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Jamie Oliver found a new soulmate and best buddy when he met US ‘flame king’ Adam Perry Lang – and now the two chefs are launching a City restaurant that champions barbecued food in all its glory. It’s a primal thing, they tell Ben McCormack
It’s been a busier than usual few months for Jamie Oliver. In August, his US TV series Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Programme; his wife, Jools, gave birth to a son in September, and he’s back on Channel Four five nights a week in Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals. And to remind us that he’s a restaurateur as well as a celebrity chef, a new eatery – Barbecoa – opens opposite St Paul’s Cathedral in November.
A barbecue restaurant might not seem the most obvious next step for a chef who made his name with unaffected Italian cooking. It’s unlikely it would be happening at all had not Oliver been introduced to Adam Perry Lang, the US chef dubbed the ‘flame king’ of New York, for his restaurant Daisy May’s BBQ. Recalling how they met, Oliver says ‘I had a mutual friend who took me to Daisy May’s. At that time I was doing a lot of serious barbecue work, both at home and when I was filming. I felt like I was good, but not as good as this guy who was winning all the gold medals.’
For his part, Perry Lang was already aware of Oliver. ‘I remember watching The Naked Chef with my wife in the late nineties. Jamie was cooking a
fry-up for his mates, and I thought – this guy is cooking how I’d cook for my friends; he gets it, he understands the elements of food. I’d wanted to meet him for a while, and we’ve been pretty close ever since.’
Perry Lang gave Oliver a tour of the smoker at Daisy May’s and they were still talking long after closing time. It’s hardly surprising the two got on: 35-year-old Oliver now has three young children while 41-year-old Perry Lang is a father of two, the author of best-selling cookbooks and a regular on American TV. Most importantly, there’s a shared food philosophy. ‘Adam and I are both food geeks’, Oliver laughs, and Perry Lang agrees. ‘We speak a common language. We love food, we love cooking and we love to nurture people with it.’
‘We speak a common language. We love food, we love cooking and we love to nurture people with it’
This common language manifests itself most obviously in a passion for ingredients – as Oliver is quick to point out. ‘When I was at the River Café, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray told me never to forget that it’s my job to know where everything comes from. It’s the best advice I ever received. You need guerrilla techniques to source the best beef, for instance.’
Two years ago on a skiing holiday, sharing a bottle of Italian wine, the pair mapped out the idea for a new restaurant on the back of a napkin. Perry Lang’s education in British ingredients began two months later when Oliver took him on a ‘food run’ of Borough Market. Since then, he’s spent his time touring the UK to find the best meat to serve at Barbecoa. The emphasis on provenance is especially important because the new restaurant will have its own butcher’s shop: almost every part of the animal will be put to fruitful use on the menu, and City workers will also be able to buy meat to cook at home.
Anyone expecting a stateside rib joint with a focus on animal welfare, however, will be in for a surprise. ‘Barbecoa isn’t going to be an American barbecue,’ Oliver explains. ‘Barbecue as Brits think of it is direct grilling, but we’re going to be using ash, cauldrons and spits. We’ll have six pieces of bespoke equipment from six countries – from wood ovens and pits to tandoors and robata grills. No one in the UK has done anything like this, and none of our chefs have ever used this sort of equipment at other restaurants. If we’re clever, we’ll pull it off and it will be amazing.’
Certainly, Oliver couldn’t have found a better partner than Perry Lang. The Brooklyn-born chef earned his fine-dining stripes working at New York’s best French restaurants including Daniel, the flagship operation of Daniel Boulud, who he describes as ‘my mentor’. But put off by the burnout of many top-end chefs, as well as the realisation that he would never be a great French maestro, he took a job on a ranch in New Mexico, where his love of BBQs was born. ‘Some of the cowboys built a barbecue with blowtorches and we started cooking outdoors in my downtime. And I realised how unbelievably simple yet complex it was. I just had one of those epiphanies.’
