Jamie’s toughest customers at home

I don’t know about you but I find nothing more soul destroying than having the meal I’ve slaved over for hours (well at least 30 minutes), pushed to the side by my ungrateful sons.

‘Ewww, I don’t like this,’ James declares, without even touching it. ‘I want a peanut butter sandwich.’

Over the past year I’ve taken steps to lift my game in the kitchen … and if I’m honest it had a fair way to lift.

I invested in a miracle machine, otherwise known as The Thermomix and I enrolled in a 10-week cooking course at the Jamie Oliver Ministry of Food in Ipswich, Queensland.

The wonder that is the Thermomix needs an entire post all to itself to satisfactorily explain why it is so wonderful. Custard, pastry, dips, bread, sorbet, Thai curry … you name it this thing makes it (with a small amount of help from me). Maggie Beer eat your heart out.

So today I will focus on the Jamie O cooking school. The man’s a genius. I first interviewed him back in 2000 in his pukka tukka Naked Chef days. But for me his best work has come more recently through his food revolution, which teaches the masses how to cook well on a budget. That’s what his Ministry of Food is all about.

It offers cheap ($10/class) lessons in cooking basic, wholesome meals on a budget.

Over the 10 weeks we cooked a green chicken curry from scratch (paste and all), we roasted a chook (amazing), we did a mean stir fry and much more. I actually enjoyed myself and have found a new interest (I won’t go so far as to say passion) for cooking.

So when the opportunity arose earlier this year to meet Jamie again and interview him I accepted, keen to see how the pro deals with the big issues … getting his kids to eat his meals.

He’s a father of four – three girls and a boy – and he’s always putting up great pictures on Instagram of his kids and their family veggie patch.

He may have cooked for celebrities, Presidents and Prime Ministers, but he told me that some of his toughest customers are at home. Happily I discovered that if he doesn’t serve meals that are the right shape and colour his kids won’t eat them. (So glad I’m not the only one facing this problem).

Here are his top tips for being a star in the kitchen.

Jamie’s Ministry of Food is about encouraging people to have the confidence and skills to cook simple, healthy meals – where should we start?
The pantry is your window of opportunity. For about $70 you can get a fairly robust pantry set up – spices, condiments, oils vinegars, this and that. None of this stuff goes off so you’re never going to waste it and it means you’re geared up and ready to go. If you get a bit of fish or chicken you can take it to Spain, Asia, India, Europe – wherever you want to go. Getting your pantry set up is an under-rated thing.

You’re a big advocate of preparation, what’s the best way for home cooks to succeed and save money?
I think sitting down for 15 minutes and doing your weekly shop is like boring but massively essential for saving money. Every person in this country will have a mate somewhere who is a Ninja list writer. Just go and watch them do their list. Generally women are amazing at it and the ones who are good at it are like Yoda.

Who does most of the cooking in your house?
Jools cooks for the kids brilliantly, she rattles the kids’ meals out like a flipping Ninja. She gets all the elements in a pan or a steamer, she gets the portion control bang on – she’s like a militant.
But if I’m home I always cook, she always leaves it to me because she’s not a very good adult cook. I can say that because I’m in Australia and it will never get home. That’s more about confidence really because she just gets me to do it. She’s only cooked for me two or three times in our 18 year marriage and it’s the same thing every time. It’s a stew, it’s not the nicest thing in the world but I tell her it’s lovely. I generally sneak in and pimp it up a bit but generally it’s pretty unsaveable.

You have four children aged two to nine, how do you encourage them to eat well?
God almighty my house is like a war zone. Half the time we love them, half the time we wonder why on earth we did it. It’s just chaos. We’re trying to be organised and get them to do homework and the other stuff they have to do. There’s no rule book, it’s really a philosophy of trying to get into your kids’ heads – even if it’s talking about junk food, or food that they like. What do they like about it, is it crunchy and soft or is it cheesy and sweet? Get your children involved, have a laugh, it’s no big deal. My kids go into the kitchen for two reasons – one because they want to at certain times and two because I make them when they don’t want to. I get them involved, laying the table, clearing it away, using a vegetable peeler, getting a jug of water and squeezing a bit of lemon into it. I get them using their hands and making them agile. Obviously I’m talking about four and three-year-olds – now the older ones are eight and nine and they’re brilliant, perfect free labour. But they’re still a pain in the arse at times, they’re still kids.

Most kids go through food phases – what about yours?
Absolutely. They went through phases of not liking anything green, that never lasts. Poppy will only eat certain salads, nothing with too much crunch to it, nothing too mustardy. Petal is three and if you put something down that’s not the right shape, or quite where it should be, it’s the biggest nightmare. We gave her a little bit of mashed potato and just by pure luck it formed a circle on the plate. But every time she ate it it wasn’t in a circle anymore so she kept crying because it wasn’t in a circle. I couldn’t quite explain to her that we weren’t going to be able to resolve this problem. I don’t think it’s ever easy with kids, or that it was supposed to be, but after 10 years I think we’re in quite a good place now.

What’s your advice to busy mums and dads trying to put healthy meals on the table?
The average family has got so much to worry about so it’s almost like the food bit has to be on autopilot. Really the most important thing is you’ve got to know how to cook a couple of things. This centre, the Ministry of Food, really represents a handful of dishes – the Mothership Recipes – recipes you can swap things out for. Things like mince meat can go into bolognaise, lasagne, jacket potatoes, or a lovely cottage pie. Recipes are really empowering for people. When you can make food that’s better than a takeaway then you’re laughing.

When the kids are going crazy and you’re pushed for time what are your favourite fall-back recipes?
I do the simplest pasta with garlic, tomatoes and parmesan, the kids go mad for it every time. Depending on what’s in season I’ll throw in some herbs, maybe some crispy bacon in the base, a little bit of asparagus, or some olives. You can change it in a billion ways.
If I have a bit more time I do a stir fry with a bit of meat or fish, rattle out some noodles, spice it in various ways, or you can put a stew together in five or six minutes and cook it for four to six hours, so you can go to work for the day and come home and you’ve got something brilliant.

Check out the Ministry of Food website here and do yourself a favour and book into a class. Your kids will love you for it.