Jamie Oliver on clootie dumpling and why everyone deserves a good neighbourhood trattoria like the one he’s opening in Edinburgh
Before Jamie Oliver slides into a red leather booth in his Edinburgh branch of Jamie’s Italian for our interview he asks if I want a coffee. I tell him that the staff have already explained to me that, with the restaurant not yet open, they’re still to take delivery of the coffee machine. He is undeterred.
“Tea then?” he suggests. “Cheeky elderflower water?” At this he does a comedy cheeky elderflower water dance and I’m reminded that the Jamie on-screen – the lovely jubbly Essex chef everyone wants to have over for supper – is Jamie off-screen too.
He’s in Edinburgh for one day only, visiting the cavernous Jamie’s Italian in the newly refurbished Assembly Rooms on George Street. It’s his second restaurant in Scotland (the Glasgow branch opened in 2010) and, with less than two weeks to go, it’s no longer a building site, but not yet a restaurant.
In the room next to us, 100 staff are going through Jamie’s service boot camp with his mentor, Gennaro Contaldo, whom he met at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant in London before his television career took off. Groups of young wait staff sit huddled around piles of prosciutto, mozzarella and olives as they’re told how dishes are prepared, which areas of Italy the produce comes from, how to address customers.
To the soundtrack of Contaldo’s booming Italian/Cockney-inflected voice and the giggles of staff next door, Oliver and I chat over a cheeky elderflower water. He is the Jamie Oliver I hoped he would be, the same one who grins out from the pages of his cookbooks and magazines and banters with his wife, children, friends and staff on screen.
Taller than I’d imagined and looking younger than his 37 years in the flesh (possibly thanks to the green anorak, trucker cap in his back pocket and rainbow-hued trainers he’s wearing) he talks in an enthusiastic stream of consciousness, whether he’s venting about “grumpy, miserable, bully-like chefs” or laughing at himself for being “a complete geek” about food: “I try not to express it too much at home because my wife would probably just want to fire me.”
The point of Jamie’s Italian is to give people good food at an affordable price, much like a decent neighbourhood trattoria in Italy. Along with much of his produce, he sourced the mozzarella himself and assures me it’s “the best in the country” but is enthusiastic about Scottish producers approaching his head chef in Edinburgh to supply the restaurant.
Above all, he pushes the kind of simplicity that allows the produce to shine and diners to enjoy “a £40 meal for £20.” He is entirely uninterested, he insists, in the business of making the kind of food that makes “lardy rich folk even lardier.”
“All this Michelin star stuff is total bullshit,” he says, slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other. “As chefs you’re often trained like ‘Michelin star, Michelin star, Michelin star’ and yes, great, wonderful, I bow to you, I salute you. Wear your hat, wear your badges, have your awards. Whatever.”
“But for me,” he adds, “what’s wonderful about the food industry and what’s incredible about Scotland is just sitting there in this incredible larder. When I see Scotland I see a larder and for 20 years I’ve bought my hero products from here.” He counts them off on his fingers as he names them: “scallops, game, wild mushrooms, fish, langoustines...”
Then there’s clootie dumpling. He discovered it last year and has all but ditched Christmas puddings in favour of the traditional Scottish cloth-encased fruity pudding. “It’s dramatic and delicious and you can use it in so many ways,” he says, as animated as if he’s talking straight to camera. “I’ve used it under game birds, toasted with lovely pan gravies, I’ve used it with cheese plates, I’ve had it just as is, with a cup of tea and butter.”
Born and raised in Essex, he discovered his passion for food in the kitchens of The Cricketers, the family pub run by his parents. He left school at 16, without qualifications, went to college to gain an NVQ in home economics and got his first job as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant, where he first met Contaldo.
He later moved on to The River Cafe where he worked as a sous chef and was spotted by the BBC in 1997 after making an appearance in a documentary about the renowned restaurant. He soon went on to make The Naked Chef – a series about stripping back dishes to their basic elements – and the accompanying cook book became a best seller in the UK.
Dozens of programmes and 16 cook books later (including 30 Minute Meals, one of the fastest-selling books of all time) he is the most influential and best-loved telly chef in Britain. His television series are shown in more than 40 countries around the world and he has been awarded an MBE, thanks in no small part to his campaign to make school dinners in the UK more healthy. This year’s Sunday Times Rich List valued his worth at around £150 million, though he insists that “I don’t have nest eggs or anything; everything I’ve got is in my restaurants”.
His career has been, he says, “an amazing journey, like three lives.”
“It’s very hard to maintain the public side of it...” he pauses. “It’s always hard to explain because obviously in the public eye everything’s on supercharge. So emotions and opportunities, it’s like they’re not normal. The bad bits are not normal and the good bits are not normal. So first and foremost [I want to] maintain a career where I grow and keep trying new things and actually, as I’m growing, take the public on a journey.”
