For his latest venture Jamie Oliver has teamed up with US pizza guru Chris Bianco, owner of a small pizzeria with a big reputation in Arizona. Bianco talks to Emily Manson about their new concept, Union Jacks, and what it's like to start up in a recession
How did the Oliver/Bianco team come about? We had a bunch of mutual friends and colleagues who kept saying we were as crazy as each other. I was always a big admirer of Jamie, even from his Naked Chef days. It was a brilliant show and an incredible vehicle to speak to people about cooking. It linked the concepts of food, sharing and enjoyment with friends, which was something that had got lost. I had a deep respect for him - beyond him being a chef, he seemed like a really good human being and that was confirmed about two minutes after meeting him.
Three years ago he called me and said, "Hey, come to London - I want to show you what's going on," so I came over, we hung out, talked about food, cooked food and that was part of the process of Jacks evolving.
Why not a pizzeria, like your restaurants in the USA? Can you explain the Union Jacks concept? Initially we discussed doing a pizzeria, but I've done that for 24 years and was adamant I wanted to do something different, so if it doesn't work out it's all my fault and everyone can blame the American!
I was blown away by all the great artisanal ingredients you get here. Jamie has relationships with some of the best suppliers in the UK and Europe, and given both our backgrounds, it made a lot of sense. It's less of a concept and more of a union of our journeys. Less of a restaurant, more of a human study and where we came from and what we have learnt. It's basically the food we love to eat.
Critics are making a lot of the flats - is it just pizza by another name? To some, spaghetti is noodles. If the flats are pizzas to you, that's fine - they're round circles cooked with fire; you call them whatever you want. We've also called them flats out of respect for our Italian brothers and sisters. They are essentially a flat round that comes out of a hot hole with very different British ingredients on it.
We've got English varietals of wheat, plus West Country Cheddar and Lincolnshire Poacher, which has been aged specially for our needs to be the perfect melter. They have great provenance and transparency, but they are also fun and a bit different.
What's the difference between opening in the UK and USA? The main challenges are always the same with new sites, be they city regulations, building issues or engineering challenges, there's always something. But in a way it was easier here as Jamie's team is so capable and he's been through it all before.
Other challenges are similar, too. People want good value and great food, and if you don't get them walking out after a meal, thinking "that's delicious" at a price point that works, then none of your other good intentions matter.
How have you tailored the concept to make it work in the recession? The biggest difference is that 10 years ago you could be more flagrant or take more chances but now you just have to be so diligent with everything. We need to source ingredients that taste great, at a great price and be sure we can retain that.
You have to be able to forecast the cost of all products - for instance, we use by-catch fish, so we're not caught out if fishing is restricted or prices are hiked. You also have to be thorough with your pricing as margins are so tight there's not much room for manoeuvrability.
This economy teaches customers to go for what they really want; have a great pint with fun food that tastes delicious. But they also want to feel welcome and good about where it has all come from. I think it's perfect timing in our dreary economy to have something fun and engaging like Union Jacks. It's easygoing but it comes from a very sincere place.
So is that it for fine dining then? No - there's still a space for it, of course, but it is a specific decadence that is becoming more of a special occasion treat these days. There are some incredibly skilled chefs in the city and some great restaurants, which will never lose their shine but it's the lesser ones that will fall by the wayside.
You're opening in Chiswick after Central St Giles - these markets seem quite diverse. How do you choose your sites and what's the plan for expansion? In Central St Giles initially we were looking at a glass box overlooking an orange wall and we thought we were crazy. But the architects started to make sense of it as a space and its transparency is actually a great fit for what we're about and our intention all along.
But we're not looking to shoehorn a formatted concept into lots of different spaces. Chiswick is appealing on a different level - the architecture, the artsy element - and works from a business side, too. We'll tailor the concept to the space in each new site, but we haven't got specific plans to roll out the concept as yet. We'll see how these go. I just want to enjoy what we're doing as we're doing it.
In Central St Giles you have Cabana, Sofra, Peyton & Byrne and Zizzi as neighbours. Chiswick is awash with mid-market dining concepts. How do you feel about the competition? The Olympics are a competition: if you're faster you're faster. We are going into business to cook for ourselves and we all have our own experiences that translate into our offer. People can then look at our way. But we all work really hard and are all trying to work together and be neighbourly and support each other.
You do have to be competitive about customers, because their customers one night can become yours the next night and then they keep coming back to the area regularly. I just don't see it as a threat - there's always room for something sincere, delicious and good value and it's a blessing to be able to share the love.
You're a successful restaurateur in your own right, but how does your ego cope with being partnered with Jamie, who's a national icon? One thing about being older is that life experience is a great teacher of humility. I really feel that it's an honour to be Jamie's partner. One day I was young and just starting out and that seems like yesterday, but suddenly I've been standing at an oven for 18 years and I'm now the old guy squinting at the tickets.
It's wonderful to be part of such a young, vibrant team and I'm just enjoying the ride and what we can achieve together. I'd rather play bass in Radiohead than be the lead in a band only a few people have heard of.
potted history Chris Bianco
â- As a child he spent a lot of time watching his aunt cook. By the age of 13 he was working in a local pizzeria.
â- Bianco won a trip to Arizona in 1985 and stayed there, making mozzarella in his apartment and selling it to restaurants.
â- In 1987 he opened Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. Its wood burning ovens and home-made mozzarella saw it recognised nationally, with rave reviews from top US food critics.
â- Bianco then spent a year in Italy improving his pizza-making skills. When he returned to the USA he moved the restaurant site to Heritage Square in 1996.
â- He also owns and operates Bar Bianco and Pane Bianco, also located in Phoenix.
Union Jacks The Facts
Co-owners Jamie Oliver and Chris Bianco
Style Wood-fired flatbreads with traditional British flavours
â- Central St Giles
4 Central St Giles Piazza, London WC2H 8AB
â- Chiswick (opening March 2012)
217-221 Chiswick High Road, London W4 2DW