INTERVIEW:Jamie Oliver, the chef who has become a global brand, talks to MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBYabout his young family, why he doesn’t want to work with his wife, what makes him ‘a bit of a geek’, and why he’s excited to be opening in Dublin
IF YOU WANT the inside track on the private life of Jamie Oliver, campaigning chef, restaurateur, TV presenter and author, forget trawling through the tabloids and peering at Hello! magazine. Just sign in to the Instagram app and you’ll have access to the family’s photo album. It’s all there: birthday parties, bathtime fun, back-to-school portraits, Petal’s first night in a real bed, Buddy having a go in Mum’s high heels.
Oliver and Jools, his wife of 12 years, are both enthusiastic photographers and share family snaps with their followers on the photo-sharing social networking site. It’s an epic show-and-tell, eagerly watched by almost 650,000 followers.
Earlier this year, Jools Oliver posted a photo of a school essay written by one of her daughters: “At first my mum refused to go out with him, but then my dad wished on a star and she said yes! Here’s a funny story of my mum and dad when they were going out. My dad was appearing on TV for cooking. He hired mum to be his editor, but fired her after a week because she spent all her time reading Vogue and not working!”
“That’s Poppy, that was hilarious, and it’s pretty much completely true,” Jamie Oliver says with a touch of parental pride, sipping fresh mint tea while speaking to The Irish Times during his visit to Dublin to launch Taste of Dublin and to drum up publicity for his first Irish restaurant, Jamie’s Italian.
The couple’s pictorial candour is surprising, given that official press shots of the family are rare. “Whenever I put anything on Twitpic, it just ends up in all the papers, even if it’s a crap picture, but with Instagram, they don’t. I think it’s a legal thing, thank the Lord,” says Oliver, who is responsible, by his own estimation, for about three-quarters of the social media commentary that goes out under his name.
The Olivers have four children: two-year-old Buddy Bear Maurice and sisters Poppy Honey Rosie, Daisy Boo Pamela and Petal Blossom Rainbow. So how does TV’s original cheeky chappie find having another man about the house? “It’s heavenly.” What’s different this time around? “Everything,” he says emphatically.
“He’s so adorable. I hope he stays the same, he’s just a sweet boy. His nature’s lovely and he really loves me and we get on just great without having to try. And the three sisters love him to bits as well. But the difference between boys and girls, I can’t get over it, it’s light years apart. Boys are kind of simpler than girls, in a polite way. He doesn’t cause me much grief. He cries only when he’s hungry, ironically,” Oliver says.
The family live between London and Essex, though there’s no doubting where Oliver’s heart lies. “I don’t feel like I live in London, I feel like I sleep there. I live in Essex, really.” He has cut back on the amount of travelling he does, to spend more time with his family, but still carries a heavy workload, saying he leaves in the dark and comes home in the dark.
There was a time when Oliver’s extended family played walk-on parts in his burgeoning TV and writing career, but that’s changed now. “I don’t really involve them that much, I did a bit in the old days, but not now. They get involved at Christmas,” he says. With fame and financial security – this year’s Sunday Times Rich List values him at £150 million (€186 million) – has come the option of being able to keep his family under wraps, those Instagrams notwithstanding.
Jools Oliver is following her own commercial interests, having recently designed a successful range of children’s clothing for Mothercare. But it’s unlikely you’ll find the couple involved in a joint venture, other than their family. “No, I hope not. I just think it’s . . . she’s my wife. I think it’s quite nice to keep [work and family life] separate. I am like a pinball at work; I am getting pulled constantly left, right and centre. There’s a way it works and there’s a role I have to play, and if my wife got involved in that . . .
“It’s nice to go home at the end of the day. I am not like a fellow who goes home at the end of the day and says, ‘Oh Jools, guess what we did today.’ I just switch off and I say, ‘Hi babe, how are you, how was your day, how’s the kids?’ I think you’ve got to be normal at the end of the day, because my job’s not very normal.”
It’s true. Jamie Oliver’s extraordinary life isn’t “very normal”. The day after his appearance at a rain-splattered Taste of Dublin, where spectators braved torrential downpours to watch him cook, he was off to Buckingham Palace to have tea with the queen.
With a growing empire to maintain – 7,000 or 8,000 employees by his sketchy estimation – he has had to embrace delegation. “I’ve got about four key people, and then about 12 under them. We don’t lose many people. We have a culture of enjoying ourselves. At the end of the day, you’ve got to pay the bills and balance the books, but we’re not really commercially driven; we’d much rather have great ideas and have heart and soul in it. I’m not really a businessman, not really; my job is to make sure that the businessmen don’t get too businessy.”
What he is is a perfectionist, and nowhere is that more obvious than at Fresh One, his TV production company. With so many irons in other fires, why did he get involved in TV production? “Simply, control. There’s a lot of structure, old-fashioned structure and bullsh*t, around TV and TV making. I can’t remember the last time we followed the rules, I really can’t.
