Jamie Oliver Expands to Hong Kong as He Reflects on Living Brand

Jamie Oliver was in a reflective mood as he prepared for today’s opening of Jamie’s Italian in Hong Kong.

“I’m a living brand: It’s quite an awkward thing to be,” the British chef told Bloomberg Television in an interview in London. “Even Richard Branson -- It’s not called Richard Branson Airlines. He’s got Virgin in the middle.”

The new restaurant in Causeway Bay is a partnership with Big Cat Group Ltd., which has acquired the rights to develop and operate the chain in China. Oliver said the main obstacle to overseas expansion was finding the right partners.

“We choose them very, very carefully and we want them to have the right spirit, because we over-deliver in a lot of areas that are quite expensive, whether it’s food and produce, sourcing, ethics and staff as well,” he said. “We like to treat our staff as well as our ingredients.”

Hong Kong follows outlets in Australia, Dubai, Ireland, and Russia, with Canada, India and Sweden coming up. At home in the U.K. there are about 35 restaurants. Not bad for a business that started with modest ambitions in 2008. At the time, Oliver said he would focus on the provinces and had no plans to bring it to London.

“We never presumed we’d go international,” Oliver, 39, told Bloomberg TV. “My instinct was that it would do well because for me Jamie’s Italian was about, How do we reinvent middle-market dining? How do we make it beautiful and sexy? How do we train people and employ well and create incredible fresh things on site every single day? And that was always a challenge.

Raise the Bar

‘‘I look at my career -- certainly the 15 years in the public eye -- I’ve now defined that my challenge and my excitement about the food industry is always about raising the bar. How do you go in, disrupt and raise the bar, whether it’s school food, hospital food, restaurant food?

‘‘I could make Jamie’s Italian much more profitable within a week by downgrading all of our products and probably only 40 percent of our customers would realize,” said Oliver, who was a young chef at River Cafe when he was spotted by television producers who gave him his own show, “The Naked Chef.”

It’s easy to be cynical about a multi-millionaire who talks about passion rather than profit, welfare rather than wealth. All I can say is that I have interviewed Oliver several times and what you get when you meet him is what you see on TV. He’s friendly, talkative and energetic.

One time, he switched between recording a video and talking to me and the only difference was the direction in which he was looking. It isn’t the same with all chefs. Chef Gordon Ramsay, oddly enough, is more thoughtful and engaging than his TV image.

Oliver said that wherever he opens a restaurant, he tries to tap into the local market. That can be a bumpy road.

Announcing the Hong Kong opening in a video, he attempted Cantonese. According to the South China Morning Post, he said, “I will open an amazing Italian submarine” and promised that it would be “very slippery.” Causeway Bay came out as car crash according to a translation on YouTube, the newspaper said.

Jamie’s Italian is located on the second floor of Soundwill Plaza II, on Tang Lung Street. It seats 200.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)

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