Lunch with Jamie Oliver. Pic: Fairfax Media.
Jamie Oliver is a celebrity chef, cookbook author and owner of the Jamie’s restaurant empire. His rise to fame began with his television show The Naked Chef and was followed by a cookbook that became a bestseller. He has strongly advocated healthy eating and cutting out junk food and in 2003 was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Oliver, 41, chatted to me about why he is back in Australia, his biggest hurdle and what excites him most about his food empire.
What are you visiting Australia for?
I’ve basically come over to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on buying back my Australian business, which was a franchise and they went into receivership. There was nothing wrong with the JI [Jamie’s Italian] business but it got dragged down with the mother ship and it’s never happened to me before so it’s a bit of new one for me. But the good news is that we bought it back and I’m now 100 per cent owner of my [Australian JI] restaurants, instead of a partner of my restaurants.
What was your first reaction when you first heard Keystone was going into receivership?
I was like OK, why? The business is really good, we are really busy, we get low grumbles, they are all profitable, so why? And then you just realise that you are part of a bigger picture and you can’t control it.
Was the plan to always buy Jamie’s Italian back?
Definitely for me, I’ve just never done it before and it’s not necessarily straightforward – other people wanted to buy it as well and that was challenging.
What are going to be the biggest changes to Jamie’s Italian restaurants?
There is now no difference to the UK and Aussie business and that’s a first, because internationally we always go with a partner because they have local knowledge and always we learn from them as well. The Aussie operators that used to own this business were brilliant but we are where we are and I think we are in an ever better place than we were before.
What can we expect on the new menu?
The JI menu is comfort food – we make pasta every day, we make our bread every day, we have got a long list of super-food salads, grills, steaks, pizza, antipasti. It’s not designed to be complicated or show off; it’s fun, dynamic comfort food for sure. But we try to be good value for money and be all over the welfare – farm visits and all of that stuff. They are busy, buzzy restaurants.
Do you have a favourite dish?
That’s a toughie, it’s like asking which one of your kids is your favourite! … I also like the menu to be predictable. Being predictable is almost underrated, everyone is always trying to be super f—ing cutting edge!
What motivates you to keep improving your culinary skills?
It’s a constant journey. I’ve just been in Puglia – I’ve been cooking with nonnas for the past 12 months on and off … it’s not about the recipe, it’s about the heart and the soul and what it means.
You have television shows, books, restaurants, the cookery schools and the endless merchandise. What excites you the most in the “Jamie” empire?
Back home at the ranch, it’s just a very creative, exciting thing to do … I cook every day, I’m writing most days, even designing a fry pan; it’s utterly exciting because it’s all to do with giving you a more [enjoyable] cooking experience. Everything that I do is energised by the ability to solve a solution, so I don’t see any difference between writing recipes, [creating] product … Ultimately, everything is about raising the bar. And for me, the concept of getting “non cooks” to have a go, it gets me really excited.
You’ve had a huge impact on British health food reformation. What are you most proud of?
I think having a general contribution … just changing the conversation, changing the tone, just moving things on a bit, is what I’m most proud of. But if it was a single thing, probably the school dinner campaign in the UK. We were feeding them s–t 190 days of the year and there were no standards, so to be central to the government creating those standards in the first place is amazing.
What’s been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?
So many! I think just resistance to change, humans just f—ing hate change, they really do. I’m not that bright; if you look at what I’ve done in the last 20 years, none of it is clever, it’s all just really basic – don’t feed kids s–t everyday! It’s not revolutionary, it’s really f—ing basic! … It always amazes me how basic my challenges are.
You married your childhood sweetheart, Juliette Norton, in 2002. How did you know she was the one?
I just did; I’ve been with her since I was 18 and I remember the first time I ever met her, I absolutely fell in love with her and I think she has been on the whole journey with me from The Naked Chef on. She has been a pillar of strength for me. I couldn’t haven’t have done what I’ve done without her and she has always kept home and the kids down, which allows me to be more dynamic outside … She is a very private person, she is not outgoing, she’s not in the public eye like I jump around. We don’t talk about work when I go home, never. You would know more about my work life than she does. So we just keep it normal and simple. And it seems to work.
How do you juggle it all?
I have every weekend off, we have our holidays down and that’s a good start, and then I have a handful of girls who look after my time really brilliantly, and then we get amongst it. It’s a busy family now – five kids!
What else will get up to while you are in Sydney?
Squeeze in some lovely breakfasts. There are an amazing amount of people from my area who live in Sydney; we normally get them all together on my annual visit.
WE WENT TO Jamie’s Italian, Pitt Street, Sydney CBD
WE ATE “Classic Meat Plank” fennel salami, artisan mortadella, prosciutto and Angus bresaola, with mini buffalo mozzarella, pecorino and chilli jam, pickles, olives and purple slaw
WE DRANK Vermentino, Margaret River
JAMIE WORE Private White jacket, Tiger jeans, Adidas sneakers
KATE WORE a Karen Walker dress.