It’s been quite a ride so far. He’s been famous for most of his adult life and we’ve watched him develop from scooter-riding cheeky chappie to eloquent campaigner taking on the government. We’ve seen him marry Jools, his childhood sweetheart, and become a father, and we’ve watched his apple-cheeked children – Poppy Honey, ten, Daisy Boo, nine, Petal Blossom, three and Buddy Bear, one – munching contentedly on his culinary creations on screen from the comfort of our living rooms.
When it comes to balancing work with family, the divide is simple; he works incredibly long hours during the week but weekends are family time, with no exceptions. In a 2008 interview Jools explained: “Maybe one evening every two weeks Jamie comes home and we eat together. I’m used to it now and it’s fine. But the weekends are ours and I just look forward to them. Jamie is religious about keeping the weekends for us, for being a dad.”
Today, however, on a wet Tuesday morning, it’s all about work. He’s already cased the joint, checking out the fittings, trying out the new chairs. He’s pleased with the space – lofty ceilings, deep red walls and gold chandeliers contrasted with homely touches and bistro-esque furniture – and has been chatting with the staff all morning, getting them fired up, building their confidence.
Contaldo teases him in front of the 100-strong audience as our photographer snaps his portrait, but he gives as good as he gets and before long, everyone’s giggling. The Edinburgh restaurant, which he describes as “one of my favourites” is one of more than 15 branches of Jamie’s Italian in the UK, though there will soon be more than 25 (and things won’t grow much beyond that). The group employs around 3,000 staff and he feels the pressure of that a little, though he says he’s “not a worrier, never have been.”
His primary reason for setting up the restaurant chain in the first place was simple: he didn’t want to rest on his laurels: “About six years ago, I just sort of felt ‘do I shrink back and become this smug little kid wallowing in his own ‘oh ain’t that great’ or actually...”
He went for the alternative; a restaurant chain which, as many of his past projects have done, saw him putting his reputation on the line. It’s not surprising that he chose the challenging route instead of the easy option. Despite the carefree exterior, the cheeky smile, the bacon sarnies, he is an incredibly driven individual. He has said in the past that Jools doesn’t “get” what drives him, though when I ask about his motivations, he says simply “the food and the people.”
Alongside his family these are the two subjects he talks about most passionately. He’ll go into excited, intricate detail when describing, for example, the process of making fresh pasta, but equally he talks animatedly about taking on young kids from normal backgrounds, building their confidence and watching them shine.
He’s keen for his staff to emulate the ease, enthusiasm and friendliness of Italian waiters and insists that the Scots do it best.
“The Scottish swagger, when it’s at full pelt is near to the Italian swagger when it’s at full pelt,” he says with a laugh. “The last time I was in [the Glasgow restaurant] we had these two Scottish girls [serving us] and I listened to them explaining everything on the plates in the most quick, beautiful, brilliant way with this lovely Glaswegian twang. And I’m like ‘shit, it’s as near as damn it to being in Italy.”
Next door, I can see Contaldo holding up a red welly boot as some sort of teaching aid. The staff are in hysterics. More wooden boards piled high with food are brought out, elevated on the tables on cans of tomatoes, and everyone tucks in eagerly. When Contaldo sees that I’m not eating he immediately has a plate of cured hams, olives and cheeses brought over.
He presses his thumb to his fore and middle fingers in that inimitable Italian way as he describes the way the flavour of the mozzarella is enhanced with chilli and fresh mint. It’s difficult to know whose enthusiasm is rubbing off on whom, but it’s clear that whatever the source, it’s brimming over.
To have a chain restaurant operating at such a high level would have been unheard of when Oliver took his first steps in the industry, but it’s testament to the food revolution Britain has undergone in the past two decades in homes, schools, shops and restaurants, that it’s possible. He’s pleased, he says, that a chef’s white jacket commands respect in a way it didn’t used to do.
“Oh the shift has been dramatic,” he says. “I remember 15-20 years ago when I graduated from college... it was dark out there, mate. And it was all about feeding really rich people very well. Very port and cream-heavy, foie gras-y food. It was about the best of the best and actually that’s not what nourishing a community is about.”
He’s leaning forward now, elbows on the table between us, palms down, talking as quickly and animatedly as the 23-year-old Naked Chef who burst on to our screens all those years ago.
He’s getting to “a point in my life where I’m slowing down” he says at one stage because he wants his kids to know who he is, “not ‘the guy off the telly’”. Having said that, the momentum of his drive, ambition, enthusiasm – whatever it is that propels him forward - keeps pushing him to take on new projects, open new restaurants, publicly challenge government ministers, and never, ever tire of any of it.
“It never gets boring, ever,” he says, slapping a hand on the table. “It only gets boring if you resign yourself to an easy life, to settling for the status quo, like some miserable f*cker who’s been doing it for 35 years and has seen better days. But if you put yourself into an exposed position where you’ve got a bit of creative influence? It’s just a joy.”
Jamie’s Italian in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms opens tomorrow. To book a table, tel: 0131-202 5452 or
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