Commerce, cookery and conscience: A cynics tale

Movement Magazine

An article I wrote on Jamie’s Italian, Leeds.

Article first published by Movement Mag, Leeds (currently offline)

Original text:

I have something of a confession to make; I am a rather cynical man. A common affliction, cynicism can cause the sufferer to distrust and/or cast ire towards various aspects of human society, including – but not limited to – politicians, the media, charity pop concerts, supermarket special offers, people who think the film Inception has a complex plot, homeopathy… well, you get the idea.

One such focus of many a cynical sneer is the culture of celebrity, so it was with mixed feelings that I found myself heading down Park Row in Leeds to interview two of the team from Jamies Italian, a restaurant chain established by celebrity chef, self-styled social activist and occasional target of cynicism, Jamie Oliver.

Located in a building constructed for the banking industry – a fact that had my sardonic sensors twitching all the more – the restaurant I expected was one of opulence, expense, and excessive airs ‘n’ graces, the like of which is sure to sour the supper of any skeptic; an array of Jamies Italian branded oils, aprons and tea towels on offer in the entranceway only compounded my prejudice.

One of the front-of-house team guided me to a table in the bar area, complimentary – and excellent! – coffee was served, and I awaited my victims *cough* interviewees.

“Thank Zeus there are still people in the service industry who can interact with customers in a friendly and polite manner, without all the disingenuous ‘yes, sir’ ‘no, sir’ nonsense”, I mused.

“She’s probably a one-off”, mocked my misanthropic mind.

Hush your mouth, pessimist! I’ve an interview to do.

A short while later, two friendly looking faces floated my way. I was introduced to Deputy GM, Luke Johnston and recently promoted Junior Sous Chef, Jared ‘Jaz’ Webb. After some pleasant preamble, we got down to business.

Jamies Italian Leeds is now in its fifth year. Tell us a little about your history with the franchise and how youve been part of the restaurants development during that time.

Luke – “We were the tenth Jamies to open out of 35 or so. In terms of the way the brand and restaurant have developed, right at the beginning we had fewer restaurants. Now we’ve gotten much larger, we’ve really started to define and hone in on exactly what it is we do. One thing that’s never changed is the culture, the passion and the ethos behind the food, staff and what we really do. No matter which restaurant you go into – whether its been open six or seven years, one year, two years or three months – they’ve always got exactly the same idea; the brand standards are the same, the culture is the same, the passion is the same, the way we all have cultural days…

It’s the same thing throughout.”

Whats your key ingredient?

Luke – “Fresh-made pasta has always been central to what we do. Some of the new restaurants have started doing pizzas, but even then it still comes back to fresh pasta, the working pasta machines visible to customers… What you should be able to do with any Jamies is walk in and just get what Jamie’s about, what he himself is about. It’s not flash or over the top. It’s just really good food, done well, in a nice environment. Although the brand has changed, although we’ve developed, getting stronger and growing over the years, we’ve never lost focus on those core values.”

Luke’s purported desire to provide a relaxed, understated dining environment sat comfortably next to my experience upon arrival; friendly chat, excellent coffee, no nonsense.

Can you define what drives that development?

Luke – “Over the last few years we’ve really started to develop as a business, listened to our staff, and gotten them much more involved in the direction we take things. I find it fantastic to be part of a restaurant brand that allows you to have input in how we develop as a business. A lot of managers have been on training courses, which culminate in pitching to the CEO ideas that you want to see come into play, how you feel the brand can be improved.

It’s not just about having Jamie Oliver’s name above the door. At the beginning, sure, that’s gonna get people through the door. Three, four, five years down the line, at that point it’s about the food and the staff, so we make sure we get the right people working for us – I believe the best on the high street – and for me, that is what Jamies has always been about. I think now we’re really putting even more focus back into the restaurants, and getting the most out of everybody that works in those restaurants. Whether that’s sending people to assist in international openings or continued training within existing restaurants to ensure we’re always the best we can be.”

Wanting to cook and travel, my initial thought was to join the navy

Jaz – “Even on a day to day basis in this restaurant, half eleven everyday it’s pre-shift time; that’s all the front of house staff, the chefs, the managers, we’ll cook the day’s specials, talk through the ingredients, the history of the dish and where it comes from. That’s where Jamie has stayed true. That information about a single product, it’s origins… so that everyone is clued up on it, so the information you give to the staff, they’ll then be able to give that information – with their own style and personality – to the [guests at the] table.

