idol”) produced series did maintain its mantra of telling residents you need to lose weight, exercise more and learn to cook in a healthy manner, including the close proximity of other cities to the same “obese” statistics as that of the Jewel City.

For instance, the early battles for permission to introduce his healthier meals at Cabell County Schools depicted conflict, yet individuals, community members and venue showed the warmth, friendliness and awesome facilities available. The cables of the innovatively designed 29th Street E. bridge along with inspiring sunrises and sunsets often served as a transition (film and TV talk for location, time or subject change). Ritter Park was a featured background too.

Patterned after a similar show in Britain, Oliver faced intense opposition to changing school breakfast and lunch plans due to federal funding and bureaucracies. However, the greatest opposition likely came from the children who disfavored the taste of the healthy food.

Oliver’s concept had the most visual fun at Central City School, where the chef donned costumes and brought in a ton of “fat” in a dumpster to underscore his better eating agenda. It also generated the infamous clip in which a student could not tell the difference between a potato and a tomato.

The six-episode mini-series included then Gov. Joe Manchin appearing from “Jamie’s Kitchen” across from Pullman Square on a live segment of “Good Morning America,” as well as hundreds of Tri-State residents cooking a healthy and tasty meal on Third Avenue outside the kitchen. The energetic Oliver coached them all on, shouting encouragement.


More than a year after the British chef invaded the city, Ebenezeer Community Outreach runs the former “Jamie’s Kitchen,” now Huntington’s Kitchen, and Cabell Huntington Hospital has donated more funds to subsidize the continued operation of the British guy’s mission. Cooking classes and activities continue there regularly, just without the cameras, pomp and circumstance that follow the making of a network reality show.

An article from what is now “Huntington’s Kitchen” reminded readers that a more healthy turkey dinner would not be first swabbed in butter and after cooking, the fat intense skin would be peeled away prior to eating.


Mary Neely, then a newly elected Cabell County School Board vice president, said, “It was a positive show. It did not show Huntington in a negative way. He did a wonderful job. I think a lot of people in Huntington have changed their eating habits.”

Huntington City Councilman Steve Williams said, “Clearly there’s a need [for stemming obesity] all across the country. Huntington was not representative of West Virginia or Appalachia. Huntington was a representative of the problem we have across the country.” He forecasted additional “benefits” for the city, now that, “We have a [positive] package to draw upon” that has been broadcast across the United States.

Neely stressed, “[Jamie] made a really positive impact on the eating habits of the people in Huntington and the rest of the United States. Anybody that watched it, learned from it.”

The show brought Neely’s attention to poor eating habits of her own, too.

“Myself, I watch more what I eat. I try to bake and grill. I’ll tell you what I’ve stopped doing. When you get nervous, you pick up a chip or something. Or, you will be in the refrigerator and pull something out. You don’t even know you are eating. Be conscious of how many calories are in that,” Neely explained.

Speaking of Oliver’s efforts in Cabell County Schools, Neely at the time of the nomination, explained that, “[Oliver] gave a lot of insight on how to improve the school lunch menus. The school lunch menus have been changed [in some schools], and we’d like to get them slowly but surely changed in all of the schools.”

She recalled that, “He had so much opposition in the beginning [but] he persevered until he got his point across.” He also kept his promise that the show “would not be down on Huntington.”

Neely added that Patrick O’Neal, principal of Central City Elementary School where the first two episodes were shot, was greeted at a 2010 Board of Education meeting by a ‘have you lost weight” question. O’Neal told Neely and others, “Yes, 25 pounds.” She said, “[Another] principal Stacie Edwards has stuck to her diet. Her family has too. It turned out to be so positive.

Council vice chairman Mark Bates called the Emmy win “fantastic. It definitely presented [the city] in a positive light and that we are better aware of our situation and [some] folks are inclined to lead healthier lifestyles.

These accolades for the “Jamie Oliver” mini-series make the city of Huntington two-for-two (in this writer’s opinion) in receiving a favorable depiction of its residents through the mediums of feature film and television. Obviously, the other production would be the inspirational, “We Are Marshall,” partially shot in Huntington in 2006.

Bates said he would “agree” with that assessment of the outcomes from the two major productions shot in the city.

ABC TV has since re-newed “Jamie’s Food Revolution” for a second season. It will be shot in Los Angeles. Recently, one of the city’s school system’s turned down a request by Chef Oliver to partner with them to introduce his healthy foods into the California city’s schools.

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com