I’ve always been wary of celebrity restaurants. I’ve never eaten in any really, unless you count Anna Hansen’s appearance on Saturday Kitchen, and I don’t. Some of it was circumstantial – I was never in the right place at the right time, some of it was financial and some of it was word-of-mouth (years before Gordo’s financial woes, I heard terrible things pretty consistently about quite a few of his restaurants) and some of it was because if I really loved a chef, really really loved him/her, I didn’t want to have them fail right before my eyes.
I love Jamie Oliver. I really do. I don’t admire many celebrities (and I get to meet quite a few with my job) but Jamie is someone who might really fluster me should we find ourselves in the same room. Maybe its because I crushed on him terribly when I was 16 and saw my first episodes of the Naked Chef rebroadcast in Canada, or because of his relentless food campaigning and social conscious correspond with my professional career choice.
His passion for food is genuine, and I love that he believes that trying to change the world is worth the heartaches and headaches – not to mention the criticism. He has grown up in front of us, going from a passionate and slighty goofy twenty something who drummed on his cooking show to a husband and father.
I also love that he takes risks for what he believes in. He was not the head of a million pound kitchen empire when Fifteen began, he stood to lose a lot. With each campaign he has made himself so publicly vulnerable in order to achieve many of his goals – and as a formerly obese North American child, I care a lot about changing the way children are fed.
I’ve seen him reflect and build on mistakes with a maturity and self-awareness that can’t be said about many other television personalities. He has also always been respectful of the people he meets – he is one of England’s best cultural ambassadors.
But beyond all these I respect Jamie’s food. I don’t think I’ve learned more from anyone beyond my mother in terms of cooking philosophy. Fresh. Quality. Simplicity. Alongside his politics of food, I have been introduced to techniques and ingredients that have allowed me to branch out on my own: to build upon in my own kitchen improvisations.
This is all a lengthy introduction to say I didn’t want to go to Jamie’s Italian as I didn’t want it to be ruined for me. I knew it had several locations across the UK and it just looks like a franchise. As I approached it trepidatiously I couldn’t help but worry I’d be welcomed to some Jamie version of a soulless TGIFriday’s bearing the name of one of my cooking mentors.
But I am happy to report dear readers I was very wrong. Yes, it is a franchise, and I don’t think it hides this, but from my first thorough glance at the menu onwards I felt ‘jamie’ in all the food. From the bellini we began with to the twice-daily-baked bread to the in-store homemade pasta, I felt him. It was a franchise, but it was Jamie.
I’ll keep the food descriptions short – needless to say all the dishes were excellent. We had a selection of breads with balsamic and olive oil to begin, and I had an antipasti board for one. My father had the lamb lollipops and ‘posh chips’ (with parmesan and truffle oil) while I had the pasta puttanesca, humble green salad and flash cooked greens with garlic and tomato.
While my pasta could have used a touch more sauce (I like things saucy) my father said it was the best lamb he’d ever had. I think they were best chips (distinct from fries obviously) I’ve ever had. It was hard to fault the evening – we had desserts as well, but I think the wine was flowing well enough by then I barely remember them. Oh, Sicilian lemon curd and a berry panna cotta. Nom Nom NOM.
To finish with a small gush – I’m so happy to have my expectations met, if not exceeded. I’m grateful to Jamie Oliver for trying to improve and change food culture here and in the USA, for teaching me to cook and inspiring me to create my own recipes. And Jamie, if you’re reading this – call me!