Here's what's cooking: Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver helps launch cooking class program at Stanford

The program is designed to teach students hands-on cooking skills and educate them about building healthy eating habits.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Jamie Oliver talks about the importance of food education.

Celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver donned a white chef’s jacket and joined a group of Stanford students in a cooking class in the teaching kitchen of the Arrillaga Family Dining Commons on Thursday for a lesson in making risotto.

A natural teacher, Oliver advised the students on how to adapt the risotto cooking process to fit one’s schedule and how to vary the recipe for seasons: “What’s quite nice is in the summer, make a plain white risotto, pan fry some mushrooms to put on top; very light,” he told the students, adding that in winter a richer version is “more comfy.”

The message behind all of Oliver’s advice: Start with nutritious ingredients and savor the cooking experience. It’s a message he’s been passionate about since his former cooking show The Naked Chef debuted on the Food Network in the 1990s. Since then his cooking shows have been broadcast in more than 100 countries and he has sold more than 36 million cookbooks worldwide.

Oliver’s campaign to instill in youth a lifelong love for fresh food and healthy eating habits is a passion shared by Eric Montell, executive director of Residential & Dining Enterprises Stanford Dining, who hosted Oliver’s visit to Stanford. The visit was designed, in part, to launch Stanford Dining’s Teaching Kitchen @ Stanford cooking class program for Stanford students, which is being created with the support of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation.

The program, which is expected to launch within the next few months, is designed to teach students hands-on cooking skills, learning from certified teaching chefs using Oliver’s recipes and teaching style. “We fundamentally believe in educating students about building healthy eating habits through the use of healthy cooking techniques and sustainable ingredients,” Montell said.

For the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, the program at Stanford is the next step in its effort to educate students of all ages about cooking and eating well. The foundation offers extensive teaching materials for K-12 classes and was instrumental in helping pass a law in Britain that requires secondary schools to teach all students basic cooking skills. But the Stanford program will be the foundation’s first foray into working at the university level.

Oliver hopes the classes will help students incorporate healthy cooking and eating habits well into the future. The challenge is to inspire students to incorporate and sustain good eating habits in their busy lives, he said: “We want them to stay passionate about food while they’re doing other stuff.”

In noting Stanford’s long history of developing leaders in many fields, Oliver said it’s important that those leaders have a foundation in strong eating habits.

Added Montell: Stanford’s 7,000 undergraduate students will consume roughly 200 million meals in their lives. “If you can influence the current students over the life of their meals, you will influence their ability to impact others as well.”

In addition to providing meals at dining facilities throughout campus, Stanford Dining supports the university’s academic mission of creating living and learning environments for students. Among Stanford Dining’s efforts is the Dining Ambassadors program. These paid student positions help build student community in the dining halls by promoting wellness, healthy eating habits and sustainability. Some of the dining ambassadors were on hand for Thursday’s risotto cooking experience with Oliver.

The celebrated chef, who turns 40 this year, seemed as interested in hearing from the students as they were eager to learn from him. “What do you want to learn?” he asked. “What do you want to be amazing at in the kitchen?”

Said student Andrew Beckman: “I want to be able to have kale and chard not taste like kale and chard.”

Oliver had a ready answer for the aspiring cook: “Dressing and sauces are your best friend.”