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Jamie’s Italian.
Jamie’s Italian.

Jamie Oliver on his India debut

Britain's most enterprising chef arrives in India with two restaurants. But will he deliver?

Jamie Oliver is a machine. At last count, there were 41 outlets of his brand Jamie’s Italian in the UK, outposts across Europe and Asia (Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong) and works in progress in New Zealand and Russia, among other countries. For someone who began life as a pastry chef and then joined London’s iconic River Café as a sous chef, Oliver’s career has always been ahead of the curve: He jumped to television in the early days of food shows and rapidly became a favourite with his cheeky style of cooking. Oliver, 40, has used his popularity to launch several effective public food campaigns, from upgrading school dinners to the latest, a focus on super-sugary foods routinely consumed by British children (of course, both campaigns had their own TV shows).

Not surprisingly, Oliver’s enormous success—a report in The Telegraph earlier this year pegged his value at £240 million (around 2,448 crore)—has been dogged by criticism, but there’s no questioning either his business acumen or his passion for chosen causes. His restaurants may not have earned Michelin stars, but they shrewdly hard sell “quality, affordability and personality", targeting families and children.

Brand Oliver makes its debut in India later this month with Jamie’s Pizzeria, the first-ever such spin-off of Jamie’s Italian, opening at the Ambience Mall in Gurgaon, near Delhi, followed in October with Jamie’s Italian at the Ambience Mall in the Capital’s Vasant Kunj area. Both restaurants are being set up in partnership with International Market Management (IMM), London, and Carnation Hospitality, New Delhi.

With no immediate plans for a visit to India, Oliver responded to an emailed questionnaire. Edited excerpts:

Why bring Jamie’s Italian and Jamie’s Pizzeria to India?

From a personal perspective, India is a country that really fascinates me so it’s incredibly exciting to be opening there. I have a brilliant team who do all the research and due diligence before we move into any new territory and we certainly don’t jump into anything before we have established thorough knowledge. I do think that if what you’re offering is great quality and fantastic value, then the public will make room for you even if the scene is already strong. Having said that, a lot of people from Delhi have told me that there are a lot of expensive Italian restaurants and a lot of cheaper, lower-quality places, so I do think there may be a gap to fill there.

What’s your stake in the India venture?

I don’t like to talk figures but we operate our international restaurants using a franchise/partnership model. I’m not keen on the word franchise as I think it can give the wrong impression about just how involved we are with each and every one of our restaurants. I know of chefs who put their name to a restaurant overseas and then just leave it at that, which I find depressing.

When we open a restaurant, we go over every little detail—from sourcing suppliers, to design, to staff training. I joke about it but I do think we’re probably pretty difficult to work with—we demand so much! My team would probably like me to be less (involved) sometimes!

How much of Jamie’s USP will carry over to India? IMM founder Jasper Reid told us, for instance, that there will be a ‘paneer’ pizza...

We try and keep our international menus as close to what we have in the UK as possible. I think it’s really important not to dilute the core of what we do or we’ll end up changing what we are. We’ve kept the Jamie’s Italian menu pretty much as we wrote it but we have had a little bit of fun with some of the pizzas.

“Real food" has always been your focus. How will you be sourcing the ingredients for your Indian outposts?

Aside from some traditional Italian products, which we’ll import from Italy, all our produce will come from India. Procurement is hugely important to us and we only use higher welfare, sustainable produce from suppliers who adhere to our very strict guidelines. Because of this, whilst we always want to source from within a country, it isn’t always possible, so it’s fantastic we can do this in India. (Brand chef Bakul Kodikal has a slightly different take on the subject, see below).

Jamie’s Italian looks to stick to the international menu—but Indians are notorious for overloading their pastas, for instance, with chilli flakes and cheese. How will you accommodate that?

I’m never going to stop people asking for extra Parmesan or chilli. If you want to do that then of course you can, but I’d love it if you give it a go without first and see what you think.

Jamie’s Italian is pegged as an affordable, neighbourhood place. Do you intend to stick to that template?

Yes, absolutely. Right from its conception we wanted Jamie’s Italian to be flexible and affordable. If people visit either of our restaurants, have a good time and some great food and leave with a bit of cash in their back pocket, then I’m happy.

How do you see your product being different from everything else available in India?

For me, it’s not really about being too different—it’s about being solidly good. Yes, I hope people will enjoy the little twists we put on some of our dishes and some of the more playful elements of the restaurant but I really want our guests to come and eat something really tasty, made using top produce, at a great price, served by brilliant staff and in a nice buzzy room.

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Reality show

Bakul Kodikal, brand chef for Oliver’s India venture, on the meeting, the training and the shopping

Bakul Kodikal, brand chef, Jamie’s Restaurant Group, India, graduated from the Institute of Hotel Management, Mumbai, in 1998 and most recently set up the California Pizza Kitchen in India.

“I grew up watching Jamie Oliver on TV, so when I was called for an interview in February (for this job), I was thrilled. I spent eight weeks in the UK: four weeks in the kitchen at Jamie’s Italian in Brighton and another four in management training. Halfway through, I got a call to come to Old Street, London; that’s where I met Oliver, in a vast warehouse where he films all the food shows. He’s exactly as he appears on TV, a great bundle of energy, and he has big plans for India.

“Jamie’s in the UK is all about sourcing the right ingredients: For instance, all the fish they use is sustainable, all the poultry is free-range. It’s not easy to replicate the same standards in India so we have spent considerable time trying to find the right products. Jamie UK’s Italian cold-cuts supplier, Levoni, can’t ship to India, so we are importing our cold meats from D’Autore. Our eggs come from Keggs, the best eggs in India; we’re sourcing pesticide- and chemical-free vegetables from Thailand, Cambodia and Bhutan. We plan to engage deeply with our suppliers."

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