Chris Shaill still remembers the first time he opened a Jamie Oliver cookbook. “It was The Return of the Naked Chef,” he says with a smile, referring to Oliver’s bestselling follow up to The Naked Chef that was published back in 2000, when Shaill was in his teens. “Jamie was one of the chefs that inspired me to get into food and pursue it as a career, and that book taught me a lot about different flavours and cooking techniques – knowledge I still use today.”
Fittingly, given his early influence, Oliver has remained a significant presence in Shaill’s career. In 2010, Shaill joined the TV chef’s then-burgeoning UK restaurant group for the launch of its first Barbecoa site at the One New Change development in St Paul’s. The restaurant, with its barbecue-style menu and focus on live fire cooking, was a departure from the Jamie’s Italian brand Oliver had successfully launched two years earlier, and the opportunity to play a core role in developing the concept was a boon to Shaill. In time he worked his way up to executive chef for the Barbacoa brand, and stayed with the group until it fell into administration in 2019; a watershed moment that led to the closure of Oliver’s entire UK estate.
At the time, Shaill was keen to continue pursuing his passion for live fire cooking and went off to work as executive chef for Sophie’s steakhouse, which has sites in Chelsea and Soho. And there he stayed, until last year that is, when he was approached with an offer to take on a completely new project. “They called me and said Jamie was planning a new London restaurant, and asked whether I’d be interested in being the head chef,” he says, letting the words hang briefly in the air as he remembers the moment. “For me, there wasn’t any question about the answer. I just couldn’t turn that opportunity down.”
A high stakes move
The restaurant in question is Jamie Oliver Catherine St in Covent Garden which, when it launches later this month, will mark Oliver’s first opening on British shores since the collapse of his UK restaurant business. Housed within a Grade 1 listed site next to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, it’s a prominent location that’s undoubtedly suited to a chef of Oliver’s stature.
Oliver himself has previously described the launch as a ‘pivotal moment’ in his career, and it certainly has the feel of a high stakes move. Opening a big central London restaurant in the current climate, where rampant cost pressures are hurting operators both big and small, carries risk, leading some to wonder why he didn’t decide to just hunker down instead. Despite the events of 2019, Oliver’s status as one of the UK’s most successful chefs and restaurateurs has remained secure with an ever-growing global business (see boxout below) that currently covers more than 20 international markets, and a lucrative publishing deal that to date has seen him release 27 cookbooks in 24 years.
“I’m proud of where I’ve come from and
it’s important to me to have a culinary home here in the UK”
In Oliver’s own words, his motivation to return to the coalface stems as much from a personal place as it does a professional one. “Growing up, my home was a pub and restaurant,” he says. “I spent my weekends and my holidays working in the kitchen, learning from my dad. I’m proud of where I’ve come from and it’s important to me to have a culinary home here in the UK.
“I’ve waited to find the right location and the right team so that we are in the best possible position to create something that we’re all super proud of.”
Suggestions that Oliver was looking to return to the UK restaurant scene have been percolating for a couple of years, but there was no fixed plan in place until the Catherine Street site came about. “Since 2019 we’ve been focused on the international business,” explains Ed Loftus, global restaurant group director for the Jamie Oliver Group. “We weren’t scheming away behind the scenes looking to launch new UK restaurants. We’d thought about coming back, but until this site presented itself, we hadn’t really gone out looking and weren’t in that mindset.
“When it surfaced, though, it was a unique opportunity. Jamie gravitated towards the site, and it didn’t take a huge amount of thinking to realise it was the right decision for us as a group.”
Getting the gang back together
For Shaill, the level of pressure and expectation he feels ahead of the opening is obviously immense. “I knew how big this is from the beginning,” he says.
“It’s a huge deal for all of us, and there’s a lot of pressure. I like to keep things calm, but I won’t lie, there’s definitely some nerves. I just want to get in the kitchen with the team and get going.”
That team includes other alumni from Oliver’s Barbecoa days including Emma Jackson, who previously led the pastry section across both Barbecoa restaurants; and general manager Caesar Cruz, who has spent a total of 16 years working with Oliver.
