Into the Wild With... Oliver English

By Faran Krentcil

7 min read

Oliver English Food

“Food isn’t just about food,” says Oliver English—and it’s a little weird coming from him. The son of renowned restauranteurs, he’s also a trained chef whose early career was all about opening hotspots and curating menus around the world. But as English edged closer to Food Network glory, he realized his mission might be bigger than winning Iron Chef. “Food is culture. Food is community. Food is love—isn’t that what you say at Wild Elements?” (Yes!) “And food is also environmental and human health. That connection means food can, and should, change the world. So, you know, let’s do it.”

Oliver’s newest project is Feeding Tomorrow, a documentary that links people and planetary wellness with animal welfare, regenerative farming, and local land empowerment. (You might recognize climate nutritionist Lisa McDowell as one of the featured experts.)

As the holidays ramp up our cooking (and eating) activities, we spoke with Oliver about eating burgers in the desert, hanging out with goats in India, and whether House of the Dragon belongs in your kitchen routine.

There’s so much food content on TV. Why do we need another food movie?
Well, it’s not a contest like Top Chef. This is a look at the interconnectedness of food and so many other issues. And it can get really overwhelming if you only look at the problems. So Feeding Tomorrow is about finding food innovators making positive change. Yes, we want you to think about where your food is coming from, and how you can support equitable food systems. But we also want you to see how many people are already fighting for change and winning! 

How did you decide to make a movie?
So six years ago, I was living and working in Abu Dhabi. I was at one of the restaurants I worked with, and I ordered a big steak, potatoes, salad, wine… Halfway through my meal, I looked down at all this food and I thought, kind of out of the blue, “Wait, where did this come from?” I realized I was in the desert, and on my plate were 6 countries worth of food. There are burger joints everywhere. I’m like, “How did this get here? What was wasted? Why have I never asked this before?!” I felt so disconnected from reality. I was kind of shook, to be honest with you. The next time I worked on a restaurant, I said, “We need a local farmer. We need a local food provider.” That was in the Bahamas, and they told me, “Yeah, we used to grow everything here. Now everything is shipping in plastic from other countries, and we burn the plastic over there.”

Yikes.
The person who told me that was the local chef we had hired. He was the only person to be plant based and the only person in his family to not have chronic disease. He communicated in a way that was powerful and loving and endearing. Not judge-y, but warm. I was like, “More people need to be farmers!” That was the beginning of Feeding Tomorrow.  

I can’t imagine not being obsessed with food—like, I am still dreaming of this spaghetti I had once at 3 A.M. in Milan.
Same.

But if food isn’t your “thing,” why should you still pay attention to it?
Because food is at the apex of nearly every world issue, and food is often the solution to a problem. The economy, the environment, health, mental health, cultural independence—this all connects back to food! And when we let the food industry degenerate into a destructive profit model, instead of a system modeled in nature and rooted in traditional and indigenous practices, we mess everything up… More resilient communities, more biodiversity, more peace? That all comes from better food systems. 

Is world peace connected to food in a direct line?
Let’s look at Ukraine, which is considered a “breadbasket” because it provides grain to so many parts of the world. One disruption to a breadbasket sends ripples through the entire food system. Now what if we have two disruptions? That has tangible global implications… We need to actively seek peaceful solutions around the globe not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the only way we can feed the planet.

What about personal wellness?
We face massive health issues when our food and water are contaminated. And we know that when people recovering from illness are given fresh, local fruits and vegetables, the outcomes are better. They feel better; they can heal faster. This isn’t just your mom being like, “Eat your apple; it’s good for you.” This is science. 

We’re like 10 minutes into the interview and we’ve already touched on war, famine, and illness. That’s heavy. How have you engaged with these issues without getting overwhelmed?
I think by making some noise, and by spotlighting the people who are already working with solutions to the problem. When enough of us know the system needs to make a change, we make a change. We’re starting to see those ripples right now. We can’t pretend like it’s not a terrifying future we’re facing, because that is the truth. But we have the power today to change it, and that starts with our food systems.

The small steps / big changes model is a huge part of Wild Elements. What are some of your small steps?
Growing some food yourself—a backyard, a window box, a hydroponic garden, a community plot, whatever. That’s huge. Composting is huge. Supporting small and local farms and restaurants whenever possible, that makes a big difference. If you do any or all of that, it means you’re participating in the resilience of the food system! You! I think that’s incredibly cool. 

You are a trained chef and a food lover. You are also a food access activist who knows that plant-based food is better for the planet. So… are you a vegetarian?
It's something I think about all the time. I grew up in restaurant family, and our food was traditional, American, heavy in animal protein. That’s the predominant American diet, right? Then after Abu Dhabi, I became a hardcore vegan. That was… interesting. I ate a lot of processed soy and felt terrible. I finally realized that was crap. Plus, tearing down a rainforest to grow soy isn’t good! And when I met more farmers, I started learning how farm animals are historically an essential part of healthy farm food systems. The entire system is rooted in plant and animal interactions. You get better biodiversity and food-producing capabilities with animals on your farm. Now, the industrial agricultural system is horrific. It needs to end… But I’ve been on farms around the world—Germany, India, America—and I’ve seen how animals like cows, goats, and chickens are an integral part of the ecosystem. They eat scraps. They reduce pest pressure. They eat a lot of weeds and scrub brush. So I’ve changed from hardcore vegan to vegetarian to plant-forward. 

We say “vegan adjacent.”
Exactly! I eat like 60% plants, and then fish if it’s local, eggs and cheese here and there, meat very rarely when I understand its source. You know, in the “blue zones” of Earth where life is the longest, it’s almost all plants and some fish. 

As a food expert, is “farm-to-table” overused, or still meaningful?
Ha! I think you always want to know where your food comes from—like, which farm? Where? But a push for locally grown, fresh food is ultimately a very good thing. And you know, there’s also farm-to-hospital-campus, farm-to-school…

Farm to fashion!
Absolutely. We can’t discount the importance of thriving farms not just for restaurants, but for the world. So please, yeah, keep talking about farms! 

Help. I want to make plant-forward food but I cannot cook.
Ohhh, you can cook. If you can read, you can cook. Start with something you already love to eat that’s really simple—like not too many ingredients, not too many steps. And set timers so you don’t forget to turn off the oven or stove. Timing is really everything.

Wait, you mean we have to pay attention when we cook?
Yeah. Sorry. Save Game of Thrones for later.