Interview: Jamie Oliver reveals why new mid-market Hong Kong restaurant is perfectly placed
As his first Hong Kong outpost is unveiled, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver talks food, family and franchising
Text: Susan Jung
Jamie Oliver is full of praise for the reporter who's interviewing him for this article at the Jamie Oliver Limited offices in London. "I'm a massive fan of yours. You wrote an amazing, incredible book."
Unfortunately, that reporter is not me. Due to a major muddle, I'm still on the Eurostar en route from Paris to London. My pinch-hitter is more than worthy, though: it's Fuchsia Dunlop, BBC journalist and bestselling author of several cookbooks on Chinese cuisine, including her first, Sichuan Cookery, and her latest, Every Grain of Rice, for which Oliver wrote the cover blurb. Dunlop is a friend, and when I call in desperation a couple of hours before the interview is scheduled to take place to ask if she can interview Oliver until I arrive (which turns out to be eight minutes before the 45-minute interview ends), she agrees immediately.
Oliver opened Jamie's Italian in Soundwill Plaza II - Midtown in Causeway Bay this week. It is the latest addition to a sprawling chain that boasts 35 branches in Britain and, now, 10 overseas locations.
There had been many rumours over the years that Oliver would open a place in Hong Kong. "It took a while to find the right partners and people," Oliver says. "Before you put your name above a door, you really have to trust where you're going to do it, how you're going to do it and who the partners are. It's taken some time - and actually the Big Cat Group that's going to be running the restaurant in Hong Kong is newly formed.
Watch: Promotion video for Jamie's Italian Hong Kong
"We felt we could trust [Big Cat's CEO] William Lyon, and we liked his angle on how he was going to do it. We could have done it ourselves, but we wanted to get the tone right. Ultimately, the only reason it will work is if it's relevant and useful. What's really exciting about Hong Kong at the moment is they do cheap really well and they do expensive really well - but the bit in the middle? Not so well, and I think we've got something to offer there.
"And they love Italian. I'm very excited. I think it's fair to say that Italian is one of the most loved foods around the world - the concept of rice and noodles and making ravioli and dumplings - it has these little touch points within Asian cuisine that you can relate to. Hong Kong and Japan openly show they love a bit of Italian grub.
"Hong Kong is the correct place to start if we do anything else in China," he says.
Oliver, who was awarded the MBE in 2003 for his contribution to the hospitality industry, is the son of pub owners. He came to public recognition with his first television programme, The Naked Chef, which was followed by a cookbook of the same name. His engaging personality and easy-going cooking style proved popular, leading to more television programmes and cookbooks.
It would have been easy for Oliver - whose group employs about 3,500 people worldwide, and who, along with his wife, is estimated to be worth £240 million (HK$3.2 billion), according to The Sunday Times Rich List - to simply retire wealthy and happy. Instead, he's using his influence to improve the nutritional value of meals being served in schools (with Jamie's School Dinners); train disadvantaged and unemployed youths to cook by having them work alongside experienced chefs at his restaurants, Fifteen, in London, Cornwall and Amsterdam and, with his Ministry of Food, teach basic kitchen skills to people who know nothing about home-cooked meals.
His efforts aren't always welcome, Oliver admits. "For the Ministry of Food we went to Rotherham, and that was pretty much the most unhealthy town in England. Resistance? Yeah. Uncomfortable? Yes. But what we're trying to do is reignite the simplicity and joy of cooking some stuff into a lovely meal. I've seen with my own eyes that small amounts of good quality information can transform the way a family cooks and eats and buys and saves money."
The 39-year-old says cooking is a "beautiful thing" and it's sad that some people have forgotten that in their lives.
"I remember when we were in Rotherham, one girl said, 'What's that? Those bubbles?' and I said, 'That's boiling water.' So it gets that bad. But she wasn't stupid, she was attempting to be a great mum, but she hadn't grown up in a house where they ever cooked, so why would she see boiling water? When you haven't been taught how to cook and you haven't got that much money, then you just end up buying the worst forms of nutrition."
Although the citizens of Rotherham weren't entirely welcoming, it was nothing compared to the resistance he encountered a few years earlier during his school dinners campaign. Attempting to change children's diets from one of packaged foods and fizzy drinks to nutritious school meals seems sensible, but the programme showed that it wasn't only the children who initially rebelled, but also their parents and the dinner ladies who had to prepare the food.
"There's always resistance to change, but it didn't last for that long - maybe two to three months of the worst of it. It was more my techniques - a bit like a bomb going off. I wasn't really into being subtle; I was more like [he claps his hands together] 'Today, we change'. I knew I would get resistance, and I knew I would start trouble, but I felt like I didn't have two years to wait and the story needed to be told.
"I think that the 26,000 schools have all improved, without question - all of them. I think just over half are doing really well and just under half are struggling to maintain standards. On a global level, I think it's a child's human right to have access to food education in school. And to not have it in the current climate with health is a crime. As of September, Britain will be teaching every child how to cook in school."
He's also committed to using "high welfare" (humanely treated animals) and sustainable ingredients in his restaurants, and the Jamie's Italian Hong Kong website states that they are looking for local suppliers, which Oliver says has been challenging.
"There seems to be a bit of a jar between farming areas and redevelopment for high-rises. The [Hong Kong] government is interestingly going against the seemingly global fashion for more local medium- to small-sized businesses.
"We do have some local suppliers - mostly for fruit and vegetables and herbs. As far as meat goes, getting high welfare and ethical is really hard. I think it will evolve a fair bit, but not completely for a while. Even with chickens, we've failed miserably to get anything local of high welfare. I think we'll be OK with seafood, although we're struggling to get traceability or verification on sustainability."
Oliver says the new restaurant will be using Worldwide Seafood, whose director is fronting sustainability. "I'm led to believe that we're some of the first people to guarantee ethical, high welfare, fair-trading in Hong Kong. You can't be a hypocrite - you can't do one thing in England and another in Hong Kong."
He says that they're willing to abandon projects if they can't find the right ingredients. "We did a massive amount of work in South Korea and never did the job in the end. Our people had never seen such bad standards for pork and chicken. We just couldn't make it work - everything was in place - the partners, the locations, but when it came down to the products we couldn't make it work."
Oliver wasn't here for the opening of Jamie's Italian. "I'd love to be there, but Hong Kong isn't the only place we're opening this year and I can't be in every place. We always give the partner the choice of waiting to open until I can get there, but, to be honest, they're not buying into the relationship because of me physically. I'll be there early next year."
It won't be his first time in Hong Kong. He can't remember what he ate on past visits, but he says one thing is vivid in his memory. "Seeing handmade noodles being prepared in seconds by some teenage kid - I was in total awe. I'm not bad at my pasta work - it's one of my stronger points. But when you see some 19-year-old make pasta like you couldn't do - the noodles just flying through the air - it's completely humbling. It makes me think I'd better go back to school because I really want to learn how to do that."
Jamie's Italian, 2/F Soundwill Plaza II — Midtown, 1 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay, tel 3958 2222, jamiesitalian.hk