Interview with an Innovator

Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group’s Ed Loftus: ‘Part of our strategy moving forward is to do more menu changes’

The group F&B director talks about sourcing British suppliers, what’s coming up on autumn menus and how he’s trying to drive sales volumes away from beef.

12 October 2018
dairychefsitalianmeatmenurestaurantssustainability

Loftus on Paper – CV

  • Started at the Crown and Castle in Orford, later joining the opening team of The Wolseley
  • First worked for Jamie Oliver at Fifteen Cornwall as head pastry chef
  • After working in various Jamie Oliver restaurants, assumed the role of group executive pastry chef, before being promoted to F&B director

Working with small British suppliers is one of the most satisfying aspects of Ed Loftus’ job. From Westcombe Dairy in Somerset, which provides Jamie Oliver’s restaurants with a lot of their cheese, to Creedy Carver in Devon, which farms free-range chickens, he says it’s incredibly rewarding to bring quality produce to the high street.

“We rarely buy off the shelf and we’re always looking for young, relatively new start-ups to work with,” remarks Loftus. “For example, Cobble Lane, who are an amazing British charcuterie producer. They do nose-to-tail salumi-making, using only higher-welfare pigs.”

It’s no secret that the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group has had serious financial difficulties this year, forcing the closure of a number of Jamie’s Italian locations. Looking forward, Loftus hopes that a combination of more frequent menu changes, featuring quality produce and experimental dishes, will help entice more consumers through the doors.

He talks to Food Spark about what’s new on the menu, putting the spotlight on dairy, charcuterie and fish, and why stracciatella is the new burrata.

 

We move quite quickly. We have our heroes, our core menu, items that you’d expect to sell masses of in an Italian restaurant. But we change quite a lot. An average menu change for us is about half the menu. We do big changes and we’re always trying new things, because our customers like to see change.

Part of our strategy moving forward is to do more menu changes. At the moment, we do three to four a year, and we’ll be getting up to six next year, working much more on those seasonal products that normally only hit specials board – we actually want them on the menu. So things like blood oranges, we will have those on the main menu; your asparagus, your jersey royals, your gooseberries.

We really want to highlight those small-window-of-opportunity products on the menu, and the only way to do it is to be a bit more nimble and to change more often. Yes, you can have asparagus on for six months a year, but it’s Peruvian. If you want British asparagus, you’ve got 12 weeks where you can really showcase it.

We cook all of our grills al mattone, which is ‘under a brick,’ so it gets heat from both sides, cooks quite quickly and you get a really nice chargrill. It’s quite a traditional Italian method, but it does involve having these cast-iron bricks on the grills, and we’re using those to get food cooked quickly but also in a way that’s really authentic.

It comes back to the ingredients really. I think everybody can serve a bolognaise, everybody can grill a piece of chicken, but it’s about purchasing the right products. That’s where we’re quite nerdy – Jamie’s kind of a food geek – and it’s about finding the right people to work with.

For the mozzarella, we work with a really small family just outside Campagna, and we bring that mozzarella in three times a week to make sure that we’ve got the best mozzarella. It’s just getting into the detail on the ingredients really. I think within an Italian restaurant, you’re going to see a lot of similar dishes, and the only way to stand out is to focus on the quality of the ingredients.

We’ve got the Jamie Oliver food standards, which is our bible. It’s a document that’s about 30, 40 pages long, and that covers a lot of sustainability issues and welfare issues as well as E numbers… All those things that Jamie has spoken about over the years, whether it’s free-range eggs or buying MSC and MCS fish. All those things are carved in stone, they’re non-negotiables.

First and foremost, our suppliers have to adhere to our food standards, and then we have an online approval system for every component of every product where we take it back to source and have it validated by a technical team. They visit every supplier and audit them and approve them on a six-month basis.

If we want to get a new supplier into our business, it will take a number of months. It will take three months from point of making contact, maybe longer in some cases.

Ferrero Rocher sphere

We’re looking at dairy in a big way, so those Italian staple dairy products. There are some really interesting people in the UK that are doing some great things using British milk, which is quite exciting.

We’d love to do more cured meat with Cobble Lane and be British on things like prosciutto or a prosciutto-style product.

Where you can get a product in the UK that is as good as what you’d get elsewhere, we would use that over going abroad. We could never buy meat that’s not produced in the UK, that’s just carved into stone, but on the speciality dairy produce, I think the UK is moving quite quickly, and one to watch for me is to see where that goes.

