In Jamie Oliver’s footsteps
Do you remember those early Naked Chef days when Jamie Oliver lived in a bachelor pad with a fireman’s pole and a basketball net? He charged round town on his Vespa visiting chums like Gennaro and popping back home to cook something for his girlfriend, Gran or a gang of mates. He offered the same simplicity of flavours from the River Café (where he worked previously) but with accessible ingredients and in an exciting way. Who knew then what an empire he’d build and that twenty years later his cookbooks would remain consistent best sellers. Jamie’s 30 minute meals became the UK’s fastest-selling non-fiction book ever and helped him to become Britain’s second-best-selling author after JK Rowling.
But, in Britain, high-profile success inevitably attracts criticism – the media fell out of love with the ‘cheeky chappie’ and in certain foodie circles admitting to cooking from Jamie was akin to a Professor of literature confessing to reading Mills and Boon. I would agree that his mockney enthusiasm might have started to wear thin but his campaigns to improve food in schools (both in the UK and US) and to give disadvantaged young people the chance to follow a career in food demonstrated a serious intent. I remember vividly how refreshingly different the first book seemed and cooked as much as I could from it given the restrictions of my life in Saudi Arabia; over the years have added another six of his titles to my shelf and most are used fairly regularly (Great Britain is the one I have yet to make anything from).
He seems to have put a lot on the line in the pursuit of his ideals but has been slammed for self-promotion; never one to believe the hype I accepted an invitation to Fifteen with an open mind. Opened in 2002 and recently given a face-lift and a new head chef, Fifteen mentors 18 young, unemployed apprentices every year giving them a potential career path in the restaurant and catering industry. The profits from the restaurant (and from the one in Cornwall) go to Jamie’s charity ‘The Better Food Foundation‘ to help fund the apprentice programme and other initiatives to reconnect people with cooking and food. It has inspired other similar projects too.
Fifteen is located in an unglamorous part of London down a small, cobbled side street in a red-brick industrial building dating from 1906. The main restaurant is dimly lit with a wood-fired oven at one end, bar at the other, the ceiling space punctuated by modern chandelier dripping little rods of light. Everything looked welcoming in the evening sunshine and light streamed through the windows into the demo-kitchen on the first floor. I’d expected to write about the food but it was the people I met that night that gave me an insight into Jamie and his world.
First a welcome from the s’leb chef himself via a specially filmed video. “Hello bloggers” he chirped, a buzz of appreciated carried through the room – it made everyone feel very special. He thanked his team members and gave credit to the organisation of the evening to Merlin. √ Tick one.
Head Chef of Fifteen, Jon Rotheram started with a demo previously billed as ‘nose to tail eating’. Bit of an over-claim as he cooked some devilled kidneys and was honest about the extent of nose-to-tail cooking at Fifteen i.e. they are still working on improving it. The London bloggers and Jon all lamented how expensive Borough market had become for offal (mainly for tourists now) – I kept very quiet about my planned visit the next morning. The kidneys were soft, succulent with a warm, spicy sauce on crisp, sour dough toast. Jon, who started off a wee bit reserved, warmed up under the camera lenses and questions of a gang of eager foodies. He spoke of JO in amicable terms intimating they’d been friends for a long time. √ Tick two.
While watching the demo we were simultaneously dipping into a huge dish of prawns, peeling them and dunking into subtly savoury Marie-Rose sauce. Glad to see the prawns listed as ‘from sustainable sources’ (see why here). These were served with Herb salad with goat’s cheese; all dishes were Jamie recipes available on his website.
Sitting down on pastel-painted country kitchen chairs at a long table covered with a blue and white checked table-cloth we dug spoons into bowls of Keralan veggie curry, Southern Indian crab curry and Lemon rice sprinkled with curry leaves. This had been cooked by Merci and Tyrone, who had graduated from Fifteen apprentice programme, forged a career in catering and returned to the Jamie fold. Merci mentioned that Jamie had tweeted his praise for her cooking that evening as she joined us at the table. √ Tick three.
The wine from SanPatrignano had been going down well even before we heard the back story behind it from Danny McCubbin. After many years of working with Jamie in various capacities, Danny has just set up the UK arm of non-profit organisation SanPatrignano. He chatted to us in a quiet, understated way about its mission to provide support and counseling to people struggling with drug addiction. His belief in a fairly radical approach to rehabilitation pioneered in Italy as an alternative to the current approach in the UK is unwavering. It is based around three rehabilitation and training communities in Italy, which help addicts rebuild their lives through counselling and help them to a secure future through vocational training and education. The dining room plays an important part in the community (and training) and wine making is one of the community’s most successful endeavours, created from vineyard to bottle by the residents. Sales of the produce including wine, cheese, olive oil, salami and honey helps to cover some of the costs of the organisation. It seems slightly incongruous that the residents are helping to create a drug (albeit a legal one) but the programme appears to be one of balance. Speaking with Danny there is no doubt about his commitment and dedication to helping some very marginalised and desperate people. The response to this online seems to have been pretty aggressive which is a sad indictment of some sections of our society to altruism. Danny was first introduced to SanPatrignano by Jamie. √ Tick four.
