Jamie Oliver Hits the Road

Kids from a downtown youth center leave Jamie Oliver's mobile teaching kitchen truck after taking part in a class. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)
By Mary MacVean | Los Angeles Times 

Kids from a downtown youth center leave Jamie Oliver's mobile teaching kitchen truck after taking part in a class. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)

The celebrity chef-activist’s goal is to teach students healthy cooking in his kitchen-equipped big rig.

In a downtown parking lot sits one of the most impressive things that Jamie Oliver, the chef-activist-TV personality, has brought to Los Angeles for his “Food Revolution” television show: a red-and-khaki-striped big rig tricked out as a traveling cooking school.

Even in food truck mad L.A., this behemoth, 70 feet long, stands out.

Demonstrations have been held on board for officials, potential donors and others. But last week, the first classes began for young people.

At lunchtime, 16 teenagers from the youth development program Inner City Struggle came to cook marinated chicken and chopped salad, which they rolled together in whole-wheat tortillas.

“No one has to eat anything they don’t want to eat, but we hope you will try it,” Elizabeth Fassberg, one of the teachers, said just after everyone washed their hands to start class. She also talked about knife safety and handling raw meat before the students moved to their cooking stations.

Four people can work at each of eight rolling stations, which have two cutting surfaces and two induction stovetops (which heat up by magnetic induction, to help prevent burns). Underneath there is storage for utensils and pots and pans. Custom placemats can cover the top so students can eat the fruits of their labors.

At four places along the sides of the truck are pop-out bays that make the interior even bigger — 15 feet across — with the push of a button. There are plasma screen TVs, four sinks, full-size double ovens, microwave ovens, two large refrigerators and dishwashers. The walls are covered in colorful pictures of fruits and vegetables and kitchen equipment.

Work stations can be configured in numerous ways, including being taken out on a lift (that also accommodates wheelchairs) for an outdoor demonstration or class. An inflatable stage can be set up off the back of the truck.

The rig is designed along the lines of a boat: When traveling, equipment is stowed in a specific layout, said Christopher Styler, a culinary consultant who’s getting the truck up and running for the nonprofit Jamie Oliver Food Foundation.

Those first students were savvy about nutrition, ingredients and food access. A few were vegetarians who substituted cheese for the chicken in their tortillas. One questioned using ketchup in the marinade because of its sugar content. And they are planning a campaign about access to healthful food in East L.A., said Jeannette Reynaga, a youth organizer at Roosevelt High School who accompanied them to the truck.

Still, they are teenagers: When Fassberg asked what they might add to the wraps to make a full meal, one student called out, “Chips!” and got a good laugh.

“The ‘Food Revolution’ got my attention,” said Angela Gonzales, a sophomore at Lincoln High School. “In our schools there is a lot that isn’t right with the food. It’s a lot of processed food.”

Along with recipes, the students get some tips: Teacher Lisa Fontanesi showed them how to press on the back of their hand to approximate the doneness of cooked meat. Styler showed them that a wet towel under a cutting board will keep it from sliding around.

After the truck starts traveling, the plan is to offer classes to children, adults and families in South Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Long Beach and Santa Ana. Classes will focus on simple, healthful, everyday cooking, Styler said. He hopes students will take at least three classes to make sure they get permanent skills.

The equipment also is basic, and things such as baby food jars are reused for storage.

“We want to encourage people to go cook at home, and if they feel they can only do that with hundreds of dollars worth of equipment, we’re not a success,” said Laurie Malkin, the foundation’s operations director.

“We’re very much aware of the costs in the food,” Styler said. The kitchen has an archive of more than 70 recipes for its classes and expects that to increase with input from the communities it visits.

Many people who take the cooking classes are likely to have little access to fresh ingredients in their neighborhoods, said Anne-Marie Jones, director of the Center for Healthy Communities at the California Endowment. The endowment has partnered with the Jamie Oliver Foundation to run the truck, and for now it’s parked in the center’s lot.

Teaching people to cook, Malkin said, could spawn the demand for better products in markets.

The truck was among the projects that followed Oliver’s 2010 TED prize. Malkin said it was built through many donations but would have cost around $1 million. It was designed by the Rockwell Group and built by Farber Specialty Vehicles.

Oliver’s foundation was established to fight obesity and encourage healthful eating and cooking skills. Through a partnership with the American Heart Assn., the foundation also plans to build stationary teaching kitchens in several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles.