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In Jamie Oliver’s footsteps

August 5, 2013

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.

Jamie's greeting video

Jamie’s video greeting

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 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, Selina @yummychooeats, Ren @renbehan, Regina @gastrogeek, Rachel  @The_FoodIEat, Su-yin @breadetbutter, Tess  @tesstheyeschef, Ashley @peachtreesbbees, Amy @jimsyjampots 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.


Do you cook from Jamie? Are you a fan or detractor (or on the fence)?

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  1. August 5, 2013 3:17 am

    I’m a HUGE Jamie fan. Adore him. I find most of his recipes work well and turn out exactly as he says, I enjoy his style of writing, I love looking at instagram photos of his family who seem gorgeous, and most of all I admire his loyalty to his mates, which is evident in the way he does business – so many of the people who were with him at the start are still there now. Ha! Sound like a mad groupie, don’t I? 🙂

    • August 5, 2013 11:50 am

      LOVE your enthusiasm Celia.

  2. August 5, 2013 3:18 am

    Love your post! It was great to meet you and thanks for the mention too.

    • August 5, 2013 11:51 am

      We did have a ball didn’t we…!

  3. August 5, 2013 3:59 am

    I think he’s done a lot for food and food awareness, but I find it hard to forget that he let his friend Gennaro Contaldo’s Passione – the best Italian restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in the UK – and reduced him to training chefs for Jamie’s Italian. With his millions, could he really not have found a way to invest in the man and the restaurant that gave him a start in the business?

    • August 5, 2013 11:53 am

      Ultimately Gennaro seems to have done very well now with books and TV series – Jamie’s spotlight introduced him to this audience. Who knows what goes on behind the scenes in reality…. How brilliant that you dined there…

  4. August 5, 2013 4:05 am

    I’m a Jamie fan, and I was really excited to see that he has called out McDonald’s on their beef (or what they call “beef”) and the fast-food bohemoth has decided to change their evil ways. Go Jamie!!!

    • August 5, 2013 11:55 am

      We need more high profile people to stand up to the food industry giants. Food Inc and many others highlighted the evil slime but big corporations only sit up and take notice if they receive really damaging PR.

  5. August 5, 2013 5:22 am

    I’am a HUGE fan! I love his energy and his enthusiasm. I also appreciate what is he doing for school food in US and UK.

    • August 5, 2013 11:56 am

      I agree… many others are doing a lot in schools but Jamie helped bring this issue into government policy

  6. August 5, 2013 6:29 am

    Love Jamie! I have Jamie’s fajitas on my meal plan for the upcoming week. Favorite book of his is Jamie’s Meals in Minutes.

    • August 5, 2013 11:57 am

      I have 30 minute meals and haven’t been able to make a single one in that time! Good inspiration though and the pictures are gorgeous

  7. August 5, 2013 6:49 am

    oh i’ve been meaning to learn to cook prawns! never ate seafood as kids and i really need to get into it! thanks for the reminder.

    i love j.o’s enthusiasm. it makes me want to cook 🙂 love it ^_^

    • August 5, 2013 11:58 am

      These prawns were divine…

  8. August 5, 2013 10:19 am

    What fun Sally! Your post made it all come alive! In my mind all programs that give youths and young adults direction and a solid foundation to build their lives and dreams on is more than noteworthy! stuff the jealous critics I say it is just hype!

    • August 5, 2013 12:00 pm

      It’s baffling Karin – the comments pick him up on things like saying that Ecstasy is addictive…whether it is or not, it’s ended many young lives and left many more with mental health problems.

  9. August 5, 2013 10:36 am

    What a wonderful experience! I love what Jamie does…



    • August 5, 2013 12:01 pm

      I count myself very lucky to have been part of the evening Rosa

  10. August 5, 2013 11:05 am

    So so gutted I couldn’t make it that day! Still kicking myself, but when you live outside the UK you need to make choices -as I know you understand, living so far away-
    It sounded like a fantastic evening and Merlin is indeed lovely 😉
    You know I met Jamie last month and what really left a mark was the fact that he is such a genuine person.
    A lot of people have been telling me off for respecting him so much for reasons you mentioned in your post. For some reason it is not considered ‘intelligent’ to like Jamie Oliver, which I think is a very dumb thing. I think a lot of it is jealousy.
    Thanks for sharing x

    • August 5, 2013 12:02 pm

      Interesting to hear you view Regula – I do get the impression that he does things from the heart. Hopefully we’ll spend another evening eating, drinking and chatting!

  11. August 5, 2013 11:10 am

    Cool review and even cooler pics – very good post. I think you gave 15 a very good write up. My one experience eating there was not quite as impressive, but that’s how it goes with restaurants. By the way, “enervating” means quite the opposite of what you imagine…check it out:)

    • August 5, 2013 12:04 pm

      The restaurant has been given a shake up so hopefully it’s improved. Really appreciate your kind comments about my pics – praise indeed – and thanks for reading so carefully! Blame late night blogging….or lost brain cells due to cocktails.

  12. August 5, 2013 12:17 pm

    Great post Sally. Quite envious of your day! We love a bit of Jamie here and it was his first series that inspired Ed to get cooking initially. Great stuff.

  13. August 5, 2013 3:03 pm

    Fabulous read Sally – what a fab time you had.
    I thing Jamie is awesome! He is such a fantastic human being.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  14. August 5, 2013 3:15 pm

    Wow – sounds like you had an excellent evening! I’m definitely a fan of Jamie’s food and his determination, a few more ‘celebs’ like him could do the power of good.

  15. August 5, 2013 4:08 pm

    I’m a huge J.O. fan & have been following him since his naked chef days. Absolutely loved your write up. Am looking forward to getting his meals in 30 min book:))

  16. August 5, 2013 6:20 pm

    Just like Celia stated, I love Jamie! He made me, the Cook I am today & I learned how to make pasta from scratch from his earlier books! Loved his enthousiasm, his charm, his attitude too! He is a genius! I was in his Fifteen restaurant in Amsterdam & we were there with a crowd & is was very dissapointing! Bad service, bad atmosphere & the dishes weren’t that good at all,….Maybe I Will give him a second chance?

  17. August 5, 2013 11:19 pm

    Jamie is like a guilty pleasure – you shouldn’t really love him but you do. He’s has such a no nonsense approach it is admirable, plus he’s all about the flavour which is the important bit!!

  18. August 6, 2013 8:02 am

    I’m a huge fan and have a lot of his books. We’ve eaten at Fifteen as well. Love the rehab idea as I’ve got a few friends who could do with that type of place 🙂

  19. MissMangue permalink
    August 6, 2013 2:12 pm

    I love the way you explain how it is cooked. It’s fun and enjoyable. I learned a lot with your cooking shows. Thanks Jamie, you’re the best.

  20. August 6, 2013 5:06 pm

    Wow Sally…what else can I say…Great post of what seems like a fabulous experience.
    Must admit I’m quite a Jamie Oliver buff and have been making a lot of his recipes….mainly from his website…pretty accurate and a great collection.
    Love the review of your experience at the Fifteen and the cool pics too:))

  21. August 6, 2013 7:38 pm

    Except for not getting any of this gorgeous-sounding food, I feel as if I was there with you. Great post. And yes, a huge Jamie fan. I’ve never been to a 15 but have eaten at the Gatwick Jamie’s Italian (what a great improvement for this dreary airport). I have most of his books and to this day love making his salmon baked on top of green beans, tomatoes and lemon (from the second book, I believe). You get the feeling that he would be as enthusiastic and ‘useful’ whether or not fame found him.

  22. August 7, 2013 12:21 pm

    I do love Jamie Oliver and actually love cooking from his books and site. One of my favourites is his better nut squash muffins. e does do really good work and and I am impressed with his efforts at Fifteen.

  23. August 7, 2013 1:04 pm

    Jamie is a precious and all-too-rare rare role model for young people. He inspires with his hard work and ‘can do’ attitude. I love him for his food but even more so for his example of how to lead a positive life.

  24. August 8, 2013 7:29 pm

    I cook from Jamie, but I’ll do it if I have a special occasion – I don’t find it to be the easy evening meals it’s billed as!

  25. August 9, 2013 1:41 am

    I have to admit I love Jamie, and have loved his recipes for a while. Jamie’s Italy was the first book we got about 8 years ago and in it there are SUPERB recipes that I’ve made time and time again. Some actually are mere compositions, than recipes – Icecream with olive oil and salt….and a few other delightful ones.

    I also have one on Dinners and I rather like the creativity, especially with taking one ingredient and doing a variety of things with it.

    I’m glad you had a good time at Fifteen.

    Truth be told – there isn’t one person who’s universally loved and I am glad that he has his goals and values and is intent of pursuing them. Every man to his own

  26. August 9, 2013 11:52 am

    hi Sally, what fun. I do like the way he makes cooking with real food something everyone can do and to bring it down to earth. I have not tried 15 but will have to give it a go. Love the ethos and glad you enjoyed. Not jealous at all… no … 😉

    • August 14, 2013 9:31 am

      I asked directions to 15 from the owner of a very nice cafe that afternoon and he said “you’ll like 15 – it’s very good”. I think it might have lost it’s way a little before the refurb but sounds back on track now. I will make sure I eat there next time in London (I can vouch for the very nice atmosphere)

  27. August 10, 2013 1:35 pm

    Lots of lovely comments here Sally – firmly in the Jamie camp! A really well written post and lovely photos, too of a very enjoyable evening x

  28. August 12, 2013 5:04 pm

    Loved reading this post, Sally! You share your experience so beautifully. Though I haven’t tried any of his recipes, I do have a set of very pretty (and colourful) Jamie Oliver knives that I absolutely love. His and everyone else working for Fifteen and the lives that they inspire is so touching.

    • August 14, 2013 9:28 am

      His recipes are very reliable and his combination of flavours and textures is excellent. Thanks for the nice comment Nadia.

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