Jamie’s Italian Job
Superchef Jamie Oliver’s latest adventure has been in the kitchens of Italy’s nonnas, whose generations-old, home-cooking style can show us a thing or two. As told to Jonathan Whiley.
Celebrity chef, campaigner and father-of-five, Jamie Oliver is a man with plenty on his plate. Presiding over an empire of restaurants, including Jamie’s Italian Piccadilly, the Naked Chef is also Britain’s biggest-selling author after JK Rowling. After leaving school at 16 with two GCSEs to his name, he enrolled at Westminster Catering College before bagging his first job at Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant in Covent Garden. His big break came during the filming of a documentary at the renowned Italian restaurant, The River Café. Baby-faced Jamie, a sous chef, caught the eye of producer Pat Llewellyn – who discovered and directed The Two Fat Ladies – and the rest, as they say, is history. His dynamic style turned him into a star and his rustic approach to cooking has ensured sales of more than 10 million cookbooks. His latest, Jamie Cooks Italy, will be accompanied by a Channel 4 series this summer and sees Jamie join long-time mentor Gennaro Contaldo as they travel across eight regions to discover a taste of la dolce vita.
You have worked alongside some of the greats of Italian cooking. Is there a piece of advice that has stuck with you the most?
It’s true, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some of the greats – Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, Antonio Carluccio and of course my friend and mentor Gennaro Contaldo. But, learning from nonnas across Italy for this book has been amazing. Probably the most powerful thing I’ve taken from the experience was learning to
un-cook! And what I mean by that is to push away everything learnt in‘cheffy’ training and focus on love and care – we don’t need everything to be chopped the same size – the imperfect is perfect. It’s good to be aware of seasonality and, if you’re worried about food waste, pollution and plastic, think about just buying what you need and shopping locally when you can. The nonnas have the answers to many of the challenges we face now, and the reality is that the solution to a lot of our problems is simply people knowing how to shop, grow and cook.
What are your memories from visiting Italy for the first time?
I vividly remember the first time I ever had a mouthful of acquacotta – I was 22. Acquacotta sounded so romantic to me, so I was surprised by the crudeness of its translation, which is ‘cooked water’. I was amazed that I could taste the individual flavour of the chunks of vegetables, yet together they added up to a broth that felt really smoky and cleansing.
I was freezing at the time. I was in a charming little village outside an old-fashioned frantoia – a place where they press new season’s extra virgin olive oil – and this is used to finish the soup. It gives it an incredible smell of cut grass and artichokes. Absolute heaven.
What has been your most memorable Italian meal?
This year there’s been a lot of memorable Italian moments filming the TV show and shooting the book. The first thing that jumps to mind, though, would have to be cooking on the beach with Gennaro at sunrise – one of those magical moments and a brilliant memory.
How much has Italian food changed since you first started out?
I’ve seen quite a few changes in the 25 years that I’ve been visiting Italy. In fact, the reason I had to write this book is because I felt that the current generation of nonnas are the last ones to truly have the experience of being lifelong cooks, and of kitchens without modern conveniences. They have some really important lessons for us to learn. I now know they feel the same way as I do, and are concerned that the younger generations aren’t passing on knowledge in the same way as they used to. Preserving incredible insight, tips, combinations and techniques has been a very clear and strong emotion central to the creation of this book.
Antonio Carluccio said that he would take the basics of Italian cooking – flour, tomatoes, olive oil and Parmesan cheese – to a desert island. Which three Italian ingredients would you take?
I reckon it would be fresh chillies, big Italian lemons and great-quality extra virgin olive oil.
What is your favourite….
While we’re on the Italian theme, you can’t beat the home of the Bellini – Harry’s Bar in Venice
Japan, but I also have a long list of new places I’m desperate to explore!
All the Star Wars movies
Only Fools and Horses
Jamie Cooks Italy, published by Penguin Random House, is out now. Jamie Cooks Italy will air on Channel 4 this summer.