When he appeared as a scruffy Essex lad playing the “we can cook” theme for people of a certain non-culinary demographic in the 1990s, Jamie Oliver was something of a revelation. He was the Naked Chef, positively oozing with enthusiasm and keen to push the accessible, easy meal for the cooking virgin. This was Blair’s Britain: aspirational, hopeful and a touch vacuous.
Many never fell for it, but a good number did, boosting his image sufficiently to go into the chain restaurant business. In so doing, Oliver, as he did with his own dishes, got too adventurous. Initially focused on easy to make meals for the oafish lad dad or chap wishing to nab some skirt, he became what we might call a gastronomic entrepreneur, a cocksure celebrity. His dishes, in the words of market analyst Fiona Cincotta, became “too expensive for mid-range dining and not high-end enough to compete at the more expensive end of the market”.
The idea of Jamie’s Italian going under will warm and delight the knockers. To be fair, much of it is worth knocking. Even those in praise, such as England former goal keeping great Peter Shilton, would have to admit that the pasta served to his children was inedible (“it was so bad”), though he did enjoy his special-to-order steak with sauce. Online reviews from the punters at TripAdvisor have also howled derision at various branches. Jamie’s Italian seemed doomed.
Some of Oliver’s staff have also aired their views. Josh Singh of Jamie’s Italian at the Bullring in Birmingham saw a change from the initial years when it was “a destination restaurant”. But the company “started giving things away and turned into your average high street restaurant instead of a celebrity restaurant.”
The critics have been fairly savage of late, taking aim at the lamp post with warm bile and corrosive venom. Some, however, have been in the business of launching mortal shells of disgust for years. Tanya Gold, writing in The Spectator, was unsurprised by the move of Oliver’s restaurant empire into administration. “I reviewed his flagship restaurant on Piccadilly, Barbecoa, in 2017, and damned it because the food was bad and the atmosphere non-existent (Well, it was almost empty; you cannot create joy in a void.)” If Oliver was making cash, it could hardly have come from the restaurants.
Gold, it must be said, has never deviated in tone or sentiment regarding Oliver. In 2015, she had a firm suggestion: Oliver should have stuck to recipes instead of fattening up his chain, which, at that point, had burgeoned to some 41 restaurants, an offensive empire against taste.
For the various guerrillas marshalled against Oliver, Marina O’Loughlin of the Sunday Times must receive the award of most devastating knocker. She launched a most memorable, devastating salvo at Imperium Jamie last year in assessing the tagliatelle with truffles at the Westfield Stratford branch: “Appalling, a honking, salty swamp of a sauce, brown and dusty with nutmeg. Tiny chunks, not shavings, of tasteless black truffle lurk around, like mouse poos in soup.”
She was evidently in a mood most foul, admitting in her opening lines that she wanted to “swear and kick something. Possibly Jamie Oliver.” The entire image greeting O’Loughlin was a hideous combination, a mutilation of such terms as “music bread” for carta di musica, a range of mad mistakes (intentional?) of food assemblages such as pesto of dubious provenance and inspiration. Oh, and throw in such terms as “epic”, “world’s best”, the usual Oliver lingo that is bound to make you expectorate.
The bomb may have had some effect, but the entire restaurant china was already struggling. Oliver’s justification was bland, laying the blame on “the well-publicised struggles of the casual dining sector and the decline of the UK high street, along with soaring business rates.” And the uncertainty; and Brexit.
Stressing problems in the sector is not inaccurate. Other franchises have been suffering in what has become a mass cull. Italian chain Strada had been paired down significantly, and Carluccio’s have faced closures and reductions in staff. Prezzo, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Patisserie Valerie also find themselves in the same sinking boat.
All that said, there is nothing getting away from the reality that the franchise food bill thrives in Britain and will continue to do so. Chain restaurants, Rachel Rich reminds us, “are as authentic to the British food world as the inns and taverns of the 18th century.” Being a country more of grub than gastronomic fare, whatever the glammed-up appearances, keeping it simple has its merits. As long as some credible degree of taste can be created, the entity will survive. Forgetting the atmosphere and turning it into an exercise of speed dining on a name is bound to be fatal at some point – people will only tolerate cafeteria chic for so long. Eventually, such experiments wear thin, cut corners, and go easy on the cooking. Shavings become chunks; gracefulness becomes plodding.
In Oliver’s case, the restaurants got larger, the dishes pricier and the staff overburdened, ever stressed to make targets. Locales with their specific attributes were ignored. Rents spiked. As with any restaurant, the result is usually disaster and inevitable termination.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org