For me, finding a restaurant like Jamies and working within a team, that’s a really vital thing, so half past eleven – every day – that is what we do. That set-up everyday and planning for the day ahead… thats what makes Jamie’s consistent every single day and just get better and better.”

Now, I’ve worked for some big corporations. ‘Big six’ energy providers, supermarket giants, telecommunications multinationals… each had a ‘brand ethos’ and an urge to indoctrinate that ethos into their recruits. Inductions ranged from the banal (the CEO expects every man to do his duty) to the downright cultish (everybody stand, do a little dance, chant a catchphrase).

Listening to Jaz and Luke speak so warmly about their employer, my cerebral smart Alec searched hard for a hint of the parrot-fashion lip service to which I’d become so accustomed. It found none.

Time to dig a little deeper.

Being a chef can be notoriously stressful. What made you decide upon this career?

Jaz – “It certainly can be stressful, but I’ve found over the years that the way to balance out that stress – to some, this comes naturally, others take a bit of time – is to spread it across your workload; realise what you’re learning and why. The stuff you learn day-to-day is always new, no day is the same. So, getting stressed out, you kind of balance that out by thinking, “what have I actually done today?”, and you pick out the highlights of the day that have been productive; you’ve learnt a few bits, you’ve created something new, you’ve inspired the kitchen team to produce something great, you’ve delivered great food all day, satisfied a few hundred customers, and you’ve made the money to show for it.

It’s a lot of variation and sometimes things go wrong. But, one thing I’ve learnt from Jamies is they develop in their chefs the ability to manage time properly and to deliver. If there’s a problem, there’s a solution, so you’re always solving that problem, choosing the right path and inspiring your team to go down that path.

It can be hot, it can be tiring, it can be crazy on a Saturday…”

You have an open kitchen, so theres no room for shouting and screaming

Jaz – “Haha. Yes, we’ve a very open kitchen. Communication here is great. Each section has to deliver simultaneously, so its about that communication across the board, from your head chefs down, especially on those busy Saturdays, although everywhere in Leeds is busy on Saturdays

I think what made me become a chef was when I was at school in the late 90s, I realised I wanted to cook and travel. So, ’98, I started working washing pots in a little French cuisine place, watching the chefs do their thing and that was inspiring, really good to watch. Wanting to cook and travel, my initial thought was to join the navy…”

Luke – “Well that ticks the boxes, I guess (laughs)”

Jaz – “Career lessons back then weren’t the most enthusiastic! So, I worked washing pots at a young age, and was lucky enough to work there a few years, work with the chefs and learn a few bits in the kitchen. Then I packed my bags and went off to Europe for a few years, working in restaurants around Europe and into the Mediterranean, just to hone my skills and find out what was what.

All the front of house staff, the chefs, the managers, we’ll cook the day’s specials, talk through the ingredients, the history of the dish and where it comes from

I’ve worked in kitchens 15 years this year, by which time you [should] get to a point where you’re hitting a senior level. If you move somewhere else, I’ve found that there’s 50% of that last job that you need to take with you and 50% that you don’t. Every kitchen, you’ve got to [become] what they need.

I’ve worked with hundreds of chefs over the years, but it wasn’t until I moved to Leeds – when I started working at Jamies – that I’ve founded the right chefs I need to work for. The whole Jamies ethos is what’s kept me here and made me want to really commit to this restaurant. The senior chefs above me are amazing, They teach you a lot and hone your skills a little better. You know, you can flutter around in different restaurants – independent places, chains, 30 covers, 300 covers – but, for me, working for Jamies you get to be a professional chef and deliver to a professional standard, which I really like.

What advice would you give to others considering a similar path?

Jaz – Advice? Well, it’s a lifestyle, definitely. You work long hours, but they’re entertaining and you learn everyday. Do an eight hour shift, have an hour break, then go back and do another eight; that’s life as a chef. You hit your delirious hours between six and seven, where everything’s hilarious. I’ll say, just commit. You’ve gotta devote yourself to your trade, if you’re not fully committed, you can find yourself in limbo, only learning what you wanna learn, whereas you need to be open to all different types of cooking. You might have your preference, but the way the industry’s changing, you’ve gotta be open to all different styles of cooking, be determined, be dedicated and work hard. It’ll pay off.”

