The Big Interview: James Martin

Celebrity Chef James Martin
Celebrity Chef James Martin
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A chef who makes it to anywhere near the top of the restaurant trade knows most of what there is to know about hard work.

They’ll have served their time: all those years of pot washing, chopping vegetables, learning about precision, skill, flavour and presentation, while often being the last one out after clean-down or sometimes sleeping on the premises because they earn too little to pay a cab fare.

It’s about a tough few years before you get to have more than a day off a week. But ask any decent chef who loves their job and they’ll tell you that every minute of that grind was worth it.

They’ll probably say, as James Martin does, that it’s all part of the discipline that has to be learned and there is no easy, skip-over-the-surface route in a business that’s all about detail, detail, detail.

Growing up on a pig and cattle farm near Malton, where he was expected to pull his weight while still at primary school, was a great preparation for James Martin, who doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to work with food.

“I helped with the animals as a lad, so I understood meat,” he says. “My grandad and uncle kept allotments, so I learned the importance of vegetables and seasonality. I also learned that you don’t get ‘owt for nowt’ and if you can walk you can work.”

Best known for fronting BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen for the past six years, he and celebrity chef guests cook up tasty food against the clock. He says he has “...the best job in the world, working with my heroes... Don’t tell the Beeb, but I’d do it for nothing.”

Recent guests have included Rick Stein, Madhur Jaffrey and Michel Roux Senior. Martin has worked for many of his star guests on his way up the ladder.

In the case of a culinary god like Roux, the old habit of addressing his elder and better with the deferential “Chef” dies hard. When the Master is in the kitchen Martin is right back there as a junior at Le Gavroche.

“These people are special and have to be respected. I’d wanted him to come on the show for years. Then we happened to be together bobbing about on a boat in Dubai on the same job, when I asked him again, reminding him that I worked for him years ago.

“He’s 72, lives in Geneva and doesn’t have to do anything. But a couple of months later he rang and said he’d come.

“He’d probably asked around about the programme. Nobody’s going to do it if they suspect they’re going to be stitched up.”

James Martin admits to being hyperactive and doesn’t take holidays or read books except his own cookbooks (“life’s too short, I need to be doing...”), he’s fond of fast cars like his 1960s Ferrari and juggling projects, such as the meals his company produces for Thomas Cook Airlines. He left home at 18 with £20 in his pocket to take the skills he’d learned on Scarborough College’s catering course to one of London’s top kitchens – under Anthony Worrall Thompson at 190 Queensgate.

For one so young he’d already gone way beyond the kind of skills learned by rookies.

As a schoolboy he says his sister was the academic one, and he, a boy with dyslexia, “aspired to a G+ grade”. But that didn’t matter with food.

His spare moments, when not helping on the farm, had been spent working in the kitchen at Castle Howard, where his dad was general manager.

On holidays to France, he would be dropped off to help out in restaurants and learn the finer points of bouillabaisse or Béchamel. “Even then I had no interest in beaches or visiting ruins.”

At 12 he was almost thrown out of cookery classes because he served up flambéed chicken with mangetout 
while his classmates turned out 
fairy cakes.

He was Student of the Year in all three years at college. A well-connected tutor spotted his skills early on and recommended him to big names in London.

He still had to prove himself and rise from the lowest rung of the food chain (at one point sleeping on the bakery slab in the restaurant and using the potwash water spout as a shower), but at the age of 22 he was appointed head chef at the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester.

“I had a flat above a Chinese takeaway that I never saw, because Chris (Chris Start, his right-hand man for the last 20-odd years) and I worked seven days a week.”

The hotel’s well-reviewed restaurant with its young boss attracted a starry crowd from London. Among them was a TV producer, who gave Martin her card and told him “I can make you a star.”

He thought nothing of it, but she followed up with a call and sent a chauffeur-driven car to take him up to London for a chat. “I was earning £11,000 and wouldn’t have had the train fare,” he recalls.

Obviously close to his mum, he consulted Sue Martin and she advised him to give TV a go one day a week, but not to let his other commitments suffer. Shortly after that he had an agent and was cooking on Channel 4’s Big Breakfast.

