‘I’m Ital­ian at heart and in the kitchen!’

Friday - - Front Page -

M en­tion his name and the words ‘pukka’ and ‘naked’ spring to mind. Jamie Oliver has long been the poster boy for all things fresh, nat­u­ral and de­li­cious. He’s cred­ited with mak­ing cook­ing cool for men – Bri­tish men at that, many of whom would rather be tuck­ing into a microwave meal or fish and chips. But the fa­ther of four – who’s over­hauled school din­ners and lunch­boxes in the UK, and spread his own take on whole­some ‘grub’ around the globe – in­sists he’s Ital­ian at heart.

Walk into his restaurants at Fes­ti­val City or Jumeirah Beach Ho­tel and you’ll be left in no doubt about his culi­nary pas­sion. Jamie’s Ital­ian is, not sur­pris­ingly, a fam­ily friendly, chic eaterie serv­ing Ital­ian clas­sics with a mod­ern twist.

“I guess it sounds cheesy but when I’m in Italy, I feel Ital­ian,” he says.

Here the award-win­ning culi­nary guru talks ex­clu­sively to Fri­day about his in­flu­ences, culi­nary jour­ney and how he wasn’t handed suc­cess on a plate.

How did your par­ents’ love for food in­flu­ence your ap­proach to it?

My par­ents own a beau­ti­ful coun­try pub in Es­sex, UK, which is where I grew up. I was lucky; it was a fan­tas­tic child­hood as I was sur­rounded by fresh food, great pro­duce and hum­ble but awe­some cook­ing. My par­ents love food and en­ter­tain­ing. My mum would do a big roast; we are a fam­ily of big eaters, but I never saw my par­ents stressed over cook­ing or en­ter­tain­ing, ei­ther at work or at home and that stuck with me.

You left school to pur­sue a cook­ing course. Why?

I was never great at school. As I got a bit older I be­came more and more in­ter­ested in food. Spend­ing time in the restau­rant’s kitchen, learn­ing new ways with food, ob­serv­ing people do­ing the prep­ping, cook­ing, even the in­ven­to­ries – it was all fas­ci­nat­ing. I was 16 when I joined the West­min­ster Cater­ing Col­lege and once I was there I loved it.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, you joined An­to­nio Car­luc­cio’s Neal Street restau­rant in Covent Gar­den, Lon­don, with a very spe­cific wish. Tell us about it.

When I was at cater­ing col­lege, to­wards the end of the course, we were all asked what we wanted to do. Ev­ery­one was com­ing up with all these amaz­ing restaurants they wanted to work at and I said I just wanted to learn how to make the per­fect pasta. I think a few people prob­a­bly laughed at me but one guy said that I had to go and track down Gen­naro Con­taldo in Neal Street and that he was the only guy to learn from. So I did just that. I joined them in the pastry sec­tion, but my real rea­son for be­ing there was to meet Gen­naro and learn to make pasta from the pasta mas­ter him­self! It was the best thing I we could do some­thing pretty spe­cial to­gether and we used to talk about it a lot. We wanted to do it prop­erly so it took a long time to get us into a po­si­tion where we had the right people on board to make it work. Open­ing our first restau­rant in Ox­ford five years ago was one of the scari­est, hap­pi­est and most ex­cit­ing mo­ments of my life. I re­mem­ber the doors open­ing and there be­ing a queue of people up the road. Gen­naro and I just looked at each other think­ing, “What have we done?!”

Be­ing Bri­tish, how did you de­cide Ital­ian was the way for­ward?

I’ve loved Italy since I was young. The love for food and zest for life that Ital­ian people have is gen­uinely in­fec­tious. The pas­sion they have for life is re­flected in their food. I guess it sounds cheesy but when I’m in Italy, I feel Ital­ian. That and be­ing men­tored by Gen­naro made it an easy de­ci­sion to do some­thing Ital­ian.

‘I’ve got a fan­tas­tic team who are brim­ming with amaz­ing ideas’

ever did in my ca­reer. To date, Gen­naro Con­taldo in­spires me ev­ery sin­gle day.

Then you moved to River Café and be­came part of a TV doc­u­men­tary. How did that change your life?

It was af­ter the River Café doc­u­men­tary that I was of­fered my own TV show. It was not some­thing that had been ac­tively on my mind, but I guess the TV pro­duc­ers saw some­thing. The con­cept be­hind The Naked Chef was cook­ing down to its bare es­sen­tials, be­ing hands-on, show­ing that cook­ing and en­ter­tain­ing did not have to be stress­ful.

Do you feel celebrity has af­fected you as an in­di­vid­ual and in the way you work?

I hope it hasn’t re­ally af­fected me as a per­son. I don’t think it has. As we’ve grown big­ger as a com­pany I’ve prob­a­bly learnt to lis­ten to those around me more. I’ve got a fan­tas­tic team who are brim­ming with amaz­ing ideas. It’s a real team ef­fort.

How did you con­ceive Jamie’s Ital­ian?

I al­ways said to Gen­naro that I thought

How do you en­sure your restaurants re­main prof­itable?

There’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion out there at the mo­ment be­cause times are tough. I call it cus­tomer war­fare. Across the globe, good food op­tions are aplenty. For me, the in­spi­ra­tion continues to come from ar­ti­sanal sup­pli­ers, the grow­ing ca­ma­raderie of other chefs, tech­nol­ogy and my trav­els.

How do you make sure your Dubai restaurants run to your ex­act­ing stan­dards?

The menu is all about re­ally sim­ple, bold Ital­ian food and while we add the odd lit­tle twist here and there, we keep it au­then­tic. We try to source our pro­duce lo­cally though, mak­ing use of all the amaz­ing in­gre­di­ents avail­able. Try­ing to be a good hus­band, dad and boss is a bit like jug­gling plates! That’s why I have an amaz­ing team who are my eyes and ears in the restaurants when I’m not there. I trust them im­plic­itly and hon­estly couldn’t do it with­out them.

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