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Jamie Oliver interview

Jamie Oliver has returned to Greenwich, a few years after kicking off his school dinners revolution here. Jamie talks about his Nelson Road restaurant - and Greenwich in general.

The first Jamie’s Italian, a venture between chefs Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo, opened in 2008 in Oxford and has grown to many restaurants worldwide. Its success, says Jamie, is down to creating a “good all-round experience” for diners.

“We’ve worked really hard to get everything just right: great service, food sourcing and food standards and, of course, delicious food at a reasonable price – I think on the whole, we’re there,” he says.

“We also make sure we instill these values in our staff, which is so important as a growing group. We’re learning and we know we’ve got to keep ahead of the game, but I think we’re in a strong position at the moment, in that we know what works and what doesn’t.”

In recent years, Italian food has seen a transformation, with a greater appreciation and focus on quality ingredients and seasonality. “As with any globally loved cuisine, we have adapted Italian food according to our tastes and convenience,” says Oliver.

“Here in Britain, we are lucky enough to have access to loads of quality Italian and Italian-influenced products in almost all good supermarkets these days, from beautiful olive oils and cured meats to pre-prepared sauces and a whole spectrum of pasta – it’s amazing really. We’ve also got incredible chefs in London now taking Italian food, modernising it and winning Michelin stars along the way.”

The menu at the Jamie’s Italian in Greenwich follows the ethos of the brand, which is simple and rustic Italian cuisine. Oliver describes the style of food at the restaurant  as the “sort of stuff you’d find people in Italy eating at their kitchen table”.

“We have some incredible produce available right on our doorstep,” he continues, “so we add our own little twist to some dishes to keep things fresh and exciting.”

Along with a few daily specials, the Greenwich branch saw the opening of the first Jamie’s Italian London deli. “It’s a beautiful shop with a relaxed area to sit and read the paper. The food on offer changes throughout the day – coffee and breakfast in the morning, loads of fresh salads, sandwiches and hot dishes at lunch and then some really nice takeaway dinner options in the evening,” says Oliver. 

“We have a brilliant counter of cured meats and cheeses as well as pasta (made on site) and a lovely range of homemade sauces. Delicious.” 

He adds that the food at Jamie’s Italian has evolved slightly over the years. “We opened our first Jamie’s Italian when the country was going into recession, but have continued to grow throughout – it’s incredibly important to be aware of what’s happening around you and to react, respond and adapt to what the customers want. Saying that, we’ve stuck to our resolve, and our vision and values have remained the same.

“I think we’ve shown that really good value isn’t about discounting, and that our evolution has come from the relationships we’ve built with our British suppliers, our travels and constantly trying out and tasting new things.”

Jamie says “Greenwich is a fantastic part of London”. “It’s steeped in history, has loads of character and has a really great vibe about it. It’s been on the list of places where I wanted to open a Jamie’s Italian for a long while.

“I’m really happy that we found the Victorian shop terrace on Nelson Road – it’s a beautiful building”

Jamie, of course, is no stranger to the area. Back in 2005, Kidbrooke School and its head cook Nora were the focus of the chef’s campaign to improve school dinners in Britain as part of his TV series Jamie’s School Dinners. He gathered 50 head dinner ladies from across Greenwich together to come up with a set of healthy menus to use an example for the whole country. 

The show kicked off the “Feed Me Better” campaign, which saw 81 out of 88 primary and secondary schools in Greenwich replacing junk food and processed dinners high in fat, salt and sugar, with healthy school lunches.

Greenwich council spent more than £90,000 in one year towards retraining its dinner ladies and increased the subsidy towards each child’s meal from 33p to 81p.

A study by Oxford and Exeter universities subsequently reported that those pupils who had taken part in the campaign had achieved better test results than those in neighbouring boroughs and were off sick less.
“I look back at the time I spent in Greenwich as the start of something amazing,” says Oliver. “The support from Nora and the other dinner ladies, the head teacher and lots of the parents and kids during the school dinners project was – and still is – fantastic.

“We had no idea how big the TV series was going to be, or how interested people were going to be in tackling the issue of school food, but we ended up getting around £500 million investment from the last government and started to make real progress. A lot of that has been halted in its tracks following the recent changes – but that’s 
a whole different question.”

Jamie’s Italian is at 17-19 Nelson Road.

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