“It feels like we’re getting the band back together,” adds Shaill. “This is a really exciting opportunity and it’s great to be working with Emma and Caesar again.”
As was the case with Shaill, Jackson was working for Oliver when his UK restaurant group collapsed. In the intervening years, she worked as head pastry chef for Petersham Nurseries, and later spent some time at Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire. “You don’t know tired until you do that job,” she says with chuckle, referring to the daily 3am wakeup calls.
Suffice to say, when the offer came to return to Oliver’s group, there was only one answer. “I said yes immediately,” she continues. “There was no question. I’ve come back, so has Chris and Caesar, and there are others, too. We’ve all returned to work with Jamie again, and there’s a reason for that. Things like this don’t come along very often and I think you’d be quite nuts to pass it up.
“It’s huge. Jamie is so well known and it’s such a high-profile job. It’s nerve-racking, but in a good way because it makes you want to be better and push yourself.”
Going back to Jamie’s roots
Some may question Oliver’s relevance in today’s dining scene. When Jamie’s Italian threw open its doors in 2008 it brought a frisson of excitement to the Italian casual dining sector, but times have changed dramatically in the years since its closure, expedited by the pandemic.
Yet Jamie Oliver Catherine St feels like a safe bet that’s likely to please fans and tourists, as well as the pre and post-theatre crowd. The restaurant has been described as ‘a celebration of Britain’s rich food culture’, with the menu taking inspiration from dishes Oliver used to cook while working in his parent’s pub. “We’re really leaning into those early memories,” says Loftus. “We want Catherine St to be a very special place. However, at the same time we want it to be super accessible.
“We’re not trying to compete in the mid-market; and we haven’t gone into a huge, cavernous restaurant – it’s more intimate. It feels special. Before, the group was focused on growth in the UK, but this is more about creating a one-off celebratory restaurant that brings to life Jamie’s roots.”
As well as Oliver’s upbringing, the menu also nods to his time at The River Café, his non-profit restaurant Fifteen, and both Jamie’s Italian and Barbecoa. “There’s 25 years of legacy there,” says Shaill. “When we were developing the menu, we came up with a long list of dishes and over time have shortened that down. Inspiration chiefly came from dishes Jamie cooked in the pub, but also from things he likes eating and what he’s passionate about.”
The menu itself is broad, encompassing various sections including nibbles, starters, pasta dishes, mains, sharers, grill plates, steaks, and desserts. Prices are pitched sensibly, with starters coming in at between £10 and £15 and most mains under £25.
Savoury dishes range from devilled eggs with Exmoor caviar, to roast Creedy Carver chicken with stroganoff sauce, shoestring fries and baked wild mushroom rice; and onion tarte tatin with Tropea onions, confit garlic, Pilton cider and Colston Bassett cheese. Desserts, meanwhile, will include a Snickersphere, a mainstay of the Barbecoa menu that sees a dome of Hill St. chocolate filled with peanut butter semifreddo, salted caramel and peanut praline, and served with buttermilk ice cream and butterscotch sauce.
Oliver has worked closely with Shaill and Jackson on the menu’s development. “I feel so lucky to be working with some incredibly talented people,” he says. “As we’ve developed the menu, we’ve had regular tasting sessions where we sit down and get into the nitty-gritty of a dish, or pull apart a memory from an old recipe and think about how we can communicate that in our menu.
“The brilliant thing is that a lot of us have been on the journey together, so we remember the same things. You’ll find the menu tells a story and is really welcoming.”
The spirit of Fifteen
As well as serving as a foothold for the group in the UK, Loftus hopes the launch of Jamie Oliver Catherine St will be an opportunity to re-engage with the ethos that drove the chef’s Fifteen restaurants in London and Cornwall. Originally launched in 2002, the idea behind Fifteen was that each year 15 young people would be trained to work in the food industry.
“We want to try and recreate a bit of that at Catherine St,” says Loftus. “Jamie loves the industry, he’s super passionate about being a restaurateur and having a restaurant that’s a force for good.”