Nine years with Ainsley Harriott on Ready, Steady, Cook ensued before Saturday Kitchen came calling six years ago. His books include a volume of masterclasses and the bestselling Desserts.

Nowadays he has a home in Hampshire that he barely sees, and scarcely has time to knock up an omelette before packing a bag and taking off again.

With the tide of celebrity cookbooks very definitely running in the direction of meals cooked in 30, 20 or even 15 minutes, it seems a curious moment for Martin to be swimming against that tide with Slow Cooking – Mouthwatering Recipes With Minimum Effort.

It’s not arch and complicated cooking he espouses here but hearty, comfort food – much of which he associates with his mum’s kitchen in North Yorkshire, and the solidly English dishes passed down by his grandmother.

“My mum’s cooking is legendary, and I learned everything I know about roast beef and Yorkshire pudding from my grandma,” says Martin. “I was up on a stool stirring the gravy at three years old, always thrilled to be involved... I still can’t better mum’s roast potatoes and don’t try.

“The idea for a book about slow food is simply that it is actually less complicated and fussy than many ‘fast’ recipes. The vast majority of the dishes in the book need 10-15 minutes preparation followed by at least an hour in the oven.

“Cooking long and slow means you can get a lot of flavour out of cheaper cuts of meat. And now that slow cookers are becoming popular again you can leave a dinner to cook while you’re out at work.

“I wanted to do something a bit different, without using liquid nitrogen and scaring people.”

Some recipes, like lamb baked in hay (it gives a nice earthy flavour, apparently) have been perfected in his restaurants The Leeds Kitchen and The Talbot in Malton, which opened in May. Both restaurants have recently made it into the Michelin Guide, and Martin is understandably chuffed.

He’s in Leeds for a book signing and for one of his twice-weekly unheralded visits to the restaurant. “The staff like you to be there, and the 18 and 19-year-old kids in the kitchen want to learn from you.

“I know how much I learned at their age from chefs who inspired me, so I get in there. We did dinner for 150 the other evening. It was fast and furious, but fantastic.”

He says he was criticised by some when he planned the restaurant at Clarence Dock, one of the areas of newer development in Leeds whose shop and restaurant offerings have, in general, struggled to attract big crowds.

“Some people said I was mad, especially opening a restaurant inside a casino, but I could only see pluses. For a start there are 2,000 people in the flats above the place and a multi-storey car park around the corner.

“I felt that when the area began to pick up we would already be there. So far so good, and I could not ask for a more hardworking and dedicated team.”

At the moment Martin is working seven day weeks, and aside from TV commitments and regular live Good Food Show demonstrations, he has been involved in improving hospital food – first at Scarborough Hospital and more recently in Birmingham.

Both projects have been followed by BBC cameras, and in Scarborough his tasty hot pots actually reduced the food bill.

He’s currently discussing rolling out a similar project for all the hospitals in Wales.

“I’m interested in doing it, whether TV cameras follow me or not. It’s not about changing the food – I can do that overnight – it’s about people management, changing how they think and getting them talking to each other.”

He talks passionately about the loss of good markets, the closure of greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers and the disappearance of seasonality in food.

“There’s going to come a moment when people wake up and realise where food is coming from, but it’ll be too late for the great specialist shops that have fallen by the wayside.

“The other thing is that people moan about the price of food here, yet we have the cheapest food in Europe.

“We’re so used to everything being available on our doorstep at all times that we don’t ask where it’s from. If you want every food all year round, there will be a price to pay.”

James Martin is planning to move back to Yorkshire. Estate agents are scouting for the right property for him, his partner and the fast cars.

“I’ve been away a long time and still miss it,” he says. “There’s an honesty about Yorkshire and the people here that I love.”

There’s no question of this 40-year-old slowing down, but he is cooking up a long-term plan.

“When I’m 55 I’ll probably have a gastro-pub somewhere that I’ll call Twenty. It’ll have 20 covers, one sitting at 8pm and there will be no choice. I’ll just cook what I want. That’s it.”

Slow Cooking – Mouthwatering Recipes with Minimum Effort by James Martin is published by Quadrille, £20.