Jamie Oliver is one of the UK's most famous chefs, gaining acclaim on a global scale through his cookery shows and books, his involvement with the Fifteen Foundation and his school meals campaign. Now he intends to take on high-street restaurant operators. Kerstin Kühn reports
Jamie Oliver has been an easy target over the years for lazy commentators bashing him for supposed overexposure, but no one can deny that he's made a success of everything he's done.
In a wide-ranging interview with Caterer, he has now revealed that the next challenge will be the high street, with the launch of a new restaurant concept called Jamie's Italian.
The move marks the former Naked Chef's first restaurant venture under his ownership, after he helped to launch the Fifteen restaurants in London, Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne, which are owned by the charitable Fifteen Foundation.
But the restaurant launch won't mean Oliver moving away from his involvement in the charity, which turns five this month. He insisted he would always remain passionate about his "baby", and hoped to grow the social business over the next few years. Oliver remains a trustee of the foundation and said he would continue to be actively involved in guiding the restaurants and the young people as well as donating funds.
Goals and aspirations
"Everyone from my father to my lawyer and accountant told me not to do Fifteen, but whether it was age, stupidity or just a wonderful vision and belief, it turned out to be something incredibly special," he said. "Fifteen will always be a part of me but I've realised now that it's time for me to do my own thing and achieve my own goals and aspirations. And that can only be me on my own."
The first Jamie's Italian outlet will open in Bath in March and will be housed in a Georgian property in the city centre. The second site has been secured in a 1970s office block in Brighton with a third restaurant in Cambridge to follow. Other locations are likely to include university cities across the UK, including Oxford, Glasgow and Cardiff, with a view to opening about 20 outlets in the next five years.
However, Oliver said Jamie's Italian would be more of a restaurant collection than a chain, and the number of outlets wouldn't be much higher than 20. "This isn't going to be the British equivalent of the Wolfgang Puck operation in the USA and you won't find a Jamie's Italian on every high street in the country," he said, adding that a restaurant in London would also be unlikely. "Jamie's Italian won't be in competition with Fifteen, but will be aimed much more at a family market, taking on Carluccio's, La Tasca, Strada and the like."
The restaurants will serve classic Italian food at affordable prices inspired by the dishes in Oliver's cookery books. The menu will offer a range of pasta dishes freshly prepared on site, breads from Oliver's south London Flower Station bakery, antipasti, salads, grills and Italian desserts. Pasta dishes are likely to be priced between £5 and £8, with lunch costing about £10 a head, including drinks.
"It's all about bringing my food to the public and offering them the best value for money they can get," Oliver said. "I'm putting my name on the line and the restaurant will have to offer the best quality meal diners have had at that cost because otherwise I'll have failed."
On the subject of failure, there's been a lot of negative press surrounding Oliver's school dinners campaign, with a report by education watchdog Ofsted last week suggesting his revolution had failed to persuade children to opt for healthy school meals. It followed similar reports from the School Food Trust and the Local Authority Caterers Association, the latter of which suggested take-up was at its lowest since records began in 1944.
But while Oliver admitted there had been problems with the healthier menus, he said there had also been huge achievements and that, overall, things had "definitely improved".
"It's simply not true that the school dinners campaign has failed," he said. "It was never going to be easy but as far as I'm concerned everything is going as planned. And that includes the problems. If things were looking really bad, I'd be worried - I'm not."
Oliver revealed that he plans to make another TV documentary on school dinners to look at what's gone wrong and where things need to be improved. In the meantime he wants to observe what and how the Government delivers.
"I'll always be connected to school dinners, and of course at times people will praise me for my work and at other times they'll point the finger at me," he said. "Overall, things have definitely improved and instead of hundreds of great examples of schools offering healthy food to children, there are now thousands of great examples."