Restau­rant res­cue:

On the eve of a visit to save his Aussie chain, Jamie shares his lat­est pas­sions

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - TASSLE LIVING -

J amie 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 UK Har­vest, a spin-off of OZ Har­vest, 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.”

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