Jamie Oliver's restaurants set sail on cruise liners

Date:14-05-2014 07:58:04 read:0

Jamie Oliver's restaurants set sail on cruise liners

Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurants are about to make waves on Royal Caribbean cruise liners. Is there no stopping him?

Jamie Oliver: 'Everyone thinks if you are Jamie Oliver everything you touch goes to gold, but it's not true' Photo: Rex Features

Jamie Oliver is as British as bangers and mash and more divisive than Nigel Farage offering a plate of Marmite sandwiches. He's the hero of food campaigners, fighting as he does for better school dinners, but a pariah to the Politically Correct for daring to question the choices of parents, specifically the ones who stump up for huge televisions but not fresh fruit and veg for their children. Then just last year Jamie made headlines for apparently supporting the controversial Mr Farage, saying: "What I love is that UKIP are stirring it up" – appalling much of the middle classes in the process.

As for me, I've been known to stick my fingers in my ears and shout LA-LA-LA if I suspect anyone one of dissing Jamie. He's the man who proved the Real Men Do Cook, that it's possible to be a successful celebrity at the same time as being a family man, and – crucially – who put his head above the parapet to tell us uncomfortable truths about the way we, and our children eat. And this week, the Jamie machine gets behind the Food Revolution day, a scheme to get children all around the world cooking.

A couple of weeks ago I got to meet the man himself. We met over drinks to publicise not the Food Revolution but his partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruises, who are putting Jamie's Italian restaurants into their new cruise ships Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas.

In fact, Jamie's Italian restaurants don't thrill me – meals I've eaten in the provincial branches have been lacklustre, and I was once given Peruvian asparagus when English was advertised on the menu, which left me distinctly disgruntled. But if you bear in mind that Jamie's Italians are high street not high end, simply a chain in competition with Carluccio's and Pizza Express, what's on offer seems better. You can't expect the individuality that goes into Jamie's stand-alone venture Fifteen in London or its sister in Cornwall's Watergate Bay – and since it was recently revealed that Barbecoa, Jamie's City of London meat restaurant, was closed for 24 hours in January after a damning hygiene report, it's probably just as well you won't find any 70-day aged steak on the menu in a Jamie's Italian. And there's no doubt that they are popular. Figures for 2012 show Jamie's Italian sales up over 30 per cent (2013 figures have not been released yet), while Jamie's Italian has the highest sales per outlet of any other high street brand, according to a report by the National Federation of Specialist Restaurants.

So it seems likely – though nobody is saying so – that Royal Caribbean's move to grab a bit of Jamie magic reflects an industry-wide desire to get younger people on cruise ships, traditionally the preserve of the grey pound, using food as a hook. Other operators are already on the case. P&O has signed up the likes of Marco Pierre White and James Martin and is launching an on-board cookery school on its new ship Britannia next year.

I had plenty of time to mull this over while waiting with a huddle of other journalists for Oliver, on the rooftop bar of the Jamie's Italian just off London's Piccadilly Circus. He was late, but since he was waylaid talking to his enthusiastic and palpably nervous young staff downstairs, who were we to complain? When he finally strode out into the evening sunshine, his entourage trotting behind, my first thought was that he's less tall than I expected – 5ft 10in I'd guess – and sturdily built, his red check shirt a snug fit. My second thought, as he looked me in the eye, leant in and confidingly apologised for keeping me waiting, was to be utterly disarmed.

Swigging a glass of prosecco, he continued straightforwardly, summing up his appeal to an international market, and the cruise ships. "I broadcast and publish in 80-120 countries around the world… What they expect from me is comfort food, high quality, and enough surprise to make them want to come back." Jamie's Italian has rejected approaches from airlines to design menus, but cruising was a better fit, perhaps because he has fond memories of cruising as a child. "My dad … was quite a hard man, quite stingy as well," he explained in a half admiring, half joking tone. "We never really went on holiday, but then every three years we would go on a blow out."

He asked a waitress to explain the tray of canapés to him, leaning in again (it's a Jamie trait) appreciatively. Staff, he says, "can either run a section or they can't. Sinking at this sort of level is not a very pretty sight." Especially on a ship? He rocked with mock embarrassment. "Oh no! Clanger number three of the day. You don't want to know what the first two were with the Germans."

Not everything has been a success, as he admitted. "Everyone thinks if you are Jamie Oliver everything you touch goes to gold, but it's not true." Earlier this year three out of his four British restaurants, Union Jacks, closed. Did that upset him? "There's always sadness when you try things and they don't work and it costs you a load of money. It was my baby, we had the best pizza. I can definitely take responsibility for some of the bits not working."

Maybe we aren't ready for British food? "Sometimes you are three or four years ahead of the public," acknowledged Oliver. It was just too complicated an idea, he reckons. "It should take you five minutes to explain [a concept] - it took me a lot longer than that to explain Union Jacks. The intention was beautiful. It will live again at some point." You won't, he added, "find a better pizza base in London. Yup, we did all British toppings that probably was part of the problem, and we called them flats, not pizzas." He ends ruefully, "The public are cruel masters sometimes."

His own children, Poppy (12), Daisy (11), Petal (5) and Buddy Bear (3) are, he says, "feral" and he has plans to take them on a cruise. But Oliver is realistic about his chances of having a real break. "With a face like mine there is not too much peace and quiet you get in the way of large groups of people. But I'm used to it."

Does he still work on school dinners? "Daily. Since eight years ago. We've still got a dedicated team on it. And every other campaign that we have started." It is, he said, "a really brilliant but massive ball and chain to the organisation but it's the heart of what we do." Will there be more campaigning? "Yes, you'll see documentaries at the appropriate time in the future to come." What could be left for Mr Oliver to champion? Hospitals have been done by Heston and animal sanctuaries don't have the same kudos. "I don't know," he shrugged - do I catch a hint of the disingenuous? – "but when it's appropriate."

In the meantime, there is Food Revolution Day. "It's our third, a very exciting social media global day of action. We are going for a world record this year of a million children having a cooking lesson in a day. So we start off in Sydney at the Olympic stadium overlooking the harbor bridge with 3300 kids."

He sees himself as a provocateur, "being a stirrer, being friends with your enemies, being close to them but also being a pain in the back side." The important thing is to create a dialogue, both in the media, and among individuals. "When you do it enough change starts to happen. "

Like Nigel Farage, then? Jamie looked perplexed, glancing around to his team for help. "Nigel Farage, who's he? I'm not up to speed on Nigel Farage?" Um, the leader of UKIP. "Oh him! Yes our names [have] been put in the same sentence a bit recently, I'm not sure why. I'm apolitical, because of all the stirring up, campaigning I do. I suppose really I think it's good to have a debate." Politics should be a broad church? "Yeah, that's a democracy, isn't it?" They could do with a bit more of that North of the Border, he believes. "Scotland, they've only really got one choice, haven't they?"

Oliver is more comfortable back on food and people. "Cooking and learning to cook is a beautiful thing…TV's great, books are great, but when you get skin on skin, people on people, locals on locals it's brilliant. And that's what I do." As he said himself, "I have a very weird job. But I do love it."

Food Revolution Day

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