LONG before “Masterchef” or “My Kitchen Rules”, there was Jamie Oliver.
Since he burst on to the cooking scene almost 17 years ago, the British celebrity chef has been nothing short of a phenomenon, writing 18 cookbooks, starring in 25 television series and opening 40 restaurants around the world.
Canberra will soon get a piece of the action when the hotly anticipated Jamie’s Italian opens next month and, in the lead-up, Jamie spoke exclusively to “CityNews” about his passion for Italian cuisine and why opening a restaurant in the capital was a “no-brainer”.
LAURA EDWARDS asks the questions.
Q: Why did you choose Australia for your restaurants, and why was Canberra chosen specifically?
A: I’ve been lucky enough to visit Australia on a number of occasions and have always had an incredible time – it’s a stunningly beautiful country, the welcome I received was second to none, and there’s so much fantastic produce available, that, for me it was an obvious choice. We launched in Sydney and it’s just been an amazing experience. And with Canberra being the capital and such a community driven city, opening there was a no brainer – the whole team are very excited!
Q. Why was Italian initially chosen as the cuisine?
A. I’ve loved Italy since I was a teenager. I know it sounds a bit corny, but when I’m in Italy I feel Italian!
Italians have such a passion for life and this is definitely reflected in their food. When I was at catering college, I really wanted to learn how to make the perfect pasta – and one of the teachers told me that there was only one man to learn this from: [chef] Gennaro Contado. I managed to get a job on the pastry section and wangled my way in to meet Gennaro. I honestly don’t think there’s anything about Italian cooking that he doesn’t know – he’s an absolute legend, and has been my mentor and dear friend ever since.
Q. How involved do you get in planning the menus?
A. I’m all over the menus, the design, everything from the seats to the napkins to the mozzarella. We’re always trying to keep the menu fresh, so I have meetings with my team every few months to tweak it and add exciting new seasonal dishes. We’ll normally spend a day in the kitchen playing around with ideas, then we’ll cook them all up, play around a bit more, cook them up again and so on. Some dishes we’ll all agree on straight away and some take a bit more time to perfect.
Q. Do you often try to come down to visit your Australian restaurants?
A. Yes, of course, and hopefully it won’t be too long before I can come back again. It is tricky as it’s so far away, but I’ve got a cracking team based in Oz that I’m in regular contact with so I’m confident that you guys are in good hands. I’ll be in touch every day throughout the opening, too, to see how it’s all going.
Q. Are you using any product from this region for Jamie’s Italian Canberra?
A. The provenance and quality of our produce is, above everything else, the most important part of Jamie’s Italian. Where possible we’ll buy locally and we’ve established relationships with some really brilliant Australian suppliers and producers. We take time to find suppliers who care as much about the produce, right through the process, as we do.
Q. What do you believe are the key factors that make your restaurants so successful?
A. I think it’s got to be a good balance of all those things. I really believe it’s important to keep evolving and not stand still or become complacent. I’m sticking with my resolve of great value, higher-welfare local produce. But more importantly, I’m trying to instill these values in all my staff so that they can show our customers that great value isn’t about discounting or using cheaper ingredients and compromising on standards or flavour – it’s about using your ingredients wisely and at the right time, to get the very best out of them.
Q. What professional achievement are you most proud of?
A. I’d say how many people we have managed to employ over the years. We now have over 3500 people in the group and I’m very proud of what we’ve managed to achieve.
Q. What are you currently working on?
A. We’ve just started a new partnership with Woolworths, which is incredibly exciting. Together we’re going to work really hard to inspire Aussies to cook more fresh food from scratch, safe in the knowledge that they’re using quality, affordable ingredients they can trust. Woolworths have agreed to remove caged eggs from their stores and branded products by the end of 2018 and also to stock just higher welfare chicken, which is a really amazing commitment. I’m thrilled that we’re working together.
Q. How different is the Australian approach to food and dining compared to the British?
A. I personally haven’t noticed a huge difference, apart from the obvious – the weather! I think both countries love to eat out and have a good time. Perhaps Australians prefer a slightly more relaxed style of cooking, but that’s more my kind of food anyway, so I love that.
Jamie’s Italian, 125 Bunda Street, Civic, will open on the second week of November.