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LSA Exclusive: Reinventing fast food with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver needs no introduction. A household name not just in the UK but around the world, the fast-talking chef and larger-than-life food personality seems to be everywhere at once — one moment launching a cookbook, the next appearing on TV, and the next launching his own cookware line while simultaneously opening a new restaurant at some far-flung corner the world.

Recently, he’s wrapped up two major projects this year: the release of his latest cookbook, 5 Ingredients — Quick & Easy Food (“the fastest-selling book I’ve ever written,” he sighs with relief), and the final taping of a two-year cooking and food tour of Italy, which is set to unfold in a series of cooking shows, cookbooks and social campaigns. In Hong Kong, the 42-year-old chef has just opened a new branch of Jamie’s Deli in Harbour City — a healthy, on-the-go concept which translates the hearty and rustic cooking of Jamie’s Italian into grab ‘n’ go sandwiches, soups, artisanal pizzas and nutrition-packed grain bowls.

Jamie Oliver is no stranger to healthy eating: He’s been one of the UK’s greatest health-food advocates, at one point vehemently determined to reform the nation’s school lunch system, and has taught folks from all backgrounds how to cook healthy at home through his culinary programme, Ministry of Food. For this reason, fast food has always been the one area Oliver “never wanted to go into,” he admits. “From my perspective, fast food has always been associated with junk food. But we started to realise even though [Jamie’s Italian] is accessible, people’s weekly habits were changing and they wanted to get faster food.”

So how is he embarking on his fast food revolution? We get the inside scoop from the chef below.

Jamie Oliver, the “Naked Chef” and larger-than-life food personality.

Talk us through the concept and inspiration behind Jamie's Deli.

The inspiration is pretty simple, really. When we started Jamie’s Italian 10 years ago we started to realise although it’s pretty fast service for a restaurant, people’s habits were changing. So for me it was about taking the ingredients that you see in Jamie’s Italian, such as the antipasti bar and all the cured meats, the beautiful mozzarellas and parmesans and pecorinos, and kind of designing some faster, more casual food centred around that produce for on-the-go.

We’re making beautiful sandwiches, breakfast pots, and lovely hot buns. We’re doing deli salads of all kinds, and hot meals, and pizzas, so it’s just kind of modulising the food so that it’s simpler for the consumer to grab and go. Hopefully what the locals will enjoy is that it’s very visual, and I’ve tried to make the healthy approach much easier for people to enjoy.

So we can expect something completely different to Jamie's Italian then?

It’s completely different, but I would say similar in its heart and soul. Jamie’s Italian is really about cooked food based around pasta that’s made every single day on site, and cooking “al mattone”, which means under the brick. So we have our grill section where we cook simple grilled food with the hot brick on top — it’s a really beautiful way to cook. And of course we love the planks and the sharing of the antipasti.

But the deli is completely different. You’re able to focus in on more singular things like amazing salads and really fantastic rustic soups. It allows you to kind of pick and choose how you want to put your meal together, whether you get some proteins, then choose a salad, or do you want to go with a soup and a sandwich. So I think it’s just simpler and more casual, and our job is to make it quick and easy for you guys to have something that’s tasty and nutritious.

Jamie's Deli
Jamie’s Deli opened its grab ‘n’ go counter in Harbour City in early October.
Can you tell us about some of the ingredients used?

Well first of all the way it kind of works is that I write the general menu and we have specific suppliers when it comes to sourcing our cured meats, mozzarellas and parmesans and all of these things. And then I hand down to the local head chef and our local guy on the ground there, Steve Ma. He’s been with me for a while now and worked in Taiwan with me as well.

We have a set of parameters and a system that processes how and what our partners buy and where from, is it ethical and is it the right welfare standards, etc. It sounds really boring, but it’s actually a genius piece of software! It basically maintains and makes consistent our values across all of our restaurants. So Steve will be sourcing from local purveyors and we’ll be working with the best people on fish, and will be getting as much produce that comes from as nearby as possible. Obviously every territory has different challenges, so we work to that locally.

What are some must-try dishes?

There’s a lot of different dishes on the menu but I think probably the area that excites me the most is breakfast. I think breakfast is an area that a lot of people miss out on and certainly in the last 40 years the food industry at large has sold solutions with things that aren’t really breakfast, they’re more like cake in a box.

Jamie's Deli Breakfast
Breakfast made easy at Jamie’s Deli.