Fish is a big one for us. We don’t really have too much fresh fish on the menu because we like to work with the fishmonger. Each restaurant has a relationship with a local fishmonger and we sell fish on blackboards.

Fishing is a hot topic and everybody has got to do their part in terms of sustainability. We’re looking at different products that have less of impact. Chalk Stream Farm do a great trout product, you get that real cleanliness of flavour coming through on the trout, its not a muddy flavour at all. And that’s something we launched just recently. That’s been a great success for us, and I think those guys are doing very, very well. Lots of higher end restaurant are tapping into that now.

We often use bycatch for different bits on the menu. We’ll just work with the fishmongers and understand what they’ve got that they don’t sell. What could we use that isn’t otherwise used?

In our pepperoni, we use ox hearts, because they’re just not used. It’s a byproduct of the beef industry.

We like to use wonky veg for slaws and for different bits and pieces where you get low-grade veg that’s perfectly good to use but otherwise would go for feed.

Chicken livers are massively popular. We use only great, free-range chicken livers, which are difficult to come by, because normally chicken liver just goes into one big pot and is sold. But we have a free-range chicken live pate on our menu that people love, made with vino santo, that kind of sweet wine. It’s fabulous and it’s been a mainstay for a couple of years now.

We’re working on a grouse bolognaise that’s going to be hitting our menus in November, which is going to be quite exciting. We try to give the customer a dish that they understand and they get, but doing something slightly differently with it that’s a bit more interesting.

I think game is definitely growing. In the UK, we’ve got some fantastic game. Rabbit has always done really well for us in the past – I think rabbit is quite approachable for lots of people, they kind of understand it. But I think we’ll see loads more of that, particularly on the high street. It’s always been there in your higher-end restaurants, but people are more adventurous now, they want to explore a little bit more.

Our bolognaise has been on since day one, our prawn linguine, they’re sort of our hero dishes that we’ve always sold masses of, but actually we’re seeing a slight increase in popularity of more premium dishes which people want to experiment with.

We’ve just launched a tomahawk pork chop from Dingley Dell in Suffolk. Really beautiful, outdoor-reared pork product. Quite iconic, served on the bone, but that’s been a massive success. It’s at a price point because it’s a more premium product.

We wanted to see how we could drive some volume away from beef, because beef has always been there, people always eat steak, but actually we’ve got great pork producers in the UK... Pork has always been a bit of hard sell compared to beef, but the tomahawk pork chop is doing really well.

Amalfi octopus stew

Health is growing massively. Our superfood salad, we’ve just seen that become a modern-day classic in the restaurant.

We have a team of nutritionists that work with us on our menus, and nutrition is a massive part of what we do – not just in making sure we have healthy options but making sure that the indulgent options are still responsible.

Around 35% of our menu is nutritionally healthy… We’re definitely seeing that part of the menu, particularly at lunchtime, driving more volume. Evenings are still a bit more indulgent.

I think we’re going to get a bit more regional next year, look at the different regions of Italy, bring them to life a little bit. The Italian space is definitely well catered for on the high street, but it’s about showcasing parts of Italy that people don’t know.

We’ve just launched stracciatella across all of our menus, which is not that known. I think it’s probably where burrata was a few years ago. Burrata has grown in popularity and people get it and it’s a massive seller for us.

Burrata is a mainstay of our menu. We change it around and do different combinations with it, but people love it. And stracciatella is the best part of burrata, it’s the inside of the burrata, and we’ve been using that a lot – it’s just sort of launched on our latest menu.

We’ve done loads of work around Christmas, and our Christmas menus are getting a bit more indulgent. We’ve got lobsters on there – fresh British lobsters, not frozen. We’re working with the fishmongers on those.

We’re launching a very interesting new dessert. Domes and spheres are obviously very popular on the high street. We’ve done our own little twist on everyone’s favourite, Ferrero Rocher, called The Ambassador, which is a bit tongue in cheek, just referencing those old adverts we all know and love.

Octopus is not something we see much of on the high street, and we’ve done a couple of dishes with octopus that are proving very successful in the trial. In London, everyone knows and loves octopus, but when you get out it’s definitely still new for people I think.

I think people will forgive you a lot of things, but they need a great tasting plate of food.

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