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FORGET AUSTERITY – IT WAS POOR FOOD WHICH DID FOR JAMIE’S ITALIAN

6th Jun 2019

So yet another chain of restaurants has bitten the dust, this time Jamie’s Italian, owned and fronted by cheeky chappy celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

All sorts of reasons have been put forward for the chain’s demise, including over-ambitious expansion, soaring business rates, and the fading appetite of the British public to eat out.  All of these may have been factors, but the main cause of the chain’s failure is simple: it wasn’t very good.

When the Norwich branch opened there were high hopes for the chain.  Taking over the former Waterstones store in the Royal Arcade, plenty of money was spent on transforming the space, and equal attention was paid to training the staff.  In my experience, the service was always friendly and efficient (and of course, it will be those same staff who will bear the brunt of the restaurant’s closure).

So far, so good.  Unfortunately, in the kitchen, the battle between Jamie Oliver’s cheffy aspirations and the accountants’ ever-present shadow was ultimately won by the money-men.  The food itself was mediocre at best, and often simply terrible.  And when you eat in a restaurant with a respected chef’s name above the door, that is simply unforgiveable.

Given that the main thrust of everything Jamie has ever done has been about getting us to stop eating ready-made convenience foods and start cooking from proper ingredients, some of the things which emerged from the kitchens of his Italian chain were appalling. 

I remember leaving most of a plate of spaghetti which had been served to me both lukewarm and overcooked – it had certainly spent some time under heat lights, and I suspect it had also seen the inside of a microwave.

This reminds me of a dining experience at another chain restaurant in Norwich.  My dish was meant to come with mashed potato, but the waiter informed me they had run out of mashed potato, would I like a Dauphinoise instead. 

Given that the basic ingredient of both is the same, I offered to pop round to the city centre Tesco’s, just 100 metres away, to buy the chef some spuds so he could cook my mash.  This, I was informed, was not possible – the kitchen was not able to make mash in this way – it was shipped to the restaurant pre-mashed, ready to be warmed up by the ‘chefs’ in the kitchen.

This is probably a much more cost-efficient way of running a restaurant, so it would have pleased the bean-counters.  It obviously didn’t occur to them that most customers were quite capable of warming up what was essentially a ready meal at home.  I never returned, and the restaurant is longer there, another casualty not of the economic climate, but of the kind of monumental disdain for customers which is all too common in chain outlets.

There has been considerable schadenfreude in the media, with some commentators taking great delight in seeing Jamie Oliver brought down a peg or two.  I don’t share this view; I think the chirpy chef is one of the good guys.

Apart from our own Delia, few people have done more than Jamie to encourage us back into our kitchens.  His cookbook recipes are easy to follow and they work; his down-to-earth persona appeals far beyond the average middle-class foodie; his campaigns, such as that to improve the quality of school catering, have come from the heart.

And unlike far too many businesspeople, when his company got into trouble, he didn’t start asset-stripping to line his own pockets before the inevitable crash happened, but instead sunk several million of his own money into Jamie’s Italian in an attempt to keep the ship afloat.

I’m sorry that the staff at Jamie’s find themselves without jobs, they were professional and friendly, and bear no blame for the chain’s failure.  I’m sorry that the closure might have tarnished the reputation of one of the few celebrities who are a genuine force for good.  I’m sorry, too, that one of the most attractive spaces in the city centre is currently standing empty and unused.

But I don’t mourn the passing of a restaurant which took its customers for granted and thought it could get away with serving mediocre food because there was a TV personality’s name above the door.  No matter how innovative the ‘concept’; no matter how plush the décor; no matter how slick the marketing – if the food is no good, you will fail.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.