On the eve of a visit to Australia to save his restaurants, Jamie Oliver reveals all.
Jamie Oliver is what he’d readily call a disruptor. He likes to mix things up a bit, do the unexpected, and fight for the things he believes in. From debuting on television screens at 24 with The Naked Chef in 1999 to the multitudinous roles he plays today as chef, media star, cookbook author, restaurateur and “food revolutionary”, tirelessly campaigning for better food in our homes and schools, Oliver has often chosen the least conventional path.
Like deciding to buy back, rather than sell, his portfolio of six Australian Jamie’s Italian restaurants after the operating partner, Keystone, went into liquidation last year. “I never questioned for a minute I’d walk away,” Oliver says over an early morning coffee at the chain’s Piccadilly satellite in London, one of 64 Jamie’s Italian restaurants worldwide. The first one opened in 2008 with Oliver’s mentor, the Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo.
“In a way this is the best thing that could have ever happened because now we have nothing to prove,” he says. “The talent is there and everyone, including the customers and the staff, is better off with me being their sole boss.”
Oliver jets into Australia this week to breathe new life into the restaurants. The emphasis will be on locally sourced ingredients and soulful dishes, such as wild mushroom ravioli and oxtail lasagne, slow-roasted porchetta and “wobbly” panna cotta.
Being led by ingredients is, “not the way most people run a multiple-site business like ours,” he says.
“Jamie’s Italian is affordable with a really good heart, serving dishes you want to come back for,” Oliver continues. The prawn linguine is one of the chain’s best-selling dishes, from Dubai to Taiwan. “It’s not just the handmade pasta and sustainable prawns that make it special, but the broth made from the prawn heads, saffron, chilli and wine. That’s the allure.”
His visit is set to be busy. “We’ll get all the staff back up to speed and bring all the restaurants up to scratch visually,” he says of the branches in Sydney, Parramatta, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.
He appreciates the can-do spirit of his Aussie staff, too. “When you see a fully loaded antipasti plank going out, served by some young, cute secondgeneration Aussie Italian with a bit of swagger, who’s all over knowing where stuff comes from, it works.”
Australians have always loved Oliver for his no-fuss approach. “When I first visited, about 16 years ago, I went straight from the airport to 1,600 people at a book signing. It was absolutely f***ing nuts.”
Over the years, his fans have stuck with him. He’s also a regular contributor to delicious. “I think the Aussies felt that, sensibility-wise, I was more like them. I was about, ‘Don’t get uptight, don’t start julienning stuff, it’s just a nice dinner, so put your effort in the right place, it’s about mates and having a few bevvies,’” he says. “I still think my energy is more Aussie than British if I’m honest.”
In just under two decades, with over 39 million books sold worldwide, dozens of TV series and a large restaurant group that also includes Fifteen, Barbecoa, delis and airport outposts, Oliver is now quietly considering what he’ll tackle over the next 20 years.
Nurturing talent is one of his fortes, something he’d like to explore in Australia. “I want to really look at the young talent we have, and see how I can best support them,” he says, whether it’s funding for a new restaurant or helping his chefs to grow. “I want the next 20 years to be about them, not me. I’ve had enough of me,” he says, laughing.
Also high on his agenda is educating children in the importance of good nutrition. Oliver and wife Jools have five children aged from nine months to 15, so it is a subject close to his heart.
“Knowing where food comes from and how it affects their bodies is a powerful thing,” he says. He cites Australian food doyenne Stephanie Alexander as a huge inspiration. “She’s been leading the way a generation ahead of me,” he says. With burgeoning interest here and abroad in elevating home economics to the level of maths and science, Oliver believes the way forward is to start early.
“The best bang for your buck is actually teaching kids in primary,” he says. “You can teach kids addition, subtraction, multiplication and pie charts all through making actual pie.”
The energetic identity has his finger in many pies. He has campaigned against the evils of excess sugar consumption among children, shed light on the troubling link between obesity and disadvantaged kids, and established Ukharvest, a spin-off of Ozharvest, Ronni Kahn’s charity that ensures that good food doesn’t go to waste. “We’re only on this planet for a pretty short time and I see my place as having a use,” he says.
Right now, it’s about showcasing the authenticity of Italian food. “Somehow Italians have the ability to make food inclusive, focusing on the ingredients but not being so uptight that they have to control nature,” he says. “The Italians have a verve for life that keeps them going. It’s how I feel about Australia, too. Both are my happy places, both my little bits of sunshine.”