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Sun 19 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Hail to the chef

British chef Jamie Oliver has come a long way since he first hit television screens a decade ago.

Jamie Oliver has come a long way since he first hit television screens a decade ago, building a business empire and leading a high-profile campaign to raise food standards in British schools. Now, he's in Dubai to launch an innovative new project that aims to coax Dubai residents out of the fast food joints, and back into their (custom-designed) kitchens.

It is Jamie Oliver's first visit to Dubai, and like many UAE virgins, the celebrity chef is struggling to take it all in.

"Normally I own neighbourhood restaurants, but this time they've yet to build the neighbourhood," says the 33-year-old, scratching his head in a thoughtful manner. "It's a bit bizarre, really."

If your parents are at work and you’ve got a third party cooking for you, then you’re going to grow up not knowing what it takes to cook a healthy meal.

Rather like Dubai, Oliver has over the last decade come from relative obscurity to become a household name around the world. His critics deride his Essex accent as ‘fake cockney', or ‘mockney', and accuse him of pandering to Britain's ‘middle-class foodies'.

Yet he remains a phenomenally successful restauranteur, he has sold over 20 million books, and his shows are screened in over 100 countries around the globe.

And in the years since he made his 1998 debut as ‘The Naked Chef', Oliver has proved an astute businessman, building an estimated $50m fortune through his television shows, books, and endorsement of supermarket giant Sainsbury's and cookware manufacturer Tefal, among others.

It's this eye for a deal that has bought Oliver to Dubai, where last week saw the unveiling of his latest venture, a partnership with Government-owned Leisurecorp, which is building the Jumeirah Golf Estates residential and leisure complex.

And in typical Oliver style, the two parties have come up with a unique project that's sure to tempt the tastebuds of foodies across the Gulf.

Between them, Oliver and German luxury brand Poggenpohl have designed the ‘perfect kitchen' for each of the villas, townhouses and apartments situated in the Water neighbourhood of Jumeirah Golf Estates.

Oliver will also create the Middle East's first ‘Kitchen Library', a lending space for culinary equipment and cookbooks, and establish cooking classes for residents unable to tell a soufflé from a steak tartare.

"The interesting thing about food poverty - and I'm not talking about famine, I'm talking about bad diets and people who live on takeaways - is that whether you're on the dole or on a couple of hundred thousands pounds a year in the City, it doesn't make a difference," says Oliver.

The people who are going to be buying these places are going to be well-off, but that doesn't mean they can cook and within the remit of my job, I'm trying to change that. We all need help with education in cooking."

A new ‘Grab and Go' retail concept will also provide nutritious meals to encourage residents to ditch their usual takeaways, and enjoy a healthy evening meal at home.

Residents will be encouraged to mix and match their own creations with Jamie Oliver branded fare.

"Not that anyone would feel sorry for the wealthy, but I know a lot of people that are doing very well but eat and cook sh*t," he says. "They can't even cook a basic meal and feed their kids, and that's a great shame.

"Like the rest of the world you've got problems with obesity and type-2 diabetes, which are gathering momentum," he continues. "If your parents are at work and you've got a third party cooking for you, as happens out here, then you're going to grow up not knowing what it takes to cook a healthy meal, and before long we'll have a whole population like that."

Of course, Oliver is no stranger to the campaign for healthy eating. In his 2005 documentary, Jamie's School Dinners, he took responsibility for running the kitchen meals in a London school, for a year.

Disgusted by the unhealthy fare being served to schoolchildren and the lack of healthy alternatives on offer, Oliver began a campaign to improve the standard of Britain's school meals. Public awareness was raised, and, subsequent to his efforts, the UK Government pledged to spend an extra $491m on school dinners.

In the Gulf, too, Oliver insists that governments have a responsibility to improve the eating habits of their peoples. He argues that they are in a "fantastic position" to address food wastage issues, and suggests that they could also act to impose a cap on the growth of fast food restaurants, as they have done in California.

"Governments are in a great position to inspire, and to allow smaller businesses with good social remits to enjoy the breaks and benefits to prosper," he explains.

