World-class celebrity chef transforms dropouts into top-class chefs
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2008-08-17
Jamie Oliver is one of the youngest of the many celebrity chefs who have television shows. Aired on Cable TV here, his Jamie’s Kitchen show is well followed all over the world.

To add to his celebrity, Jamie Oliver was given by the British Queen, Elizabeth II, the prestigious MBE (Member of the British Empire) Award — thus becoming one of the youngest to receive the MBE at age 28. The MBE is given as recognition for British nationals and subjects who have distinguished themselves in their respective fields.

Although your Chair Wrecker is a legendary diner who will easily be awed by a legendary kitchen wizard like Jamie Oliver, it is Jamie Oliver’s Christian virtues that caught my attention. Specifically — it is his social conscience, as expressed by his on-going program to transform dropouts, aged 15 to 24, male and female, into top-class chefs.

We expect to see social responsibility practiced by major corporations but hardly from top restaurants and its world-class chef-owners. Jamie Oliver started with the experiment to transform a team of 15 dropouts into achievers in the kitchen at his London restaurant known as Fifteen London.

The social program has since expanded to his new restaurant in Melbourne, Australia and is assisted by the Fifteen Foundation of Australia.

Jamie Oliver believes that anyone with the proper passion can become a good chef. In this day and age when many would gladly sign up to be taught the rudiments of world-class kitchen skills, it becomes doubly commendable for Jamie Oliver to want to give dropouts with a wide range of social and behavioral problems (ranging from drugs to weak family support systems) a chance to make something of themselves.

In his noble endeavor, Jamie has won some and lost some. He started with a batch of 15 Brits in London, young souls that 99% of British corporations would prefer not to touch, not even with a 10-foot pole, for fear that they might contaminate the rest of their staff with their behavioral problems. These problem kids would have been the casualties of the usual “Of Good Moral Character” requirement of most companies.

One of Jamie’s applicants was a 15-year old girl who was earlier rejected by a potential employer in the service business because she had a neck tattoo that might turn off customers. Another was a homeless Black. A 15-year old came from a dysfunctional family where the father was a drunk without a work ethic. A 22-year old female left home, met up with bad company, got hooked on drugs and hit rock bottom. Another female, a 23-year old, was already into the worst drug habit — heroin — and became one of the most inspiring transformations of the program. A 19-year old male who could not focus his life to do the right things found himself on the wrong side of the law and needed to re-direct his life.

What was rather funny was how they selected the London 15. It was the opposite of normal recruitment as most of us know it. The screening committee was weeding out the applicants who were deemed capable of landing a job, those without a social or a behavioral problem.

To be among the 15 was no guarantee of success either. Many of the chosen 15 failed to make the grade in the crash course Jamie conducted. It was reported that some would show up late while others did not show up at all — manifestations of stress and failure to cope in the new environment.

Just imagine kids with their background suddenly embarking on a transformation mission that now demands them to acquire discipline, creativity, tenacity, sensitivity (to the taste of dining customers) and a work ethic. Indeed it is a daunting task, to say the least, imposed on young folks who are not inclined to take on responsibility and assignments.

Jamie rationalized his losses. He said that these apprentices were cramming into the one-year program what others would normally learn in four years. It was tough enough for the recruits to shed off the bad vibes and the baggage of their past while being expected to accomplish what others without their problems take four years to master.

Asked if he would have done the program another way, Jamie was quoted by the August 27, 2003 edition of The Guardian: “I’m not sure if I should have done something different. The one thing I’ve learned last year is that it’s very hard to teach or inspire anyone to do anything unless they’ve got their personal lives sorted out. And there has to be a time when you say, ‘I’m not equipped to deal with this and maybe we just better let this one go.’ I don’t feel spiteful towards them. I just feel sorry for them. They should have seized the moment.”

But Jamie had 8 victories to speak of — the 8 who stayed the course and are now looking forward to attaining greater heights. In The Guardian story, the following personal experiences of the successful 8 were told.

“The eight remaining trainees work a 70-hour week being paid a retainer of £100 plus expenses. But the workload and pay are not something that pre-occupies 19-year-old Johnny Broadbent. “The way I see it,” he says, “we’re sponging off them. It’s not about the money. It’s about the experience.”

“The surviving would-be chefs now spend two months on work placement at some of the world’s top restaurants. After that, they return to try to find permanent work here, although (trainee) Warren Fleet has secured an apprenticeship at Nobu, one of London’s most fashionable eateries.”

“The thing we’re talking about at the moment,” says Broadbent, “is for some of us to maybe pull together in a few years time and open a restaurant among us. If we make steady progress in the next few years, we will. We’ve got the ability; we just need faith in the right people so they can believe we can do it too.” (End of Guardian quote)

To offset those who failed to make the grade, Jamie Oliver has transformed 8 basket cases to hopeful individuals with a confidence boost and a renewed sense of self-worth. His kitchen wards do not just look up to the stars these days but has the stars well within their reach now.

The Focolare Movement’s new economic paradigm — the Economy of Communion (EoC) — tells us that only the poor can help themselves, but not alone. The behavioral basket cases of society require even more. Many times, especially those already hooked on drugs, they may not even be able to muster the will and the resolve to help themselves.

But then that is precisely the essence of Christian virtue — when we can rise above our selfish interests and care for those who may even have the potential to do us harm or make us undergo a great inconvenience. It is going beyond our comfort zones when we really earn plus points — the points that will one day serve us when we finally meet our Maker.

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