The king of cookbooks, culinary campaigns and making catering cool has bigged up the Leeds food and drink scene, admitting he can’t do what they do so well.
Jamie Oliver, who found fame on screens nearly 20 years ago as ‘The Naked Chef’, was in the city this week to meet fans and cook up some of the dishes that will be featuring on menus at his Jamie’s Italian chain.
He stepped out of the kitchen to chat to City Buzz about his competition and new plans for his restaurant.
He said: “Leeds has the second highest number of restaurants per capita in Britain, which means you like a night out and want a mix of restaurants from high end, independent and mid-market.
“There is so much going for Leeds, and along with Bristol, is a shining example, it is horses for courses. There are so many cities that don’t have half of what you have.”
Oliver was asked if he kept an eye on the competition around the locations where he has his 36 branches and said he knew he was unable to keep up with the pace at which independents in Leeds were evolving but added that he was in touch with the needs of his Leeds diners.
The 42-year-old chef said: “I can’t do what they do. To be small and agile and the way they can pop up and do things, it is a really inspiring part of the sector.
“The sector is really virile and Jamie’s Italian has been in Leeds long enough to know that in seven years there has been a massive change and that is excellent for chefs and customers.
“Our direct competition is not the independents but Cote Brasseries, The Ivy, Zizzis and Carluccios. We are just trying to be mid-market and when we started this ten years ago, it was an area that was really underserved.”
However, he cannot rest on his laurels in Leeds as with a 25-year lease on the building at Park Row he added it was like being married to Leeds.
“It is longer than lots of marriages but it is important to make the space work hard and react to what people want.
“We might be a small chain but you can tell how the country feels, you can see the end of pay months and reactions to certain events and we have to react to that.
“Businesses are re-structuring and making redundancies and there is more pressure. People don’t go out for lunch and you have to react to that and do different things in a sustainable way.”
One of these, he added, was a range of options and prices for Christmas party nights at his restaurants, but mixing things up, he is also planning to bring his cookery school to Leeds in the new year to provide more industry opportunities and extend the interaction and visits between his chefs and local primary schools.
“You can’t stay trendy forever but seven years on the restaurant is still here which is a long time in this industry.
“I ask the staff ‘what do you think Leeds wants?’ Anyone can open a cool place but whether it still be open in two to three years is a different kettle of fish.
“Leeds is on my list for a Jamie Oliver Cookery School. I have one in Westfield and it is rammed because the teachers take on the energy I have made my money with. Where else can you pay 30 quid for something that will change your life and have food and wine? That is nothing to do with Jamie’s Italian; it is the future.”