Jamie Oliver: Pukka Meals by a Wicked Chef
Last Sunday a friend and I had the opportunity to experience a nice evening at Jamie’s Italian, the first branch of the famous franchise of high street restaurants owned by Chef Jamie Oliver opened in São Paulo, Brazil. The second restaurant will open soon – it will be located in the city of Campinas, 100 km from São Paulo.
I was pleasantly surprised by the informality of the atmosphere, the good taste of the decoration and the excellent service offered by the young and trendy waiters. The food was simple, solid and delicious. The menu states they only use fresh, organic and seasonal ingredients. For starters, we chose funky chips, served with grilled sliced garlic. Pukka!I For the entrée, I had a grilled salmon on a bed of ricotta cheese and a side salad, while my friend ordered the tagliatelle bolognese. For dessert, we decided to share the delicious Amalfi Lemon Meringue cheesecake. Wicked! The whole meal did not cost us more than U$ 4O altogether – which is very good value in comparison to other overpriced restaurants in Sao Paulo in the same category. We plan to go back again soon to taste the other items on the menu.
Jamie Trevor Oliver was born on May 27th, 1975, in the village of Clavering, Essex, England, where he grew up. His family lived in his parents’ pub, The Cricketers, where, from a very early age, Jamie had a lot of contact with food, drinks, cooking, chefs, and customers from all walks of life.
At the age of 8, Jamie could already do the washing up and prepare an omelet, which filled him with pride. Jamie, however, did not fall in love with food and cooking before he turned 14. In those days, he had to fight his mates' prejudice about his love of cooking, as it was supposed to be unmanly. Cooking was for girls!
His father, Trevor, was an inspiration to him. He was the one who taught him solid principles of working ethic and the need to invest time and effort in order to get something in return. Jamie and his sister, Anna-Marie, had to work for their pocket money, which was what got him started in the kitchen of The Cricketers in the first place. His father’s objective was to teach them the value of money. He was also the one who taught Oliver that running a restaurant was less about making money than providing good food and service.
As a kid, Jamie had a sunny and cheerful personality, and loved practical jokes. He had problems learning at school, though, due to his dyslexia. He claims to not ever have been able to read a book cover to cover. However, teachers and friends always suspected he was a lot cleverer than his formal exams indicated. He only began to flourish academically when he started his catering course at Westminster College in London, at age 17 – the course combined a good amount of practice (the part he had no problem with) with theory. His love for cooking motivated him to make an extra effort to dig into the more scholarly section of the course and succeed.
After college he worked as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant, where he had Gennaro Contaldo as a mentor, getting a good deal of experience with Italian cuisine. Then, Jamie moved to the trendy River Café restaurant, in Fulham, where he had a job a sous chef. In 1997, at the age of 21, he was discovered by TV people who were shooting a documentary in the restaurant. The producers thought he was perfect for television: a natural, with the right looks and lifestyle. He was young, good-looking, had trendy friends, a beautiful girlfriend and lived in a cool flat with a spiral staircase, whose banister he would slide down incessantly during the shows. Besides, he wasn’t a bit shy in front of the cameras.
After the first airing of the documentary, the phone of the restaurant would not stop ringing. Jamie got four offers to host cooking programs. He ended up closing a deal with the BBC for a show. Jamie, however, had very strong ideas about how he wanted the show, which was unusual for a newcomer: he wanted it shot in his own kitchen and it would have to be totally natural. He wanted to be himself and strip food and cooking of all possible bullshit.
Thus, The Naked Chef was born, airing on British television on April 14th, 1999, and becoming an immediate hit. Of course, the title of the show forced him to explain, in thousands of interviews following its success, that NAKED had nothing to do with his taking his clothes off – which disappointed a number of viewers – but meant the food he cooked was stripped down to its bare essentials. Cooking need not be fancy, it had to taste good! That’s why Jamie claims that in his cooking, which leans towards Mediterranean cuisine, he only uses fresh, seasonal, organic and free-range ingredients.
The show was a huge success and got sold to more than 40 countries all over the world. Jamie popularized local Essex expressions, such as pucca (excellent); wicked (cool) and malarkey (blah, blah, blah).
Some people claim Jamie’s success is as much linked to his charisma and good looks as to his skills as a chef. The show’s demographic was surprisingly wide: both young and older people liked him; male and female; English and foreign. He also became somewhat of a gay icon, receiving steaming love letters from male admirers. He is a different kind of celebrity, though: firmly grounded, very happily married, faithful to his beloved wife, Jools, and a father of 4 kids.
Two of the highest points in his career were his invitation to cook for Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street in 1999 and being awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in June 2003.
The success generated by The Naked Chef was the beginning of a brilliant career which is still in development. Ever since, Jamie has published dozens of books, which sold millions of copies, and starred in more than 20 TV shows all over the world. Becoming a multi-billionaire, however, did not stop him from redirecting his energy to social causes, and very soon he started to give back to society.
In partnership with the British TV Channel 4, he developed a documentary, Jamie's Kitchen, based on the setting up of his chain of restaurants Fifteen in London. Fifteen gives adults of disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to have a fresh start, learning how to cook and become a chef.
He has also started a global discussion on the low standards of food served to kids at schools and how people should eat healthier in general. These are hard battles that confront deeply ingrained habits, involve taking on powerful fast food corporations and require negotiations to redirect government budgets. Therefore, those initiatives have sparked off a lot of controversies, which are still going on.
It seems Mr. Oliver is ready for the fight, though.