From Grimsby, around Europe and back to Blighty; that’s one hell of a journey, and yet, I got the impression that here was a man who feels very much at home, both in terms of his chosen profession and with regard to his current place of work. Such a sense of vocational contentment is a rare thing, and the cynic in me sighed inside, as it again found no evidence of the gun-to-head compulsory love for one’s boss that I’ve come to expect from many staff within larger organisations.

Raised in the village of Clavering, Jamie Oliver – much like Jared – has been working in kitchens since adolescence. Having since been awarded the honour of MBE, named richest Briton under 30 in 2007, inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame, and presented with the TED prize, Jamie’s hard work and determination has not only paid off for himself, but also seems to attract similarly minded people to seek employment within his company.

A slight rumble of the stomach turned my mind – and our conversation – back towards food.

Whats your favourite dish on the Jamies menu?

Luke – “My favourite has to be our antipasti plank. It’s been on the menu around eight years now and never really changed. Yes, there are other places on the high street doing it, but that’s only because we did it first and because we’re the best at it, and the first to show the whole story behind the dish. For me, that’s all about exceptional quality ingredients, which goes back to a key part of the Jamies ethos; ‘let’s get the best cured meats we can get’, ‘let’s get the best bocconcini we can get, flown in from Italy’, ‘let’s get amazing olive oil and put it all together, let people enjoy it’, and most importantly, ‘let’s give the guests something to learn about’. Every person who delivers that plank to the table can talk the guest through the ingredients, where they come from, how it’s traditionally supposed to be eaten, what they’re to expect from the dish. Come in, try it between two or three people and you’ll get a great dish that nutshells what Jamies is all about.”

Another confession here; I’ve never in my life ordered a meat antipasti. I love cured meats and I love cheese, but the notion of going to a restaurant and ordering a combination of the two always struck me as something of a rip off.

Then I tried Jamies antipasti plank.

To say that Luke hit the nail on its noodle would be an understatement; this is simplicity and excellence on a 12” piece of wood. The presentation is exquisite, the flavours are varied and delicate, the slaw is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted… Every single ingredient has a purpose and serves that purpose to perfection.

Let’s see what the chef prefers…

Jaz – “Definitely Jamies prawn linguine! It’s a quality dish – one of Jamie’s own creations – and is fantastic. Our homemade pasta we make every single day, a nice hit of chilli in the fish bisque, you’ve got a bit of fennel in there, the prawns, fresh cherry tomatoes, a little bit of passata, a nice bit of peppery rocket; it’s a really simple pasta dish and it delivers absolutely every time. It’s a fun little dish to cook, too. Like the antipasti plank, its stayed on the menu for so long. These long-standing dishes just deliver. They’re not overly complex, just how Jamie likes his food to be.”

Luke – “With the prawn linguine, that goes right back to the Jamies Italy recipe book. That’s where you’ll find it and that’s where this whole thing started, not just the dishes, but the whole brand. It’s not just a great dish, it’s from Jamie’s tour of Italy, which gave birth to his restaurant’s entire concept.”

Jaz – “That’s one thing that I feel really delivers and is great for the customers, the fact that all the dishes are accessible to customers; in his books, within his magazine, on his Food Tube videos online. We’ve no secret ingredients, we’re not keeping anything hidden, it’s all available.”

Luke – “Absolutely, and that’s the great thing about this place; the message. Come and try what we do, then make it at home for yourselves and your friends, and you’ll always remember where you found your new favourite dish. That’s what really works.

Jaz – “As a chef, he delivers that. He gives people at home the same advice we give to our chefs; on prepping food, storing food, choosing ingredients, and recipes that deliver as well at your dinner party as they do in our restaurant.”

Luke – “He’s very socially aware. Child nutrition, living wages, what his staff mean to him… yeah, of course he wants his restaurants to be full all the time, but he’s very aware that people live on budgets and that they may only be able to go out for an occasional tagliatelle and a coke, and that’s their one treat. Other than that, they may have to make the best of the ingredients they have at home, and it’s really good that a restaurant owner thinks, ‘when they’re not here, what can I do for them?.”

Remember the question I asked?

“What’s your favourite dish on Jamies menu”

From that one simple question, the conversation turned naturally to the restaurateur’s ethics, attitude and the roots of his brand. Again, none of this seemed forced. There were no buzzwords, no blue sky thinking, no hyperbole, just an honest chat between two guys who genuinely love their work.

Luke mentioned Jamie’s social awareness, which offered me a neat segue into discussing the Essex lad’s own extracurricular activities and how they’re reflected at the pointy end of his business ventures.

