Remembering Jamie’s Italian for What it Was: Just Fine

Twenty Jamie’s Italian branches are to close as the celebrity chef’s restaurant group goes into administration. Rest in power.
22 May 2019, 2:50pm
jamie oliver restaurant closures
via ITV.

Although west London is a very affluent area, Notting Hill presented few “hang out” spots for me as a teenager. You could “hang out” in Hyde Park if it was warm, or McDonald’s if it was cold, but if you wanted somewhere a little more upmarket than a ketchup-covered faux-leather booth, there weren’t many options. Until one year, Jamie Oliver’s Recipease arrived – a giant, glass building on the corner of the main street, with a restaurant, deli and space for cooking demonstrations. Recipease offered decent coffees, a casual dining menu and a nice view of some roads. I’d go there to get coffee with my friends, or browse the posh salt and overpriced kitchen tongs if I was bored. It wasn’t visionary as an establishment but it got the job done.

And then, one cold day in December 2015, Recipease went. The Daily Mail reported that 40 jobs would be lost and the news followed shortly after the surprise closure of the Clapham Junction and Brighton branches. Locals speculated as to what the closure could mean: had there been a rent increase? Was the building becoming a block of flats? Or, maybe, Jamie struggling? The idea that a titan chef like Jamie Oliver, with his successful TV shows, best-selling cookbooks and restaurants could be losing money seemed out of the question. It had to be something else.

In retrospect, those suspicions may have been right. Yesterday, Jamie Oliver announced the collapse of his restaurant group, which includes the Jamie’s Italian chain, steak restaurant Barbecoa and his London eatery, Fifteen, which ran a pioneering chef training programme for disadvantaged young people. As a result of the group going into administration, 1,000 jobs will be lost and 22 restaurants will close. Twenty of these are Jamie’s Italians.

Oliver released a statement saying, “I am deeply saddened by this outcome and would like to thank all of the staff and our suppliers who have put their hearts and souls into this business for over a decade. I appreciate how difficult this is for everyone affected.

“We launched Jamie’s Italian in 2008 with the intention of positively disrupting mid-market dining in the UK high street, with great value and much higher quality ingredients, best in class animal welfare standards and an amazing team who shared my passion for great food and service. And we did exactly that.”

Not well enough, because now Jamie’s Italian is dead. Dead like one of the many high street restaurants that failed to deal with changes to our eating habits. In 2017, restaurant closures increased by 20 percent, indiscriminately hitting big chains and small businesses alike. In an age when London rents are sky high, and companies like Deliveroo and Uber Eats have given us the option of never leaving the house, no wonder Jamie’s Italian couldn’t hack it.

Just like Woolworths or home ownership, the Jamie’s Italian dream is now gone. But how to best memorialise this pivotal moment in restaurant history? Honestly, Jamie’s Italian was largely fine – a bit nicer than Gourmet Burger Kitchen or PizzaExpress but nothing mind-blowing. It was the place you and parents could go for a “special” lunch because you passed your driving test. I once went with my uni housemates and felt extremely grown up after someone’s dad gave us money for wine. As a colleague remembers fondly: they served the olives on ice!!!

Another middle-of-the-road chain closing may not make a huge dent in the UK’s culinary scene, but there are reasons to lament the passing of this establishment, beyond job losses. For one, Jamie’s Italian was certainly pioneering in bringing fresh pasta not only to the affluent London intelligentsia but to the mainstream, or um, the airport. While “fresh pasta” is extremely on trend for London restaurants today, Oliver foresaw the country’s affinity for the soft, glutenous noodles way back in 2008, when the chain launched.

More important than fresh rigatoni, though, is the fact that Jamie’s Italian was an unpretentious spot that allowed anyone – be it from Leeds, Cardiff, Glasgow or London – to have a nice dinner out, without making you feel stupid for not knowing what parpadelle was. The death of the high street restaurant not only puts jobs at risk but will inevitably contribute to the downturn high streets across the country, embedding inequalities between London and less well-funded towns and cities. Jamie’s Italian wasn’t the be all and end all of regional prosperity, but it comes as part of a wider trend that sees companies like Uber and Deliveroo deepen their monopolies on the food market. It poses the question, if Jamie Oliver can’t survive as a food business, then who can?

Oliver is a divisive figure. For some, he’s a charismatic, pioneering chef fighting for better nutrition in schools, and uses projects like Fifteen to create genuine change. For others, his policy campaigns were classist, he killed Turkey Twizzlers and once banned his daughter from taking selfies. Love him or hate him, the end of his restaurant group won’t mean the chef is any less present in our lives.

It’s just be those iced olives that we'll mourn.