“I want to hire the cameraman who shoots documentary best, or food best. I want to know what camera it is. I want to know what lenses they’re using. I want to choose the editor. I’m a bit of a geek, and I try to keep that private,” he says.
He says he’s excited about bringing Jamie’s Italian to Dublin, though it’s not the first time he’s attempted to get a foothold in the Irish restaurant scene. “I’ve been trying to get into Dublin for about four years. Barbecoa [a barbecue steakhouse in London that Oliver runs with Adam Perry Lang] was supposed to be in Dublin, but we got gazumped at the last hour. I’d like to think that we could get some of our other restaurants over here. Once we get bedded in and we’re comfortable, it would be nice to do some other stuff as well.”
He describes Jamie’s Italian as “a very inclusive restaurant”, where the produce is top-notch and the chefs do as little as possible to it. “Don’t expect to see him in the kitchen, though. “I don’t think we’ve ever pretended that I’m in the kitchen, running the kitchen. Ultimately I pay the bills, pay the wages, decide what we do and how we do it, how it looks. I write all the menus. I spend most of my time focused on the buildings and the architecture and the key senior staff.”
He still gets to cook most days, though, “at home, in the restaurants, and in my office, where we have all the test kitchens and do all the writing”. And he has lost none of his infectious enthusiasm for it. “I am very lucky. I have a good time, we work hard and we just love what we do.”
Jamie's Italian opens in Dundrum
‘WE DID A LOT of courting,” says Gerry Fitzpatrick of his bid to become Jamie Olivers partner in the Irish branch of Jamies Italian, which opens in Dundrum Town Centre on Monday. “I went over to the UK and asked them to consider me as an Irish partner,” says the established restaurateur, who also runs the Chatham Brasserie in Dublin 2 and comes from a family of food-business entrepreneurs.
The deal was signed in May 2011 and once a suitable site was found, Fitzpatrick found himself on the bottom rung of the catering ladder, training for six weeks at Jamie’s Italian outlets in Covent Garden, Kingston and Glasgow. “It was very tough, six days a week, leaving at 2am and going back in at 7am,” he says.
“There are no part-timers on the waiting staff at Jamie’s Italian; it’s a career, not something you do while you’re studying,” says the general manager, Áine Lynam, of her 88-strong team in Dundrum, which is the 33rd branch of the chain, and the third outside the UK. “We looked for people who like people, and went for that more than experience,” she says of her coworkers.
“We want customers to feel cherished by our team, and I’ll work really hard to get that right,” Fitzpatrick says. He’ll also be hoping they enjoy their meals, and that’s in the hands of head chef Nick Lentini, pictured above with Gennaro Contaldo who works with Oliver and visited the Dublin outlet for staff training. Lentini has worked in Sydney and in Sorrento, as well as in Roly’s, closer to home. He will be cooking with a mix of Italian products and local Irish food, and he and his 33 kitchen staff will be making 60kg of fresh pasta a day.
Don’t rock up expecting to eat a pizza, as that Italian staple doesn’t feature on the menu. But there will be antipasti platters, or planks in this case, with mozzarella, salamis and ham sourced in Italy; a big choice of pasta and rice dishes, as well as sustainable fish and free-range meat dishes, all of which have been designed by Oliver and the man he calls his mentor, fellow chef and business partner, Gennaro Contaldo.
Marcos Georgiou, international operations chef with Jamie’s Italian, embarked on a road trip with Fitzpatrick to select Irish suppliers, and there are lot of familiar names on the final list, including Kettyle meats, Kish fish, Castlemine Farm lamb, Caterway veg, Bretzel bakery bread, David Llewellyn cider and apple juice and Gathabawn ice-cream. Antipasti is priced between €4.25 and €8.75; pastas run from €8.45 to €15.95, and the most expensive main course is €22.95.
Martin Brudnizki Design Studio in London is responsible for the interior fit-out of the restaurant. “We’ve created a semi-industrial, semi-refined space. It’s got a polished concrete floor, whitewashed timbers and red oxide exposed steel columns. A long zinc bar and antipasti [counter] runs through the whole space, with sides clad in subway tiles. Behind it is an exposed kitchen.” The renovation work was done by Irish contractor Greg O’Donnell.
It’s all very young and cool, but not in an uncomfortable way. Families are expected to be a significant part of the custom base: “Families are our VIPs,” says Áine Lynam (pictured right). And as long as the music doesn’t get too loud, grannies and granddads will probably approve too.
Jamie’s Italian, Pembroke District, Dundrum Town Centre, Dublin 16. Reservations taken online from tomorrow at jamiesitalian.ie. The phone line for bookings, 01-298 0600, ‘will open at 9.30am on Monday