Jamie Oliver has long been campaigning for healthy school meals. Has Jamies Italian Leeds had any involvement in this?

Jaz – “Yeah, that was a big movement, to be fair, and he addressed it really well; school dinner as I remember it as a kid being pretty generic.”

Still remember that smell?

Luke – “Yeah, school dinner smell! Cheesy beans, baked Alaska”

Jaz – “Chocolate concrete, pink custard, yeah, loved it(!) As chefs for Jamies – throughout the company – teaching kids about food is a really big thing. Whenever we get the chance – and we [at Jamie’s Leeds] were lucky enough to do so last year – a couple of chefs go to a local school, and we targeted year 10s and 11s who had taken Food Tech for their finals. It was good, it was the first time I’d taught any kids about cooking, and it was nice to actually target that age group that would be leaving school this year or the year after, and giving them information on what the industry entails. You know, you don’t just have to go down the restaurant route, you can go into menu development, look at the science behind food, health and safety, allergens… there are all sorts of areas behind the concept of food that you can go into. So, it’s nice to teach a class that kind of information regarding their career paths – how it doesn’t just have to be hours spent slogging away in a restaurant – and it was also good to get cooking some dishes with them.”

We do Jamies Food Revolution Day, which is 15th May, every year. This is where Jamie tries to get as many kids in the country as he can cooking in one day. That started a couple of years ago. The one we had here last year, we had a group of kids in, did a root veg wrap; ordinary veg from the garden, beetroot, carrot, cabbage, a little yoghurt. We got a box grater, got all the kids to just wash the veg – no peeling – scrubbed the dirt off the veg in the sink, grated it all together, put some yoghurt dressing in, and had this big line of kids all making their own wraps. The concept was to encourage kids to get up and make their own healthy lunch for school. It was great targeting that younger crowd, and Luke has a few classes coming in as well…”

Luke – “Yeah, child nutrition is so important to Jamie, you know, he has kids of his own, which is why – just going back to the menu – we’ve won Soil Association awards for having the best kids meals in terms of ingredients; is it balanced, is it healthy, what’s the salt content, what’s the fat content, offering a fresh juice instead of cordial or fizzy, there’s a salad with every meal. It starts from the restaurant, we want your kids to eat well here, to have good quality food. Their pasta is the same as the adults’; fresh-made on site. Their bolognese sauce is the same as the adults’ – minus the wine, of course! – so, it starts right here. It’s never been forced on us here in Leeds, but we’ve always been proactive in working with local schools.

I’ve been quite heavily involved since I started here – probably because both of my parents were teachers – so I’ve had a lot of association with child education. I’ve had groups of five or six year olds in, groups of 12 or 13 year olds in, and we’ve made fresh pasta with them, which they then take home. That’s something we in Leeds have been really big on, because we want people to understand what we’re all about, to be accessible; this isn’t an adult only restaurant, it’s a family place, bring your friends… the Italian way! Family time! That social awareness is really important to us.

I also have got to thank our suppliers on this, because every time I tell them I have some school kids coming in, I ring Fresh Direct, and they’ll send me these massive hampers of fruit and veg – even I don’t know what some of it is! haha – and they’ll donate it for free. We get a lot of support from it, we’ll chuck it on Instagram and we’ll share the concept. It just shows that its not all about maximising profit, it’s about making kids aware of the industry, why they may want to choose a career in that industry, and the kids really want to know about that, where we came from and why we work here.”

So, thats something that you come up with individually, in each restaurant?

Luke – “Yes, we’re not told to invite schools. That’s just something we’ve done here, and that other restaurants have also decided to do.”

I guess youve followed an example, as that schools element is one of Jamies key messages

Jaz – “Absolutely! It resonates through the company, with managers, with senior chefs, within their teams. Even just coming into the building. Jamie has this knack for picking amazing buildings that just create this awe.”

Luke – “I work here, so I take it for granted, but some of the kids have never been to a restaurant before. And you get em in and take em about the place, and they love it. It’s a brand new experience. That’s why we get into the schools, to teach them about this industry, what’s great about it. That needs to start from a young age. Talking to them about food, why it’s important, why we should eat fresh food.

And there it is.

I arrived at Jamies Italian entrenched in my own cynicism, expecting distasteful schmoozing, stuffy formality, and the arrogance and laziness that so often comes when a product or service has links to the world of celebrity; as though a recognisable name alone should be reason enough to part with your hard-earned, and how dare you demand more than that!