So we’re just trying to be contemporary in doing some really colourful, delicious things. We’ve got a whole load of porridge dishes, mueslis, a fantastic black rice pudding with coconut, we do these lovely little hot pots with different eggs…and what we’re just trying to do is make it quick, colourful and tasty, but communicate that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Most people that work hard, the first four hours of the day are the most productive. So I’m kind of excited about that and also I like the energy of people grabbing their breakfast and getting a coffee, and kind of moving on with their day.

There are only four branches of Jamie's Deli worldwide. Why Hong Kong?

Well, we’re starting to open more delis now just because there is a growing trend towards food on-the-go and although this is an area that I never wanted to go into, at the same time I’m really excited to go into it because fast food has always been junk food. And what I want the deli to do is to have the same values as any of my restaurants, and for it to be colourful and for the staff to be engaging, and most importantly, fun. Make it really good fun.

So why Hong Kong? Well it takes time to get to know our partners internationally, and we’ve got great partners there. Honestly I think Hong Kong’s the perfect place in Asia to start because of its history, it’s very cosmopolitan and dynamic — it’s absolutely the perfect place to be the first location [in Asia]. And also it’s not one-way. I think we’ll learn a lot from the locals. We want them to tell us if they want us to evolve the offer, change the menu, etc. I think the principles of the deli are really good but it’s how you bespoke that to a city, or even a neighbourhood — that’s the magic part. So we’re going to try and not only give them what we believe in, but also evolve it along the way so it fits the purpose.

Jamie Oliver
“I nevert wanted to go into fast food, but at the same time I’m really excited.” — Jamie Oliver
When can we expect you next in Hong Kong?

Well the last time I was over was just over a year ago. I always go to Hong Kong when I go to Australia, so we’re trying to arrange that trip next year. At the moment I’m hoping to get over pretty soon to go and see the guys, check out the deli, and just check in with the team in general. As far as things to do are concerned, I’m super open-minded and I just like to be taken on a tour. So the last time I was over we went through the many different markets, and did a lot of street food, and I had the most incredible time.

Of course with social media now, as soon as I get to Hong Kong, all of the people who follow me from Hong Kong are like, “can we do this, you must go here, you must go there” so I think that’s completely changed trips now. The last time I went to Hong Kong because my time was organised, I wasn’t able to really go and meet and respond to social media, but next time I go we’re going to do it properly and plan it as an event!

It must be nice to meet your fans from all over.

It’s really nice and do you know what? I’m really lucky because it’s food. Normally through the joy and passion of food, the people I get to meet, complete strangers, they’re honestly incredible, good people. And I think you know when it comes down to good food, good producers…well normally you don’t get too many problems.

Jamie's Deli Salads
Jamie’s Deli offers colourful salads and grain bowls on-the-go.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.

There’s so many! I’ve just finished a project called 5 Ingredients — Quick & Easy Food, and that has been a passion piece of mine. It’s the simplest book and program that I’ve ever written and presented. Next year will be my 20th year doing TV and the 20th book that I’ve published, and what’s been kind of exciting — and if I’m really honest, a bit of a relief — is that this is the fastest-selling book that I’ve ever written. I’ve never seen a book connect with people this well: old people, young people, students, everyone really is thanking me for the simplicity.

It’s been a real education. I’m not going to say that I’m better now than I am 20 years ago, but simplicity and accessibility is really what makes people happy and that’s what I’ve learned. And I think in a way we’re trying to get some of that energy into the deli — making it more simple, fun, modular, fast, but rest assured with the same values and the same kind of integrity that’s consistent with everything else.

And what about for television?

The other project that we’ve done, I’ve just finished nearly two years travelling around Italy working and cooking with very old nonnas, lots of 80-year-old women [laughs]. It’s been very slow and it’s been very beautiful and very hard and very rewarding. And it’s required a lot of patience. It’s kind of almost the opposite of Quick & Easy. It’s full of emotion and history, so that’s going to premiere next July/August, with a television show and book and social campaign. Those recipes will be going into Jamie’s Italian, they’ll be going into the deli, and in actual fact probably before [the premiere] they’ll be going into the deli.

I’m hoping what you’ll notice as well in the deli is the kind of messaging and the content that we share globally on social media such as the books. The guys in the deli will have the ability to tune in to those dishes and almost bring the social media curation to life in Hong Kong through the deli. It’s very exciting, and we’ll be doing a lot more of this in the future.

Leslie Yeh
Editor in Chief
Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.
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