JAMIE OLIVER’S DOLCE VITA
‘I’m Italian at heart and in the kitchen!’
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.