A story about a boy and his first big media assignment.
My stomach twists as I exit Wynyard station. My heart is pumping and my hands are clenched. I follow Pitt Street down to a bronze ‘J’ hanging from a black wall. I’m about to begin my first major piece as a writer. Contacting people online always seems impossible because they never reply. Hopefully I will have a better chance visiting in person.
I’m writing a piece for Music and Arts Journalism, a subject that focuses on performance and the required skills and techniques. My idea is simple: approach the managers’ of Jamie’s Italian in Sydney and ask for permission to write a story about their restaurant. I want to know how they are able to provide the Jamie Oliver experience without the man himself running the place.
I spot a chef through the glass bay window. She is dressed in white and a navy and white striped apron with her dark black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She is tossing strands of golden tagliatelle in the air. She gathers the pasta strips into a long bundle then flicks her right hand around her left forming a nest. Cradling it in both hands, she lowers it onto the wooden bar. On the wall behind her are shallow wooden crates. They sit on an angled shelf and reveal rows of macaroni, farfalle and other pasta that will be used in the lunch menu today. To the left are a collection of books, aprons and cooking utensils; memorabilia stamped with the Jamie Oliver logo. The walls are made of corrugated iron. A thin walkway past a bar leads to a set of stairs that divide the room into a raised tabled seating area and a casual space with maroon couches.
“Can I help you there?” asks a waiter. Dressed also in black, he is of average height and around nineteen years old.
“I’d like to speak to Johnathan the manager,” I say.
“Sure,” he says with a smile, “Wait here one moment and I’ll let him know.” He walks up the stairs. A moment later he returns. “I’ve let him know but he might be a while, maybe ten minutes. Can I get you something in the mean time? A coffee?”
“I’m fine thanks,” I reply.
“Well take a seat. He should be with you soon.”
I am here to speak to the assistant manager of Jamie’s Italian, Johnathan Stanley. He is young, maybe late twenties or early thirties. I see him walk past at the top of the staircase. Dressed in a black shirt and trousers, he is assigning the wait-staff with jobs around the restaurant. There is a lot to be done but he is straight-backed and pointing at the various stations that need looking after. After a couple of minutes, he approaches me and we sit down to have a chat.
Since doors opened in October 2011, Jamie’s Italian has received mixed reviews. The restaurant is noted for its casual dining experience. Stated as being a ‘predominantly walk-in restaurant’, Jamie’s Italian encourages diners to turn up at any time of the day to enjoy a range of authentic foods cooked in an Oliver-esque Italian style. Perhaps I could go behind the scenes and enter the kitchen to see what the chefs get up to as they prepare the food? I tell him I’m a student studying Media at Macquarie University and that I’m putting together an article for an assignment. Johnathan responds straight away by asking whether the article will be published.
“Of course it will,” I reply confidently. “There is a few print and online publications that I would like to submit the article to.”
Johnathan tells me that he likes my idea, but as Jamie’s Italian is a large organisation it will be difficult to answer some questions. They can’t reveal all their secrets. It may not even be worth their time. I get the feeling that he is trying to avoid having to deal with a student. He encourages me to come up with a less invasive angle.
The irony behind Johnathan’s remark is that the Jamie’s Italian experience is a very open affair for its diners. In addition to the pasta-making station at the front, the two main kitchen areas are both open-plan, and are only separated by a chest-height wooden bar for the finished dishes. At the very end of the restaurant I see three chefs dressed in white uniforms and caps, chopping and stirring casually as they construct an antipasto platter. One chef layers slivers of prosciutto whilst another places a tray of grilled vegetables into a steel oven. If I wanted to, I could easily walk up to the bar and speak with the trio of chefs. It’s all happening right in front of me. Of course, being a novice journalist, I would rather have the permission of management first to avoid any conflict. Johnathan tells me to email him regarding a new angle. I thank him for his time and leave the restaurant.
It’s been over a week now and I still haven’t had any contact from the restaurant. My inbox is empty. My phone has no missed calls. After the first two days I assume they might just be really busy, so I continue to wait. A couple of days later I call the restaurant hoping to catch Johnathan on the phone. The receptionist tells me that he is busy at the moment and it would be better to send an email. I give her my contact numbers just in case. Of course, I have already given Johnathan my contact information on my first visit.
Perhaps this is what my media lecturer, Peter Doyle, meant when he told us about “the things they don’t teach you in writing school”. This is how journalism works in the real world. Negotiation after negotiation, compromise after compromise. Playing a constant game of phone-tag just to set up a simple meeting. Getting the people you are interviewing to let their guard down, or at the very least, comfortable enough for them to explain their world with little or no hesitation. In Peter’s words, “These are the skills that you could only learn on the job.”
There are only four more weeks till the article is due. I am going to get that story. What I need is a new plan of action. Presenting myself as a journalist on my previous visit failed to gather any chance of an interview. I decide on an alternative method: I will be a diner. It is time to return to the restaurant.
Writer’s notes: A version of this article was originally published at Grapeshot Magazine, and then on Brendon The Smiling Chef. The names of some of the people within this article have been changed to protect their identity.