What I found is something else entirely.

When Jamie Oliver first appeared on our screens as The Naked Chef, my scornful self saw the sliding down bannisters, the trundling to farmers markets on a Vespa, the ‘lovely jubbly’ Essex patter, and just couldn’t believe it not to be some media-borne orchestration.

When he first started the school meals campaign, my first thoughts were that it was a campaign with publicity and cash at its heart. Oh how harshly the cynic judges!

Speaking with Luke and Jaz, witnessing their passion for the business and its underlying ethos, and hearing of some great community work being carried out – not just in Leeds, but other outlets as well – with no prior instruction from head office or the PR department, my pessimism began to pale.

So, what can we expect from Jamies this year?

Jaz – (Grinning, picks up a plate with the restaurant’s 2014 AA award) “Another one of these!”

Luke – “In Leeds, we’ve got a new menu coming through, we’re having a stall at the Leeds Loves Food Festival. We just want to keep getting our name out their, keep producing top quality food and top service to go with it. Basically, the usual; build as a restaurant. There are still people in Leeds who’ve never visited – even after five years open – so we’re always developing our ideas to get those people in. Every new menu is always really exciting, there are always new things to learn about.”

During my years on the frontline of the nation’s – and indeed the planet’s – largest organisations, my indignation at what I saw as unfair practices and my occasional penchant for belligerence have caused me to clash heads with more than one or two managers. Through all the bureaucracy, sycophancy and nepotism that a cynic like myself has wont to witness in these establishments, the main thing that grinds my gears – and is almost ubiquitous throughout large organisations – is an obliviousness towards frontline knowledge.

In that department, Jamies Italian seems to have it nailed. Knowing there are other sufferers of cynic-itus out there, I have my evidence lined up and ready:

Holly Jackson is the General Manager at Jamies Italian Leeds. An urbane woman who manages to be at once lively and relaxed, she and a team of managers returned from a meeting at the head office in London, just before we began our interview. Their arrival brought with it a palpably electric atmosphere of excitement, as nearby staff gathered around. The last time I saw this sort of glee was when a mate of mine met Napalm Death in a kebab shop in Nottingham, around thirteen years ago!

What news from old London town, good lady?

Quite simply, a new menu had been finalised.

OK, I’ve worked in a fair few pubs, and a new menu launch is an occasion over which one makes something of a big deal. But, upon hearing talk of the finest matured steaks, burgers made by trimming said steaks to size and mincing the beautifully aged meet to make patties, the genuine, salivating excitement of the staff was a stake through the heart of my cynical self. Dracula the detractor! Sucking the life out of simple pleasures in the search for subterfuge.

Every single person I met just ‘got it’; the Jamies ethos. In fact, I correct myself! They all seemed to align with it naturally, as individuals – and that only strengthens with time in this kind of working environment. What I witnessed is the result of blending a strong, respected brand with first class recruitment and career development. Add to that the fact that its an independent business, providing jobs, training, money, education and social work in the areas from which they harvest their most valuable crop – the workforce – and its evident that the former pastry chef’s ‘love, share, inspire’ ethos resonates from the CEO to the KP.

Jaz had mentioned a certain awe that comes from the buildings that Jamie and his team choose to house their little slices of Italy. Looking around – eyes freshly freed from the blinkers of too cynical a viewpoint – I took in the place anew. Restored, yes. To it’s former glory? No. And all the better for it. Much of the original decor is still intact, and that which has fallen into disrepair has been secured and left that way . An excellent move, in my book, and when used on a building so rich in history as this, one only need add a few glass cabinets and info plaques, and you would be forgiven for expecting a guided tour in seven languages.

As I sat there – sanitised of cynicism – I saw a new, and much grander glory than the building’s former fiscal functions.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think I got an inkling of a message from the birthday-suited baker boy; a subliminal recipe, shall we say?

Ingredients:

Individuals who actively enthuse about their own achievements and that of their organisation

A basic ethos of good nutrition, good education, family, food and fun

An understanding that a lot of people are broke sometimes

The acknowledgement that, when you make a lot of money out of society, the decent thing to do is to repay them in some way beyond the service you sell

An independent business, which – in my home city at least – has taken root in the abandoned premises of dead corporate giants.

Method:

Just mix it all together, and let it simmer

Result?

Pukka!

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One thought on “Commerce, cookery and conscience: A cynics tale

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