Jamie Oliver: Mentor Extraordinaire

January 5th, 2010

Jamie Oliver caught my attention last month when he received the prestigious TED Prize for his work to “create change on both the individual and governmental level.” I had been aware of his work to encourage people in England to make healthier choices in their lifestyle and diet. Many of you are probably aware of Oliver’s efforts to ban unhealthy food in England’s schools in favor of a diet based on fresh, nutritious fare.

Fewer people may be familiar with Fifteen Foundation, which Oliver started in 2002. Each year his foundation trains teens in the restaurant business. Most significant to me is that these teens often have criminal records, a history of drug use, and other high-risk behavior. At first glance these youth don’t necessarily commend themselves to the culinary arts. What’s clear is that Fifteen Foundation is the vehicle for human enrichment. While Fifteen’s cadets become exceptional chefs, more importantly the Foundation encourages youth to develop character, self-respect, and ambition.

Trusting relationships between mentors and young people are at the heart of this remarkable enterprise. The training process utilizes an apprenticeship model in which the master chef shadows the apprentice. Mentor-chefs introduce youth to food, farming, and cooking. Throughout the apprenticeship they also help the youth with a range of personal challenges.

None of this good work would be possible without a funadamental shift in perspective on the part of Oliver and his staff. Most of the world sees these youth as destined to a life of crime, drug use, and dependency on government resources. Fifteen Foundation views youth through a different lens–seeing beyond the exterior and behavior, the coarseness and tattoos, to unique humans endowed with brilliance, gifts, and promise.

Eating good food is not only healthy, it can also be beautiful. Oliver, through the vehicle of food, is introducing youth to a higher plane of living. I hope he inspires you as he has me, and that we all can find ways to emulate his quality of mentorship in our own relationships.

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