Speaking at the launch of his new restaurant Jamie Oliver Catherine St in Covent Garden, the chef turned restaurateur discussed the reasons behind his return to the London restaurant scene and how the project came to life.
“It wasn’t actually on the radar,” he said. “My landlord is Andrew Lloyd Webber, that’s pretty cool. We were helping him doing some operational drawings and bits and pieces for this space - this has never been a restaurant before - and then he just said, ‘can’t you do it?’
“The truth is that financially it was two or three years before I could have done it, but it felt right. Everything I think was presuming no but when do I go again? It’s a tricky one. I would love to have a quiet launch and open quietly and chip away but that doesn’t happen with Jamie Oliver, you just spank straight away.
“A few things fell into place. There were so many learnings from the past, so much passion from my childhood, immediately it felt right the point of this restaurant. We all know if it’s good it’s good; if it’s from the heart, you’ve got a good chance.”
Attracting the theatre set
Housed within a Grade 1 listed site next to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the new restaurant marks Oliver’s first opening on British shores since the collapse of his UK restaurant business.
“I know it's tough; I’ve had the best of the best and the worst of the worst and here we are,” said Oliver. “It really matters to me that this happens.”
He said his plans for the restaurant, which is located in the heart of Soho’s theatreland, is for it to become a hangout for people from the arts.
"My landlord is Andrew Lloyd Webber,
that’s pretty cool"
“In the old restaurants you would book out and just be grateful. What I’ve never done is try and foster an audience. What does that mean? If you want a table, you can get it. We’re not booking out chunks of our restaurant and [we're] trying to not just have tourists coming here.
"We want to look after tourists, of course. We want to look after other people who work locally; we’d quite like to foster as many artists, writers and directors and singers as possible.”
He also said it was good to be back in Covent Garden, recalling fondly his first chef job in London working as a pastry chef for Antonia Carluccio and Genaro Contaldo at Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant.
“We’re here in the theatre district, we have a job to do before any ego. As a pastry chef I was last one out at 1.30am. The last tube from Leicester Square is an amazing education.”
Not trying to be cool
Speaking about the design of the restaurant, Oliver said the brief was comfort rather than being on trend. The long and quite narrow dining room features numerous works of art, wooden parquet flooring, deep red leather seating, and fabric veiled pendant ceiling lights not dissimilar to those found at Brutto, the restaurant from the recently departed Russell Norman, to whom Oliver paid tribute at the launch.
“When coming up with the restaurant I wasn’t trying to be cool, I wasn’t trying to be contemporary, or trendy – none of those emotions came into this,” said Oliver. “I wanted it to be predictable, warm. I wanted it to be heartfelt.
“When we were designing the restaurant, it was all about comfort. I was picking fabrics I didn’t like but I thought were comfortable.”
"I wanted it to be predictable, warm.
I wanted it to be heartfelt"
Oliver also spoke about his team, many of whom have worked for him in the past. These include head Chris Shaill and pastry chef Emma Jackson (pictured below), both of whom worked at Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa restaurant, and general manager Caesar Cruz, who has spent a total of 16 years working with Oliver.
“We fully recruited with word of mouth and have some of the best of the old team, which is quite emotional for me,” he said.
“When we were running our restaurants, we were all trying to work on people’s progression, and it was a nice echo – we must have done something right because they have all wanted to come back.”
Oliver said that the menu at the restaurant would evolve throughout the month with specials every day, describing the food offer as “just really nice comfortable food”.
“Most of this menu is from my childhood. Hopefully if you bring your mum or your dad or your cousins there will be something for everyone. That’s the point of the restaurant.”