Teriyaki glazed salmon and crisp cucumber and peanut salad served on a bed of white fluffy rice. That was my lunch. A far cry from my usual lunchtime mission to consume as many carbohydrates as my half-hour break will afford me, heeding neither quality nor taste; this dish was both healthy and delicious. Every bite was choc-a-bloc full of energizing flavours that lent comfortable satisfaction to my hunger, a vast contrast to the daily post-mealtime remorse I am used to. Whilst savouring each mouthful, I found myself silently thanking the chef behind this eye-opening creation.
Amazingly, that chef was me.
The Jamie Oliver name is synonymous with everything from soft-Mummy-porn, canteen reformation, speedily prepared culinary concoctions to new age fine dining. His Ministry of Food, established in the UK and now emerging in Australia, is the latest extension to the Jamie franchise, but more importantly, it stands as a proud and momentous feat towards his withstanding vocation to change our attitudes to eating.
Jamie borrows his title from the UK’s original Ministry of Food, set up by their government in World War II in order to educate citizens on how best to transform limited rations into nutritious and sustaining meals for their families. Today, freed from the stranglehold of war and hunger, first world countries England and Australia struggle with a much more disturbing misunderstanding of food. It is not a lack of knowledge on which nutrients will sustain them for longer, but a complete disregard for nutrients altogether. In busy lives, seeming convenience wins out over actual nourishment, and obesity is claiming more and more each year, engulfing nations like a pandemic; nations that should know better.
Jamie’s ongoing mantra, which he begs others to adopt, is that cooking and shopping for food the right way does not have to be hard. In fact, with suitable guidance, it can be as easy as drive-thru Maccas any day of the week. But as Jamie points out, dusty shelved cookbooks and intimidating TV chefs do not seem to be driving the point home. People need ‘skin on skin’, simple, direct and nurturing instruction from those who truly care. Inspired local foodies are the stars of Jamie’s Ministry. These are genuine homegrown chefs who share equal affinity with both community and food. Un-patronising and compassionate, theirs are the voices that should and will be heard in towns especially suffering from food abuse.
Geelong is one such town. The Victorian Population Health Survey shows that life expectancy here is significantly lower than the Victorian state average. And so, following the opening in Ipswich, Geelong was chosen as the second location for one of Jamie’s motivational Ministry kitchens. With an all glass façade opening onto one of Geelong city’s central strips, passers-by can get a glimpse of the bright and bustling atmosphere inside. A street-side blackboard message encourages that curiosity, beckoning residents to ‘come in and say hello!’
My sister and I do exactly that and are immediately enveloped by a calming sense of warmth and welcome. The design of the room falls blatantly under the Jamie aesthetic, that charming combo of chaos and order. A haphazard pin-board of letters, photos and postcards lends a homely feel to all the sleek stainless steel and shiny cookware. Separate fridges are casually labeled with a whiteboard marker. Liberal pops of colour tie in with a gigantic bowl of fruit, placed intentionally at the center of our long communal dining table, a shrine to healthy eating.
In keeping with the Ministry’s philosophy of having locals teach locals, the interior is also thoughtfully resonant with Geelong itself. Recycled materials, including timber retrieved from the remains of an old Gippsland bridge, are reborn as rustic wood panels that trick you into thinking your at Gran’s log-cabin, not the arena for your past failures – the kitchen.
You needn’t fear, however, because at the Ministry, it’s next to impossible to fail. The easy-going, step-by-step process ensures everybody’s always on the same page. Once we’ve finished, all of our dishes look the same; mine, my sisters, the 17 year old’s to my left and even the impressive plate from Pete, of Torquay, whose wife ‘reckons it was about time he learned to cook!’
Pete is one of over 350, from diverse age groups and backgrounds, that have made the pledge to learn, and committed to the 10-week course. ‘It doesn’t happen overnight,’ reminds Lindy Mills, the center manager and cook in charge, ‘it’s about learning over time’. And there is so much to learn! In just one class, I have picked up at least ten useful tricks that will make my performance in the kitchen faster and stronger. Who knew that pulling apart the spring onion ‘like a Christmas cracker’ would reveal which section to use? Now, I do. Along with many more nifty know-hows that you just don’t get without physical implementation.
The best part of the day, however, came at the end – Enjoying the fruit of our labour and sharing stories with no-longer strangers. Metaphorically present at the dining table, Jamie reminds us all that food is there to be enjoyed, and with a little nudge from the local community, we can learn to chop, marinate, roast, fry, steam or boil it to the point where we can enjoy it.