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Jamie Oliver touts joys of healthy cooking and comfort food during Toronto visit

10/01/2014 04:39 EDT | Updated 12/01/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Jamie Oliver has been a vocal proponent for food education and healthier meals — particularly for kids — but the genial British chef still enjoys both cooking and curling up with more indulgent fare on occasion.

"I think perfection doesn't really exist and, actually, perfection is kind of unhealthy because it will send people crazy. Getting it right most of the time is the kind of spirit," a laidback Oliver said during an interview.

"If you're going to have a burger, God bless, there's nothing wrong with a burger if it's made out of good stuff. The thing is, when you give people the information to understand food, they just start consuming it in a totally different way.

"We love pizzas, we love cakes, we love burgers, but we also love a whole load of other stuff. And I think when you've got that mixture, that's a much better place to be."

The culinary star launched a partnership with grocery store chain Sobeys last fall aimed at encouraging Canadians to eat healthier, anchored by sales of Oliver-branded food items as well as recipes and cooking tips posted online. Oliver was in Toronto on Wednesday for the unveiling of the grocer's Better Food Fund, which sees Sobeys co-developing Home Cook Heroes, a national food skills program for Canadian teens, in partnership with Free The Children.

The energetic Oliver led a cooking demonstration for local students who showcased their culinary skills with guidance and encouragement from the star chef.

Oliver said he makes growing, gathering and preparing food a routine with his own four children. As he's worked on both sides of the Atlantic to help improve school lunches and expand food knowledge, he said he's encouraged by the progress made by people embracing healthier fare. He is optimistic youngsters can not only learn but also be leaders when it comes to better food habits.

"I really believe that this is the first generation of kids who have the capacity to teach parents and make change," Oliver said.

"I started cooking when I was eight. And like kids are with dancing or BMX riding or anything else they're doing, kids are really able. They really can cook if you just encourage them. And we shouldn't wrap them up in cotton wool and overprotect them. We should get them involved, get their hands dirty."

While he continues to trumpet healthier eats, Oliver's newest cookbook focuses on guiltier pleasures.

"Jamie's Comfort Food" (HarperCollins) is a collection of nostalgic, nurturing dishes aimed at warming both the soul and the belly, most of which, he writes, aren't "super-fast" nor for everyday cooking.

Oliver said the book features foods he's loved throughout his life, and that he also reached out via social media to ask others about their favourite comfort dishes.

"I wanted the book to be like the greatest hits, and I gave more space to every recipe. And it allowed me to be much more geeky and eccentric about: 'How do you achieve perfection? How do you get that home run? How do you get that Sunday lunch that just knocks everyone's socks off?'

"As cocky as it sounds, I think this is the best book I've ever written. I don't know if I'll ever write anything as good as it again," he added. "I think it really speaks to people."

Oliver said when he's in need of having his spirits raised, the arrabbiata dish featured in "Jamie's Comfort Food" — which he described as a "simple, cheap pasta" — is his go-to.

"The ritual of making the chili sauce is like no other. And you kind of braise off these whole chilies, so it's a really rounded, gentle heat ... it uplifts you. That's the kind of dish that I kind of curl up in the corner of a sofa and just have on my own — and no distraction.

"But then of course, sometimes, it's ritualistic. Some of this food you spend time making and serving and it's very ritualistic. Sometimes it's indulgent, like cakes and desserts. So I quite like that with comfort food there's these different gears that can play, and I think that's what makes it kind of special."

Canadians will be seeing even more of the Oliver brand with the opening of the first North American location of Jamie's Italian slated for next spring at Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Oliver teamed with Toronto's King Street Food Company, owners of Buca and Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse, to bring Jamie's Italian across the pond.

Despite having more than 40 Jamie's Italian locations, mostly in the United Kingdom, and several other restaurants to his credit, Oliver admitted opening a restaurant is "a very vulnerable and scary thing." He had high praise for chef Rob Gentile who will be helping spearhead the Canadian launch.

"The fact that I'm doing it with Rob just makes it super exciting. I trust him 100 per cent. I know he's going to look after my baby.

"We're going to open in February hopefully — fingers crossed — and the nice thing is pretty much anyone can afford to come. It's a really accessible, lovely place to come."

Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

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