Jamie Oliver's big-rig kitchen puts staff on road to better health
The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation's "Big Rig" Teaching Kitchen arrives on campus. Photo courtesy of Scott Bottemer.
Inside a big-rig trailer parked one recent Tuesday in front of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a group of health system employees watched as a cooking instructor conjured up a McDonald’s combo meal represented by just the salt, fat and sugar it contained.
A not-so-sweet reality check about how much sugar many commercial drinks contain. Photo by Alison Hewitt.
Volunteers in this cooking class helped her heap a plate high with three greasy tablespoons of shortening, the amount used to fry the filet-o-fish and the potatoes. Next came a half-teaspoon of salt for the fries, and then a cup filled — one alarming teaspoonful at a time — with the 16 ¼ teaspoons of sugar found in a 20-ounce Coke. Cooking students wrinkled their noses as “lunch” was passed around.
When people don’t pay attention to what’s in their food, it’s easy to overeat, explained Pati Nava, a chef’s assistant with the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation's "Big Rig" Teaching Kitchen.
“If you eat something like this every once in a while, that’s okay,” Nava said. “The problem is that we treat ourselves every five minutes.”
Nava and a crew of about half a dozen other instructors are staffing the big rig, parked in front of the hospital, for a monthlong visit that lasts until May 31. The mobile teaching kitchen, created by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, has visited locations throughout Los Angeles to fulfill its mission of teaching people, especially kids, the cooking skills to turn fresh, whole ingredients into quick, healthy meals.
Food Foundation program manager Lisa Fontanesi does a cooking demo at UCLA during Food Revolution Day. Photo by Margaret Sison.
Now the chefs are sharing the same tricks with patients, medical students, and UCLA doctors and nurses who are increasingly treating the effects of obesity and unhealthy eating. The health system is funding the monthlong visit, and hospital administrators are interested in finding a way to offer the program to more patients and their families, as well as Bruins and the local community.
Over the past month, several groups were invited to attend a brief class as a sampling of the truck’s five-week course, which the Food Revolution team also hopes to bring to UCLA longterm if the organization can secure funding, said Lisa Fontanesi, the mobile kitchen’s program manager. Oliver himself visited the campus on Saturday, May 19, for the foundation’s Food Revolution Day
, providing a cooking demo and tours of the big rig.
Among those taking classes this month were a group of cardiologists and their patients, most of whom need to change their eating habits. On another day, a UCLA medical-student group focused on helping patients adopt healthy behaviors piled into the big rig.
UCLA employees learn knife skills from a cooking instructor aboard the big rig. Photo by Alison Hewitt.
A Wellness Program employee, Occupational Health staffer and other health-system Bruins sliced and diced their way through an afternoon session on a recent Tuesday. On the menu during the sample class: a healthy version of the McDonald’s filet-o-fish combo consisting of an oven-baked breaded fish sandwich (recipe
), a Caesar salad with yogurt dressing (recipe
) and homemade sparkling lime soda.
“We like to ask, what’s an o-fish?” joked chef’s assistant Henry Perez. “We’re using tilapia. It’s tasty but inexpensive, and if you like the way we’re cooking it today, it also works beautifully with chicken.”
To coat the fish, the instructors taught students how to make seasoned breadcrumbs, minus all the salt, chemicals and preservatives found in many store-bought versions. Instead of using egg to make the crumbs stick to the fish, they created a low-calorie, flavor-packed binder out of mustard and lemon juice.
The cooking students then practiced knife skills, getting tips for safer, faster ways to chop garlic or anchovies, shred lettuce or slice a lime.
“Do you cook a lot at home?” one instructor asked diplomatically as she helped a student improve her knife skills.
“No,” the student replied, laughing, as she focused on holding the knife a new way. “My husband cooks, and I clean.” But her chopping soon grew faster, and she diced her way through the romaine and garlic.
UCLA Health System CEO David Feinberg (left) and chef Jamie Oliver at Food Revolution Day event. Photo by Margaret Sison.
The rig, a one-year-old nonprofit project funded by the California Endowment, has already provided classes in South Los Angeles at the Challengers Boys and Girls Club, at Long Beach City College and at Santa Ana’s Latino Health Access community center, Fontanesi said. UCLA Health System CEO David Feinberg found out about the program when the truck was at the Boys and Girls Club and invited the team to campus.
“This is our first hospital,” Fontanesi said. “We’d love to arrange a partnership with UCLA.”
Meanwhile, as many as 20 classes a week have Bruins and patients chopping away inside the big rig, learning how to make a creamy but healthy yogurt dressing for their salads, or the benefits of butter and even lard compared to hydrogenated oils in shortening.
Inside the colorful mobile kitchen, clever displays reveal how much sugar lurks inside a variety of sodas and juices, and eye-catching whiteboards reveal conversions to translate grams of fat, sugar or salt on nutrition labels into comprehensible amounts. Four grams of sugar equal a full teaspoon; 12 grams of fat pack a tablespoon to the brim; a teaspoon of salt is more than 2,300 milligrams, about the recommended daily allowance.
“If we don’t read nutrition labels, we don’t know what we’re eating,” Nava said. “Read the label, always.”