Jamie Cooks Italy: "Probably the most powerful thing was learning how to un-cook!"
Apr 06, 2020

Jamie Cooks Italy: "Probably the most powerful thing was learning how to un-cook!"

Watch the acclaimed British chef get taught a thing or more by Italy’s grandmothers in his delicious Italian adventure on TLC

Most home-cooks learn soon that things don't have to be perfect in the kitchen. But for international celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, that lesson came to him later in Italy.

Perhaps it was while making orecchiette, a ridged clam-shell like pasta on the Italian streets. “In one part of Bari, they’ll make it a certain size, and in Alto Moro, they make it a slightly different size, and they’ll all be orecchiette,” the British chef muses, peering at the dough.

Hand-made orecchiette, a ridged clam-shell type pasta 

And his teachers? A bunch of fiercely proud Italian 'nonnas', the Italian word for 'grandmother', who first instructed him to “go slow” as he poured water into dough, then pushed him to “go faster”, as he began to knead it into shape. No exact measurements, no precise temperature control, just a grandmother’s experienced touch.

“Probably the most powerful thing was learning to un-cook! And what I mean by that is to push away everything learnt in cheffy training and focus on love and care – actually we don’t need everything to be chopped the same size as the imperfect is perfect,” Jamie said, reflecting on his Italian adventure that took him right into Italian kitchens across eight different regions, including Tuscany and Rome.

But it isn’t all cooking. Jamie and his long-time culinary mentor, respected Italian chef Gennaro goes about the country, exploring fresh market ingredients and trying out all kinds of wonderful produce.

In one instance, the pair huddle over a sailboat like chefs over a kitchen-top, tucking into a fresh catch of seafood. “I can’t wait to give it a go,” Jamie talks quickly as he carves out tartuffi, a “sea truffle” he explains, adding that it’s “sweet and bitter, an unusual combination.” The pair then move to try a “raw mussel”, shucking at the shell. “So sweet, iron-y” he says, before they proceed to polish off a stand-out buttery sea urchin.

Jamie and his mentor, respected Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo, who appeared alongside him in the 2005 hit series, Jamie's Great Italian Escape

It's part eating, part cooking and for the most part, Jamie does the grunt work. “I love it when he calls me to eat. I love it,” Gennaro says, strolling into the kitchen after Jamie finished making a “beautifully epic lasagne”. Now, the pair dig into a complex layered sheets of baked spaghetti, sausage, meatballs and melting cheese of parmesan, ricotta and provolone- a recipe that he learns from another Italian nonna. 

Mostly, Jamie is now a student in Italy- it seems almost everyone there has a piece of culinary advice for him. “You, take it!” An elderly Italian shop owner barks as she instructs him to deep-fry a pizza fritte, insisting her mother also cooked it this way. “She’s been doing it so long,” Jamie marvels, before turning the folded pizza over in hot oil. He was making the typical Italian street snack at one of the city's most talked-about pizze fritte shops, delicately balancing heat, air and oil to get a crispy, puffy and chewy pizza snack. 

Fresh caper salsa doused on whole-grilled squid

But of all the Italian dishes he's ate and cooked, his favourite remains the classic cabonara. "The heart of it is always the same, but there are so many tweaks and subtleties in the detail. I love it."  

Beyond rustic Italian kitchens, the pair venture outdoors to soak in the country's stunning natural landscapes. In one instance, Jamie whips up a simple whole-grilled squid with a heavy dressing of caper salsa against a gorgeous seaview. And many of those moments continue to endure, "Cooking on the beach with Gennaro at sunrise – one of those magical moments," he said when asked about his fondest memory of making the series.

And it seems that for the chef rose to fame in 1999 with tv series The Naked Chef, the lessons and love of Italy lingers on.

"If I’m not cooking Italian food, I’ll still try to tune in to my inner nonna in the kitchen, and embrace that heart and soul."

Check out some of the series’ most interesting snippets on our page, Jamie Cooks Italy, here. It premieres 7 April, 9pm HK/SGT on our sister channel, TLC.

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