‘The Barbecue as Brits think of it is direct grilling, but we’re going to be using ash, cauldrons and spits’
One of the reasons behind Daisy May’s success is the fact that New York’s polyglot US community can discover and order classic dishes from their home states. But isn’t ‘barbecue’ a harder sell in the UK? Perry Lang admits that there’s an image problem of ‘burnt bangers and hamburgers’ but believes that, when done well, barbecuing touches something primal in human nature. ‘We can all relate to meat and fire because it taps into the deepest parts of our brains and it elicits certain responses. It’s a big umami experience.’
To allow diners to connect with their atavistic instincts, a window into Barbecoa’s kitchen will provide a view of hooks of sausages and lamb hanging over smouldering wood in a ‘burn pit’, as well as a custom-built, gargantuan Texan smoker that can cook 1,000lb of meat at a time, an Argentinean grill that raises and lowers on a wheel, and a tandoor stuffed with skewers of game.
This visual spectacle couldn’t be further from the sterile feel of some restaurant kitchens. ‘There’s a place for water baths and for vacuum-sealed technology. I think it’s fantastic but, to me, it’s not the answer and it’s not cooking. And I think most of the people who are doing it know it’s not the answer,’ says Perry Lang. ‘I see a spark of excitement in my chefs when they’re in front of a grill, trying to tame the untameable; they are actually cooking, as opposed to doing things that are more like lab experiments.’
Outside Barbecoa’s kitchen, things will look just as impressive: a wall covered in sheepskin, a Renaissance-style fresco of wild animals, steel screens, charcoal cladding and a view of St Paul’s from every table. ‘We’ve spent a year and a half on this project,’ Oliver says, ‘and it’s been an incredible journey, translating our dream onto a menu. And it’s brilliant that I’m doing this with my partner and friend.’
But although the chef is busy with Barbecoa and rolling out his casual Jamie’s Italian eateries around the UK (15 and counting), he hasn’t forgotten his first London restaurant, Fifteen, made famous in the 2002 TV series Jamie’s Kitchen.
‘Everything is about the people you surround yourself with. I can’t do all of that stuff on my own’
‘Fifteen is coming up to its tenth anniversary and we’re still busy. We were up 2% on last year, which is healthy in the current climate. Mostly the clientele is locals who eat upstairs in the trattoria, plus slightly too many tourists downstairs in the restaurant. We’ve redecorated and we’re retraining the staff: a lick of paint here, a lick of love there, thinking about how we can keep it interesting and contemporary.’
In addition to a September refurb, there’s a greater emphasis on promoting Fifteen’s ‘made in house’ foodie credentials and the fact that the ingredients are ‘best of British’ – even though the flavours and culinary ideas are mostly Italian. The restaurant’s tasting menu has been replaced by an à la carte, and set menus (£34 for three courses) operate at lunchtime. And, to attract more locals and Londoners, Fifteen is emphasising that its laudable apprentice scheme is backed up by a team of professional chefs cooking restaurant-quality food – foremost among them head chef Andrew Parkinson. ‘He’s great,’ says Oliver. ‘You’ve got to have a special guy in that job because of the people we invest in. It’s high-stress, running a brigade of 20 chefs and 20 students, many of whom are from troubled backgrounds. Fifteen has to be cared for preciously.’
He is also quick to stress that the charitable Jamie Oliver Foundation is at the very heart of things, seeking to transform lives for the better – whether it’s teaching people to cook healthily at the Ministry of Food centres (now being rolled out in Australia and America as well as the UK) or persuading schools to set up kitchen gardens. It all sounds very much like something out of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ – except that the original Ministry of Food in Rotherham is threatened with closure by the government’s proposed spending cuts. Still, at least an Emmy shows that the Americans love him.
How does Oliver keep pushing himself and his company Jamie Oliver Limited forward? ‘Everything is about the people you surround yourself with. I’ve spent 10 years investing in good staff and friendships, and there’s no way you can do without it. Unless you’re all over everything – the who, what, when, why, when – your business will be shit. I can’t do all of that stuff on my own. If I didn’t have all those people, I couldn’t do what I do.’
Having soul mates and kindred spirits also counts for a great deal, and it looks like Oliver has found a new partner he can rely on in the shape of Adam Perry Lang. A world away from Fifteen’s eminently worthy intentions, Barbecoa could signal the start of something big.
Fifteen, 15 Westland Place, N1 7LP; 020 3375 1515; www.fifteen.net