In the years since Fifteen closed there has been more of a push by operators to set up training facilities and encourage new people into the industry, driven by the sector’s ongoing recruitment struggles. And while there’s no plan at present to introduce an apprenticeship scheme at Jamie Oliver Catherine St, a lot of focus has been put into nurturing new talent that joins the restaurant.
“We haven’t had a challenge filling the team, and now it’s down to us to create an amazing culture and environment where they want to stay and thrive. We want to create a really strong culture that’s underpinned by a social purpose.
“Jamie’s philosophy over the years hasn’t changed. Ultimately, he loves celebrating the food system and the people that are a part of it, and that’s what we want to do.”
A one-off restaurant
Both Oliver and Loftus cite the success of the group’s rapidly expanding international arm as being a driving force behind their ambition to return to the UK, and why they now think the group is ready to do so. But does that mean there’s an appetite to open more restaurants in the UK?
There have certainly been hints that Oliver may want to open something within his Essex mansion house, Spains Hall, in the future. The group’s chief executive Kevin Styles has also teased the possibility of further UK restaurants in recent interviews. Loftus, however, remains coy about the potential for further UK expansion.
“Catherine Street is very much a one-off,” he says. “We want to create a flagship and anchor for the business that represents Jamie’s philosophy. That, coupled with the international business, is our key focus at the moment.”
“We want to create a flagship and anchor for the business that represents Jamie’s philosophy”
That approach seems sensible. The group toasted ‘robust’ revenue growth of 8.1% in its most recent accounts for the financial year ending 31 December 2022. Its two companies – Jamie Oliver Holdings and Jamie Oliver Licensing, which encompass both all the media interests of Jamie Oliver as well as products and partnerships, including the franchising of international restaurant concepts and the Jamie Oliver cookery school – generated a combined turnover of £29.7m for the period and a net profit after tax of £6.2m. Frankly, it doesn’t feel like there’s any need to make another major play for the UK market.
Should Jamie Oliver Catherine St be the roaring success its team expects it to be then maybe things will change. For now, though, the focus is squarely on making sure the restaurant hits the ground running.
“Serving customers, the buzz of a happy restaurant, building amazing teams and cooking incredible food is just the most exciting thing,” says Oliver.
“This is a really important moment, and it means the world to me.”
Naked ambition – Jamie Oliver’s plan to conquer the world
Jamie Oliver Catherine St may be the chef’s first opening on British shores in quite some time, but on the international stage his business has continued to grow significantly in recent years. Following the collapse of his UK restaurant group in 2019, Oliver opted to focus his efforts on expanding globally with sites launching in Spain, Norway and India, among others, in recent years. And there’s plenty more to come.
“We have a robust plan to get the group to 200-plus sites by 2027 and that’s our focus,” says Ed Loftus, global restaurant group director for the Jamie Oliver Group. The group expects to have a total of 90 sites open globally by the end of the year, building on its current portfolio of around 72 sites, with a further 25 to 30 restaurants set to launch next year.
The majority of sites run under franchise, with the group’s portfolio featuring eight brand formats. They include Chequer Lane in Dublin, Jamie’s Italian in the Middle East, Jamie Oliver Kitchen in Brazil, Cyprus and Indonesia, Jamie Oliver’s Pizzeria, Jamie Oliver’s Diner, and Jamie’s Deli, which is focused on airport locations.
“We think we can definitely deliver on that,” adds Loftus. “[200 sites] might feel like a lot, but dispersed across the globe it feels achievable.”
Earlier this year, the group signed its first franchise partner in Berlin, and will open its first site in the German capital in early 2024 under the Jamie Oliver Kitchen brand. The group has also recently signed a franchise partner for the Balkans region and is also exploring opportunities to open restaurants in Poland.
Beyond that, Loftus says the group is also hoping to establish its first sites in the US in the next few years. “We have a European focus at the moment, and we want to build up some density in the key markets there, but the US is something we’re looking at. We’re growing with our existing partners and bringing new ones on board.
“It’s exciting. The strength of the Jamie Oliver brand is awesome; people resonate with what he’s about and we’re very fortunate.”