It has been 13 years since Jamie Oliver first appeared on television screens with his relaxed attitude, egalitarian bish-bash-bosh cooking style and penchant for flowery shirts and the word pukka.
Success quickly followed: in 2000, his television series The Naked Chef won a Bafta award, the accompanying book became a bestseller and the foundations for what has become a global empire were established.
His numerous television shows (Jamie at Home, Jamie’s Kitchen, Jamie’s Great Italian Escape, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, to name a few) have been broadcast in more than 100 countries and his books have been translated into 40 languages. These days, Jamie Oliver is a brand name and it matters not whether you’re a dedicated fan who laps up every bit of merchandise on the market (Jamie Oliver tea towel anyone?) or one of the many who find that mockney accent a little grating, there is little denying that this man is a success.
He is also, crucially, rather different to the average celebrity chef. In recent years, Oliver has embarked on a number of altruistic projects - from helping young, unemployed people to secure jobs in kitchens with The Fifteen Foundation, to setting up a Ministry of Food centre with the intention of teaching people to cook and pass the knowledge on.
As well as being celebrated, he has been heavily criticised for these efforts. In 2004, he launched a campaign to improve the state of the food being served in UK schools (see the television series Jamie’s School Dinners). Although it was deemed a success – as a result of his Feed Me Better petition, the government pledged to spend an extra £280 million (Dh1.6bn) on stepping up the standard of school meals – a number of parents revolted and footage of them attempting to pass banned junk food to their children through the iron bars of the school gates, no less, made headline news.
More recently, his attempts to bring healthy eating to America in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution were met with serious resistance, as residents of West Virginia (thought to be America’s fattest city) appeared not just uninterested, but hostile to his crusade. “I’m used to the criticism now, because you can never please everyone,” he says. “What motivates me is the knowledge that the world can be a better place and we can have an impact on the growing obesity crisis.” He adds that: “It just takes a bit of joined-up thinking, a bit of clever investment and people in power who really care about what they’re doing, as opposed to just fulfilling a role for a few years until another government comes along.”
From a gourmet standpoint, however, is there not a small part of him that wonders what would have happened if he’d tested his mettle as a chef further, perhaps even perused Michelin stars? It turns out that in that regard, just as with the criticism, Oliver has no regrets. “No, not really. I do admire guys like Heston (Blumenthal) and Ferran (Adria), but that style of cooking has never been my style. I’d rather focus on great food that is accessible to larger numbers of people, than just one restaurant catering to a handful.”
He is quick to point out that his various projects are intended to have a long future – one that some day he hopes will have an international scope. “I do think I’ll still be campaigning well into my old age,” he says. “At the moment, I’m focusing on the UK, Australia and the US, where I have ongoing educational movements like Ministry of Food, but of course I’m aware that we have a global problem. Hopefully we can reach a point where one of those three countries can act as a template for other countries, it would be brilliant if the UAE could embrace some of the inspirational things we’re learning.”
While that may be a while away, the UAE is able to embrace the Jamie Oliver brand, thanks to the opening of Jamie’s Italian in Dubai’s Festival City last year. “Jamie’s Italian fits into pretty much any food scene,” he explains. “We’ve just opened in Sydney and the Australians have really taken it to their hearts, just as the British did. With Dubai, we thought long and hard about where to open but in the end, we found a great location and put a fantastic team together.”
Although the man himself has yet to visit the site – though word is he intends to do so in the near future – the spacious restaurant with its light-wood floors, open kitchen complete with pizza oven, displays featuring fresh produce, homemade pasta and bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar screams his name.
The head chef Abs Patil, who worked at a number of Jamie Oliver restaurants back in the UK before moving to the Dubai outpost, says that Oliver’s influence is felt not only in the way the menu is written, but in the ingredients used in the dishes.
“All the fish we use is sustainable, the meat is free-range and we don’t use any genetically modified products,” he says. “This is obviously something that Jamie is passionate about, but so are we. I don’t think that there are many restaurants over here that adhere to such strict guidelines; it’s a long process, but people need to be educated.”
In keeping with this theme, the following recipe is taken from the Cook with Jamie book, but Patil says that if John Dory proves difficult to get hold over here, faskar (two bar sea bream) would make a good alternative. He also advises using the best quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar available and adding a few cherry tomatoes to the mix, for extra sweetness.
Baked John Dory in the bag with tomatoes and balsamic vinegar
This is such a win-win combo of flavors with so many fish. It works beautifully served with a big bowl of spaghetti with some chopped parsley, olive oil and lemon zest. Serves 2
4 or 5 ripe tomatoes, different colours if possible, sliced
1 clove of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 fresh red chilli, halved, deseeded and chopped
½ a small onion, peeled and finely sliced
6 tablespoons balsamic vinegara
small bunch of fresh basilolive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large John Dory (or faskar), about 1lb 6oz, scaled cleaned and gutted
1 large free-range or organic egg, beaten
Preheat your oven to 425˚F. Tear off a yard or so of wide aluminium foil or wax paper and fold it in half so you get a double sheet 20 inches long. Fold it in half again and open it out – it should look like an open book. Toss the tomatoes, garlic, chilli, onion, balsamic vinegar and basil with a good glug of olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl. Spoon the mixture on to one side of your foil or paper and place the fish on top.Brush the edges of the foil lightly with the beaten egg and fold the foil over the fish. Seal two of the three edges together by folding them over, a couple of times. Add a splash of water before folding the final edge tightly, making sure the bag is tightly sealed and there are no gaps anywhere.Place the parcel in a flat metal baking tray, pop the tray in the preheated oven and bake for about 20 minutes.Remove the bag from the oven and allow to rest for five minutes before you put it on a clean plate and open at the table.