James Martin: The Yorkshire chef goes on a culinary road trip

It's a year since James Martin left Saturday Kitchen. Now seen travelling around France in Keith Floyd's old car, he talks to Sarah Freeman about life after a TV institution.

When he decided to leave Saturday Kitchen, the show which he had anchored for a decade, James Martin admits that it felt like stepping into an abyss. Not as it turned out for very long. While the show’s loyal fans were still reeling from the news, at 10pm the same day he had a call from Asda asking whether he would like to do some work with them and the following week he walked out of the offices of ITV having just had a new show commissioned.

“Saturday Kitchen was a cocoon. OK, we knew what the ratings were and we knew it was successful, but would the audience come with us on whatever we did next? That we didn’t know, but it felt like the right time to try something new. I could have signed another three-year contract, but I just wasn’t sure what else we could do. We’d already brought all the top chefs onto Saturday Kitchen and I didn’t think we could make it any better than it had been.

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“I didn’t want to be standing on the edge of a cliff top looking down. I wanted to leave while we were still top of the tree. It was a risk, but it was one I felt I had to take.”

The seeds of his new show, James Martin’s French Adventures, were partly sown during his live cookery tour, which saw him play to sell- out theatres across the country, and partly when he got a call from Keith Floyd’s daughter Poppy. Martin had grown up watching Floyd’s now legendary cooking shows and while he went on to work with a culinary who’s who, it’s the hard-drinking restaurateur and bon viveur who remains his hero.

“He was quite simply the best. Two years ago, Poppy called me and said she was selling Keith’s car and did I want to buy it. I said if it’s the one I think it is, then yes. That was on the Friday and by the Monday I had been over to France and the car was back in my garage.”

The car in question is the slightly ancient Citroen 2CV that Floyd drove round France in one of his TV series. The more he thought about it, the more Martin realised that there may be some mileage in retracing not just his old mentor’s travels on the other side of the Channel, but also his own. Saint-Émilion was where he used to go on family holidays as a child and where he went to train at Hostellerie de Plaisance after leaving Yorkshire where the Malton-born chef had spent his early years watching his mother cook at Castle Howard. It was in France, where he also worked at the three Michelin star restaurant Maison Troisgros in Roanne, where he learnt the finer points of classical cooking and it’s a country he still regards as a second home.

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“I wasn’t sure that any of the TV companies would go for it, but I didn’t have anything else planned so I thought I might as well give it a go. Sometimes the wheels of TV can turn very slowly, but when I tell you French Adventures was commissioned in 60 seconds, I’m not joking. All we had to do was sort the car. Polly had told me it had a French M0T, but I thought I best give it an English one and it failed on 32 counts. By the time we set off, pretty much every part of that car you can’t see had been replaced, but externally it’s still Keith’s 2CV and it didn’t let us down once.”

Martin is not a man short on confidence, but having spent 20-odd years in front of the camera, much of it for live TV, he’s also known as a safe pair of hands.

“They said: ‘Right, James, go off and enjoy yourself, so that’s what we did. I called all the chefs in advance and asked whether they would be up for cooking with us. I am sure had I been just starting out they would have told us to get stuffed, but they gave us incredible access. In all we spent 18 weeks out there. What was great is that I was in the position to hire the team I wanted. From the producer to the cameraman, they were all people I had worked with before and so there was already a level of trust.”

Just as Floyd famously broke the fourth wall, in the new series cameraman Rob becomes a bit of a star in his own right. However, while Martin also quaffs his way through much of each episode he says he didn’t want it to be a straight homage to Floyd, who died in 2009 aged 65.

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“There is no point trying to be Floyd – he was a one off. Although you’re right, I did drink a lot out there,” he says. “What I really wanted to do was show people the places that he loved and that had inspired him and also retrace my own steps back through my career. France is an incredible country, but all too often we are all guilty of going back to the same places. I wanted to show how diverse it is – even in one small area you have landscape which ranges from paddy fields to salt flats to where the wild flamingos roam.”

During the series viewers get to see Martin cooking fish stew on the banks of a canal, hunting for black truffles and whipping up a seafood delicacy on board a yacht in St Tropez. While his assured, yet relaxed demeanour was what made Saturday Kitchen so popular here he looks like he has never been happier.

“I had ball and one thing I definitely noticed was how much the attitude to British chefs had certainly changed. When I first went out there they thought all you could do was roast beef and Yorkshire puddings Now London is the food capital of the world and everyone knows it.”

French Adventures goes out on ITV at 3pm. It’s not the prime time slot that many other chefs might have demanded, but with the reviews nothing short of gushing, it might yet get another outing.

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“Watch this space. I think what people have reacted to is how natural this show is. While we were out there we all thought we had the makings of something really special, but you never actually know until it goes out. I know there are some cookery series where each food shot requires seven takes. That’s lovely and it means you get the light shining perfectly through the golden syrup, but it’s not reality, is it? Reality is me stood in a field, setting fire to things while it’s blowing a hooley.”

A second series has already been commissioned, although Martin has yet to decide the full details of the road trip or whether he will do it in the same car. Those are questions for another day. For now it’s back to reality

“I’m cooking in my restaurant for the next couple of days [Martin opened his eponymous Manchester restaurant in 2013] then I’m off to Singapore to cook for 800 people. That’s the reality of being a chef. I don’t have to do it. I do it because I want to and because I think if you are going to make a living from talking about food you should put the hard work in.

“There are certain projects that people approach me about that I want to be involved in. Projects like the Talbot in Malton. It’s my home town and what we achieved in those first three years was unbelievable. When I felt it was flying I stepped away, but it’s been really lovely to see how the chefs I worked with there have grown and developed. 
For me that’s the real reward of being in this business.”