Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in defence of the family-friendly mall restaurant


TORONTO — The old adage is that you can’t please everyone, but Jamie Oliver insists on trying.

The British celebrity chef says his life would probably be easier if he had launched a chain of exclusive, high-end eateries.

Instead, the TV star chose a tough route in pursuing an empire of family-friendly restaurants that feature organic menus. His two Canadian restaurants, Jamie’s Italian, are both in large Toronto shopping malls that cater to a mass clientele of tourists, shoppers and families.

“I could have opened a restaurant that was 30, 40 (diners), very expensive, very high-end and I guess you could say (elitist),” Oliver says in a recent phone interview from London.

“I know my life would be easier that way and you could throw the one-liners around like how great it is, but I think the challenge of over-delivering at mass market in the kind of price category where most can afford it, that was definitely my intention. I think that mid-market area is a really interesting one.”

The comments follow reports that Oliver’s global restaurant chain has been hemorrhaging cash as it grapples with debt and dwindling reserves. Meanwhile, there have been negative reviews and critical press — most notably in his native Britain.

Oliver notes his audience is “quite wide, from old-age pensioners to teenagers,” resulting in a broad menu that he admits has included concessions, including a separate kids menu. The longtime healthy eating advocate says he’s generally opposed to the practice of kid-themed meals but notes “the public wants them.”

“Would I have done it differently if I started all over again? I just don’t know,” he says.

“The question is: What is the correct cocktail and can you please everyone? And the answer is: I don’t know what the correct cocktail is but we definitely try, and ‘have you got it right?’ is always a moving target and subjective. But if you go into Yorkdale or any of those (malls), they’re beautiful big rooms with gorgeous fittings and a couple million dollars spent putting expensive tiles down and lovely chandeliers. There’s like 110 people that work in there that are pretty passionate about simple comfort food.”

Simple cooking is the focus of Oliver’s newest book, “Jamie Cooks Italy,” which took more than two years to pull together and is a companion to a similarly themed TV series.

He calls them a “labour of love,” but admits that these two projects, too, might have over-extended his bank account.

“From the book to the TV show it was a project that was always going to be massively over-budget,” he says.

“If you want to do a good job and kind of go through the seasons twice, and go from the north to the south and from mountains to the islands, it was never going to be cheap, was it? It was always going to take time.”

The book features the much-treasured recipes of several Italian “nonnas” and “mammas” he met along the way, with Oliver finding their culinary approach to simple ingredients especially timely given current obsessions with health and nutrition, fad diets, waste, and environmental impact.

Along with classic recipes from the nonnas, Oliver offers up hybrids that incorporate less-traditional ingredients including pulses, greens, and fish.

“My job’s always a little bit like mediator and translator — not as in language per se, but I need to write recipes that are modern contemporary recipes that stand up in Canada and Britain now and don’t require you to get something that you can’t get hold of,” he says, adding that “the book’s full of authenticity.”

He says the Mediterranean diet offers an approachable way to get healthy eating right, by emphasizing big flavour with few ingredients, and quality over quantity.

“What the nonnas in Italy are saying loud and clear is: have high quality and less of it. And when you have it, it should be a big deal and it should focus and command your attention,” says Oliver, linking this to a broader discussion around sustainable issues.

“This will be the challenge of the next decade and certainly the next 30 years when we’re looking at global population and is there enough meat? Is there enough water? Is there enough food?”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press


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