Parents and the public have got a responsibility as well, but in this day and age we're all on a bit of a journey and the most important thing is clear instructions - clear laws on packaging, and clear messaging to the public. That has to come from the government."

Of course, however hard Oliver shouts his message, there will remain those who refuse categorically to pick up a spatula. With them in mind, the chef will also open two signature restaurants in the new development."On a daily basis, I turn down offers to open restaurants all over the world," he reveals. "I don't say this smugly or pretentiously, as whether you're good or not, if you're on television, they want you to do sh*t. But I didn't just want to open a restaurant in Dubai - it was the whole project that excited me."

One of the restaurants will be a new BBQ concept that the chef dubs the "Nobu of BBQ", and will open in 2011, as the last of the Water neighbourhood is completed.

"BBQ's got a bit of a bad reputation these days, and it's probably the British who have ruined it with dodgy sausages and undercooked chicken legs," he laughs. "I'm talking about BBQ as the most primal form of eating - wood, charcoal, and spit roasts. We'll have a butcher's on site and there will be no gas or electricity - it's all charcoal and wood, cooking in cauldrons and pits."

Before that, Oliver will open an extension of his ‘Jamie's Italian' chain, which will offer no-nonsense antipasti at "affordable" prices. Scheduled to launch in the Norman Clubhouse in 2009, the eatery will be "a restaurant for everyone", he insists.

"The only way you can charge less for a great product is through a different model, and Jamie's Italian is a great model," says Oliver. "It's based around volume. We're doing 4500 covers a week and our average spend, I'm very proud to say, is 18 to 21 pounds (31 to $36).

"People are chuffed to bits because there's a recession, and if I've heard one criticism of Dubai it's that the food's too expensive," he continues.

"With Jamie's Italian, I'm being myself. It won't be the best meal of your life, I promise, but it will be bloody good value, and you will love the service, and you will love the décor."

The notion of "bloody good value" may be unfamiliar to devotees of some celebrity chef restaurants. And in the current economic climate, the majority of Londoners are more concerned with staying above the breadline, than they are with splashing cash on the latest big-name fine dining experience.

That's not the case in Dubai, however, and a slew of signature eateries from the likes of Gordon Ramsey, Gary Rhodes and Locando Locatelli, have opened up to tap the Gulf appetite for flash food at flashier prices.

However, Oliver insists that he is not here to make a quick buck, but to make a "difference", even within the gated Water compound.

"A compound full of rich people ain't that sexy," he laughs. "We want to create a heartbeat, we want to create culture, and we want restaurants that are worth travelling to.

"Let Ramsey and Rhodes and the others do their thing, I'm not to judge," he continues. "Personally, I don't like to be uptight, and I don't want a pretentious know-it-all trying to serve me wine and trying to flog me a 400 quid ($700) bottle rather than a 30 quid one."

While Oliver concedes that Water will be inhabited by "rich people", he maintains that quality food at an affordable price will be the key tenet at his Italian eatery.

And if he can achieve this, then he stands a chance of breaking even on a project that he insists is less about making him rich, and more about getting "everyone eating healthier food".

"What does another couple of million quid matter to me? It wouldn't make any difference at all to my life," he insists. "I want to run businesses that work and that are real businesses, as opposed to nice ideas that are subsidised by my other businesses.

At the same time, I also want to help create a culture where people are really into their food.

"At the end of the day whether we're in Dubai or London, my restaurants will be fully booked for the next two years, even if I serve sh*t," he smiles, holding up his hands as if apologising.

"So I'm not too interested in the first visit. I'm looking for something that will make you come back for a second or third visit.

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wolverinex 11 years ago

Like many people I have been following Jamie's very pedagogical approach to most people lousy eating habits. And have become a big fan myself. However, as with many articles here; where do we go and buy his cookware in Dubai??? what about a link to his site or to where the local retailers are? because searching via google for things in the Gulf doesn't give out any results.....since many business still haven't figured out that we are in fact a few that do not always have the time to call a phone number and talk to an employee that has memorised things about his workplace and has no clue whatsoever on the products he or she are selling......a GCC trademark I would say,....