Dessert was made by Merlin who looks after online editorial and social media for JamieOliver.com and who is an absolutely gorgeous person (if this is not an entirely inappropriate comment for me to make about a 21-year-old chap) as was his Bloomin’ easy vanilla cheesecake with some liqueur-doused cherries. He was mortified that his cheesecake had cracks in it and served it to us with trepidation. I suppose testing out a recipe on a gang of food bloggers is fairly daunting stuff. Maybe it’s Dubai-living where there are always teams of people to do everything, but I was taken aback when Merlin, Danny and Merci all busied around clearing the table and loading the dish washer. It made this relaxed evening even more like being in someone’s own kitchen eating home-made food, as though Jamie had indeed invited us all round but just popped out for a while. √ Tick five.
The final person in the entourage was Joe Gray, another Fifteen alumni who admitted that it had put his life on track. I got the feeling that Joe has a lot in common with Jamie – down to earth, a risk taker, ebullient, intelligent but not academic. He sent us away with Piran Sea Salt from his new venture Slovely, which markets products from small producers in Solvenia (and, I notice, SanPatrignano). He was part of a hard-core group of us who descended to the Fifteen bar and sampled some of its stellar cocktails. I remember the exquisite Gin punch made with lavender bitters, lots of laughter and photo taking; it gets a bit hazy after that.
I’d intended to give everyone a grilling to get the inside story on the real Jamie but failed by being completely disarmed by the ‘mates night out’ experience. I get the feeling that he inspires strong loyalty among a group of people who he keeps close through trust and encouragement. Where he once pioneered, he’s now criticised for jumping on the bandwagon – with his Diner pop up and when I interviewed Ed Baines he mentioned the similarity between the cover of their British food cook books (Ed’s predated Jamie’s by about three years). However, his advocacy of a campaign against ‘pink slime’ has been cited as as a central factor behind McDonald’s decision to drop ground beef filler ammonium hydroxide from its burgers. His ‘mockney geezer’ might have been assumed, but his dedication to doing what he loves and believes in seems very genuine. Our relaxed meal show-cased Jamie’s talent for combining flavours, textures and fresh ingredients and went right back to what captured the heart of the nation in the first place – tasty, simple food for sharing with friends and family. * Gold star.
Thanks to all who made this a very special night from the marvellous menu, the invigorating conversation and rather raucous ending. Good luck to Merci who is about to take the food blogging plunge. Congratulations to Rachel who was celebrating becoming a writer for The Telegraph. Danny and Joe, I will be following your projects with interest. Shout out to Jim too (@JamiesEditor). Having muddled up all my business cards in the post-cocktail aftermath I am shamelessly stealing Leyla’s list of bloggers – sorry to those I’ve left out (and you can read Leyla’s witty account of the evening here).
Rosana @Rosana_McPhee hotandchilli.com, Selina @yummychooeats yummychooeats.com, Ren @renbehan renbehan.com, Regina @gastrogeek gastrogeek.wordpress.com, Rachel @The_FoodIEat thefoodieat.org, Su-yin @breadetbutter breadetbutter.wordpress.com, Tess @tesstheyeschef theyeschef.com, Ashley @peachtreesbbees peachtreesandbumblebees.com, Amy @jimsyjampots shecookssheeats.co.uk and not forgetting Merlin too.
A visit to Fifteen – to dine at the restaurant itself – is now on my wish list, and Jamie’s cook books will remain firmly on my list of favourites.
JAMIE OLIVER’S FIFTEEN, 15 WESTLAND PLACE, LONDON N1 7LP T. 020 3375 1515 @JamieOliverCom
Do you cook from Jamie? Are you a fan or detractor (or on the fence)?
- Food, friends and funkin’ cocktails with the jamieoliver.com crew (thecutlerychronicles.com)
- Merlin’s Beard! Dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen (yummychooeats.com)
- Dinner at Jamie Oliver and The Dreamy Cheesecake (hotandchilli.com)
- Jamie Oliver recipes to make at home (shecookssheeats.co.uk)
- How we learned to love school meals (guardian.co.uk)