Jamie's Italian 'true to its roots'

Jamie's Italian 'true to its roots'

While it is impossible for celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to be at all his restaurants at the same time, he monitors diner feedback closely, especially on social media.

Since his restaurant, Jamie's Italian, opened eight months ago at VivoCity to much fanfare, there have been mixed reviews, with diners complaining about the quality of food and long waits. Staff have had to compensate diners with complimentary meals.

Unfazed, the 38-year-old TV chef and restaurateur says: "Every restaurant gets stuff wrong, because we are human. But we get complaints from less than 1 per cent of diners. We have good systems in place, but nothing's perfect. Perfection doesn't exist, but we strive for it.

"If there's a problem, I'll know straight away and get my team to take care of it."

Responding to customers who have been underwhelmed by the restaurant's homey Italian fare, the straight-talking British chef says: "The food we do here is rustic; we don't put bulls*** on the plate. If we have a Tuscan dish that is slow-cooked, we cook it as we learnt it in Tuscany. If people don't want that, there are other restaurants in town.

"I don't do French-Italian or Japanese-Italian. We are Italian-Italian and the menu stays true to its roots."

Oliver, best known for his effervescent and energetic personality when he had his first TV show, The Naked Chef, back in 1999, showed a more serious side when he discussed such issues in his exclusive interview with Life! on Thursday.

After a whirlwind stopover to his restaurant, Oliver left the same evening for Australia, where he will check on his restaurants before heading home to Essex, England, after the 10-day trip.

This is his first time in Singapore, and the chef emphasises his excitement to be here.

"I was due to come to Singapore on other occasions, but I kept having children. So I guess it's partly my fault," says the father of four with a hearty laugh.

Calling the team here his "family", he showed no sign of fatigue when he turned up at the restaurant at 10.30am on Thursday and spoke to excited staff who were not told of his visit.

Very much the celebrity chef, with a makeup artist on hand to ensure he was camera-ready, Oliver happily obliged by posing for selfies and candid group photos with the staff as well as some diners who got wind of his appearance at the restaurant.

Filipino-Chinese server Anna Yu, 34, could barely contain her excitement when Life! spoke to her.

She says: "I love Jamie's shows. He is a very hardworking and nice person and he is also a great chef. After seeing him, I'm not hungry anymore, I don't need lunch or dinner. I don't think I can sleep tonight."

The move to open in Singapore - which Oliver calls a "dream come true" - came after the success of his restaurants in Australia, including Jamie's Italian and Fifteen, which hires disadvantaged youngsters to work in the culinary field.

He says: "I was very nervous about opening in Australia, because it's halfway around the world. Sydney is a dynamic food city, like Singapore.

"If people don't like something, they will kick your a** immediately. You can't do 1,000 diners a day if the food is crap, you'll get shut down very quickly. When it worked in Australia, I knew it could be possible anywhere."

The 210-seat Jamie's Italian here, a collaboration with Singapore property group Hotel Properties, is the fourth outside Britain. The restaurant chain has more than 30 branches in Britain as well as outlets in Dubaiand Sydney.

Perhaps it is what he calls the "invisible" force which drives his brand, besides his dedicated staff and mission to source ethical produce which keeps his restaurant empire going.

While manpower issues have plagued the food and beverage scene here, Jamie's Italian has faced no issues.

Oliver says: "To be honest, we didn't have a problem. We still have more than 75 per cent of the staff we started out with. Normally in the industry, there will be a big shift in the first two months and after six months. So far, we're okay."

He does not rule out opening more restaurants in Singapore, including a branch of his British steakhouse Barbecoa, saying that it would fit in "incredibly well" here.

He says: "Customers who expect a bit more 'bling' can go to Barbecoa, which is like super bling. But it's also three times the price. It will be nice to have a mix here."

In a few months, he will open Jamie's Italian in Hong Kong. He also has plans to open more restaurants in South-east Asia. Oliver keeps mum about other openings, although he admits to working "two years in advance".

The busy TV host is also juggling other projects, such as a new cookbook and show on food from his childhood, both of which he describes as "eccentric".

And his relentless pursuit to educate children on food is still a burning passion, as he describes the health scene in Europe as "not pretty".

He says: "There has been massive progress from when we started the school-dinner campaign eight years ago. Back then, we were feeding our kids sh** on a daily basis. There were no standards.

"The classic British dichotomy is that we love our dogs but seem to have forgotten about our kids. We had massive standards and laws on how you produce dog food. All the schools have become better, but still, it might take another 10 years."

To balance all his commitments, Oliver says a team of women - whom he calls the "matrix" - keep him in check and "kick my a**" on a regular basis.

The dedicated family man spends weekends and breakfast time with his four children - aged three to 12 - and wife Juliette, 38.

Oliver says: "I feel like a relevant dad, I don't feel guilty. They know what I look like anyway. Jamie the dad, in public and at work, is always the same Jamie, just with different jobs.

"My children were born when I was already on the telly. It's very normal for them. They will ask others: 'Is your dad not on the telly?'"

euniceq@sph.com.sg


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