Dining at the newly-opened Jamie’s Italian in Melrose Arch, it’d be easy to believe that Jamie Oliver himself was in the kitchen casting a friendly and ever-discerning eye over the proceedings (in between grating Parmesan over fresh pasta in his typically generous style). While this isn’t the case, you’ll likely spot the talented chef who Jamie hand-picked to run his first-ever franchise in South Africa, Shane Smit. It’s no easy task to carry out the vision of a world-famous chef on another continent, but Smit and his team are doing it brilliantly.
Smit set his sights on the UK to learn how to become a chef, trained under the first head chef of the franchise and, almost a decade later, now runs one of the tastiest Italian kitchens in the country. We spent a few minutes getting to know him better.
As head chef, do you get to conceptualise dishes at Jamie’s Italian? How much creative freedom do you have?
We have free reign when it comes to creating our restaurant specials, which are largely influenced by the weather and mood of the day. I get to create meals that South Africans will love but still keep the Jamie appeal. On the main menu, there are certain standard items we have to stick to.
Can you tell us a bit about the menu-planning process?
We receive huge support from the UK team in terms of this. So obviously, certain Jamie dishes need to be on the menu and we have a huge menu bank to choose from. It all depends on the produce we have readily available in South Africa, rather than importing. We also try to support our local suppliers a lot. We have daily specials, such as meaty dishes and creamy pastas, which often cater to the local palette.
Tell us about your journey to becoming head chef? Was there a MasterChef-style process of elimination?
No, we didn’t have a cook off. It was more of a fairy tale come true. I was given the opportunity to speak to Stephen, CEO of Jamie’s Italian SA, and there was an immediate connection and passion for this business. The team then flew me up to Joburg to cook a dinner for the shareholders, and the rest is history. There was no elimination process. We kind of found each other at the right time at the right place.
What would you say is the key skill needed to master the perfect pasta and pizza?
The most important skill is cooking it with love. It’s all about the recipe, weighing out ingredients, doing it with passion and being invested in the dish. Simple is always best!
What’s your favourite Jamie’s Italian dish to make?
The pizza, because you really have to get into stretching the dough and working for the dish. I also love being on the pasta section. It’s like therapy being behind the line and cooking for a busy service. Okay, pasta has to be my favourite.
And to eat?
I love the Juliette pizza, named after Jamie’s wife, and on the pasta side the bolognaise. I’m a bolognaise freak!
What makes Jamie’s Italian in Melrose Arch unique?
The moment you step into this restaurant you are immediately grabbed by its vibrancy. The mood and ambience is completely different, and being able to see the cook line is amazing: you can see your food made from A to Z. Our prices are competitive and the design of the restaurant is so different from the rest. The whole concept is unique, sitting in a cosy, Italian family-style dining room with the decor of a 5-star hotel restaurant without the stiffness. We also pride ourselves on cooking with the freshest ingredients, preparing meals from scratch that are infused with passion and love.
Was working with Jamie in Oxford different from your experience working together almost a decade later?
It is different in a lot ways, as I started as a trainee years ago, but it’s also very much the same. The support Jamie family vibe is still the same, but now that I am the head chef as opposed to a trainee, the pressure is definitely there. My fiancée tells me I am getting greyer by the day.
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