Jamie Oliver on learning Italian cooking from grandmothers and eating less meat

The celebrity chef learns from the masters, Italian nonnas, in his new series. And his next project? A show that features entirely vegetarian food

Jamie Oliver has loved Italian food since his early days as a pastry chef. His Jamie's Italian restaurants in the UAE have closed, but Jamie's Diner in JLT focuses on pizza. 
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Jamie Oliver is back in Italy for his latest TV series, Jamie Cooks Italy, celebrating the nation's famed nonnas (grandmothers), alongside his former mentor and best friend Gennaro Contaldo. In addition to producing Jamie Cooks Italy (and an accompanying recipe book of the same name), Oliver is already looking to his next project – a show for vegetarians.

On his vegetarian project

Like almost every show Oliver makes, from getting schoolchildren to eat more healthily to saving authentic recipes from extinction, there’s an important reason behind his decision to focus on this particular area of culinary exploration.

“All I get is grief from vegetarians,” says the chef, who once slaughtered a fully conscious lamb on TV. “But around 70 per cent of ­recipes in my books are vegetarian or vegan.

“The one thing I know is true is that we need to stop eating so much meat. You can eat meat. But we need to get across to all of the population to eat less, which is better for them, for the planet and for farming.”

Oliver says many of the dishes in his books are vegetarian, including this veggie pizza. Photo by Ella Miller

Jamie Cooks Italy

Fans of the Essex-born chef will also know all about his love affair with Italian cuisine, which stretches back to his early years as a pastry chef in London, where Oliver met his first boss, Italian chef Contaldo, at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant. Since then, Oliver has shot a TV series in Italy, written a book on Italian cuisine and opened several Jamie’s Italian restaurants at home in the United Kingdom and internationally.

His return to the European country is all about saving the traditional Italian recipes, which are under threat from technology and the emergence of convenience food. These authentic dishes, which have been made by nonnas for generations, are potentially at risk of dying out with them. “What we tried to do with the nonnas is cut through some of the drivel, and the lens of ­modern-day life with smartphones and Snapchat and supermarkets, and get back to proper survival and nourishment,” Oliver explains. “We felt that it was really important to capture some of the energy from the last generation of old-school nonnas.”

Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo

Oliver and Contaldo spent more than two years making the eight-part series, which they admit was always going to go “over-time and over-­budget”. The pair travelled to some of the most remote areas of Italy, visiting the kitchens of various grandmums, learning their recipes and cooking techniques. In the first episode, for example, the pair meet 92-year-old Franchina, on the volcanic island of Salina off the north coast of Sicily. Nonna Franchina, who began cooking for her family at the age of 10, serves up a stuffed squid braised in her own home-made passata, which leaves Oliver speechless.


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Seeing that he has enjoyed her food so much, she looks into Oliver’s eyes and says: “If you like this recipe, then tell ­everyone about it. It would make me very happy.” For Italian Contaldo, preserving these recipes is as important as protecting a national monument or historic site. “It’s part of the culture; you can’t let it go.”

The grandmas didn't have a clue who he was

The friends were welcomed into the homes of these women, who happily shared their recipes. Despite Oliver’s international fame, most of them “hadn’t a clue” who he was, something the 43-year-old rather enjoyed, he says. “It’s really nice to not be recognised. The nonnas had no idea and didn’t care. And I loved it.”

But that's not to say he doesn't love meeting his fans, he adds. "I'm very lucky ­because, generally, my relationship with people is a really nice one, even if I don't know them. You can talk and feel like you know them quite well within a few minutes. If I'm in your life, I'm in your kitchen on a bookshelf, and in the world [of] celebrities, that's the best place to be. To have the honour of being in someone's kitchen for 10 or 15 years is a good vibe."

As well as recipes, the nonnas also shared their life stories and lessons, usually leaving the boys howling with laughter. “We laughed a lot, and with every one of them,” Oliver recalls. “But, unexpectedly, Gennaro and I cried quite a lot, too,” he adds. “Life was very different for them. In those days, they would have lots of children and many would die.”

He recalls one particularly heartbreaking moment when one of the grandmothers showed him a stillborn baby she had kept in a jar, in the hope that the baby will be buried with her when she dies. “You would hear these stories about a brutal life,” Oliver says. “Most of the nonnas were cooking by the age of 8. The whole family would go out to work and leave the child [alone] with fire, and when they came home, they’d want dinner. We can’t comprehend it. For me and Gennaro, I think it was a very important refresh, in a time of so much technology and opportunity.”

Jamie Cooks Italy will air on Fox Life from November 2018