IN HUNTINGTON, WEST VIRGINIA
I FIRST watched him on television years ago, and immediately liked what I saw.
A cheeky, baby-faced Brit with rosy cheeks and ruby lips prancing around his kitchen, energetically whacking slabs of meat and pounding garlic cloves as he whipped up quick, 'pukka' meals.
And now, I was cooking in Jamie Oliver's kitchen. Well, at least the kitchen that the British celebrity chef set up in Huntington last year to show residents that cooking up a fresh nutritious meal was a cinch not a chore.
His efforts to wean overweight locals off processed and fast foods were captured in a six-part reality television series called Food Revolution, which debuted on March 26 on ABC.
Quite a bit of the action happened in Jamie's Kitchen.
It was where the chef conducted free cooking demonstrations, spread his healthy eating message, and where hundreds dropped in to learn how to chop, season and stir-fry.
After filming wrapped up and Jamie left in April, the facility was renamed Huntington's Kitchen and is now run by a local non-profit organisation, Ebenezer Medical Outreach.
I decided to put his recipes to the test and signed up for a class. On the menu: Jamie's chicken fajitas.
-- ST PHOTO: TRACY QUEK
The Kitchen has four gas-powered cooking stations for student use. Other than myself, three other women were also taking the class that day.
First we gathered around the main station to watch culinary student Joe Crokett, 24 - one of the Kitchen's two full-time staffers along with manager Jill Moore, 28 - do a demonstration.
Even for a novice in the kitchen like myself, the recipe seemed simple enough.
It involved slicking half a green pepper, half a red onion, and cutting a skinless chicken breast into thin strips. Joe threw the ingredients in a bowl and added olive oil, ground cumin, paprika, pepper and salt, and a dash of lime juice. Everything went into a hot wok.
We returned to our stations to try it out while Joe and other Kitchen volunteers stood nearby, ready to assist.
After a few minutes of stir-frying came the taste test. We piled the chicken and vegetable mixture onto a flour tortilla, grated cheddar cheese over, added a dollop of sour cream and tucked in.
The verdict from all four students: lovely jubbly! As Jamie would say.
My classmates seemed like naturals at the stove but I learned later that that is not always the case.
'There are people who have come in who don't know how to crack an egg, or who have never touched raw chicken meat in their lives,' said volunteer Becky Yewchuk, 29.
'There was this very well-groomed lady who just froze in front of the stove. She didn't know the first thing to do,' she recalled.
Her anecdotes drove home what I had been hearing from people in Huntington about how cooking meals from scratch is a dying tradition and one factor that has led to the prevalence of obesity here.
'We hope to bring cooking back into fashion by showing people how easy, rewarding and healthier it is,' said manager Jill Moore.
Since the Kitchen opened in February after renovations, almost 100 adults and children have signed up for classes based on Jamie's recipes.
Adults can register for 10 classes over 10 weeks, each session lasting about an hour. Children aged between five and 15, accompanied by their parents, are offered five classes over five weeks.
Recipes taught all come from Jamie’s cookbooks. Meat and fish dishes include 'Spanish-style grilled steak', and 'Quick Salmon Tikka with Cucumber Yoghurt'. Vegetable dishes such as 'dressed asparagus' and 'buttered spinach' are also demonstrated.
A donation of US$10 a class is recommended. The Kitchen provides all the ingredients, equipment and even offers fresh local produce for sale on Thursdays.
Students often leave with leftovers of their dishes in doggy bags, but that day, I didn't need one.
What I did take with me were recipe cards and an appetite for trying them out in my own kitchen.
Read more on the Saturday Special here.