While most of his fellow chefs are bringing out healthy eating or vegan cookery books, James Martin has dedicated his latest book to butter. And he is far from apologetic about it. “I think we are all sick and tired of being lectured to by the healthy eating lobby about what we should and should not do,” says Martin who seems more feisty than normal. He turned down his publisher’s request for another book on home cooking. “I said, ‘really? Everyone’s been stuck in the house for two years.’”
Instead he chose butter, and feels vindicated by the public’s response to it so far. “It’s clearly what people want as it’s the biggest one for 20 years. Butter is good for you. It is completely natural. It’s like all things, it’s all about moderation. Butter is better for you than olive oil and I would never dream of using margarine, it’s terrible stuff – who wants to eat that?
“It is the quickest cookery book I have written – it took me nine weeks from start to finish,” he says. “It’s easy when you are passionate about something.”
He also enlisted the help of some of his chefy friends to press home his point in the book, which is simply titled Butter.
“There were so many chefs I talked to who had a quote or a recipe about butter. I can’t believe I have never done it before. There are so many different types of amazing butter from the Cotswolds to Edinburgh and the one thing that people don’t seem to know is that it’s so easy to make. It’s not rocket science – it’s just churned cream and salt.”
It is certainly a celebration of all things butter, though clearly the book has more in it than a recipe for buttered toast. He gives recipes for 16 varieties of butter itself and the sweet section really delivers: brown butter cake with bourbon butter glaze, butter cake with butter sauce, cinnamon bread with caramel butter dip, toffee apple brioche butter pudding and miso butter fudge.
It is also an interesting choice for someone whose weight has fluctuated over the years. He recently lost three stone and I doubt he did that by eating a butter diet.
I last spoke to 49-year-old Martin just before the first lockdown when he was critical of the Government’s early handling of the pandemic which left hospitality in an invidious position, but he has slightly softened his stance.
“We were open but the public were advised not to come,” he says. “And then we went into lockdown. Then we reopened and there was the disastrous Help Out to Eat Out and then, just as we had ordered everything for the Christmas and New Year rush, we went into lockdown again. But it is easy to criticise the Government when you aren’t the one running the country.”
He actually seems remarkably calm for someone who admits he lost money during the pandemic and is still feeling the staffing pressures post-Brexit. “Hospitality has definitely been one of the losers during the pandemic, but there have been some positives as well. You never normally get time in hospitality to take stock and the pandemic gave us time and now people don’t want to work 19-hour shifts, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Having said that, it is hard to see where Martin found much time. His restaurants and hotel might have been closed, but he filmed his eponymous ITV Saturday Morning show from his home through lockdown and since things have opened up. It seems he has never been busier. “I’m not used to not working at 100 miles an hour,” he admits.
As well as writing and promoting his new book, he has created his own wine range, has a tour coming up next year and has just announced that he is joining forces with Albert Bartlett and his SpudULike restaurants “to take the humble potato to a whole new level”.
But Martin has never been one to sit still for long. Born in Malton, his passion for food began when his father took the role of catering manager at the Castle Howard estate.
When he was 16 he attended Scarborough Technical College and was named Student of the Year for three years running. “I pretty much owe my whole career to head lecturer Ken Allanson. He managed to keep me humble and hungry enough to learn while building my confidence and self-belief,” says Martin. “I went from bottom of the class to number one; from the one who’d never get anywhere to the one to watch.”
From there he moved to London and worked in a number of top end restaurants, including Marco Pierre White’s Harveys.
He achieved his ambition to become a head chef eight years early when he joined Hotel Du Vin as head chef in Winchester just a few weeks short of his 22nd birthday.
His TV career began on Sky One in 1996 before he moved on to Ready Steady Cook and The Big Breakfast. Since then he has had a number of his own series promoting food and drink producers and first hosted Saturday Kitchen for the BBC before moving to ITV with his Saturday Morning show.
He returned to Yorkshire 2012 as head chef of the Talbot Hotel in his home town of Malton, before opening James Martin Manchester, housed within the Manchester235 casino at the Great Northern Warehouse. In 2017, the Kitchen cookery school and restaurant opened at Chewton Glen.
When not cooking or running his expanding business empire, he is found walking his beloved dogs in the countryside or indulging his passion for fast cars although he has just invested in an electric car, he says.
The last two years have been challenging he admits, and the challenges are not all over but this pragmatic Yorkshireman seems pretty unfazed by the whole thing.
“It is what it is and we just have to get on with it. The most important thing is to look after my staff, especially those who are quite new to the business.”
He hopes that the experience of the pandemic will make people appreciate good food and service more.
“Brits have lost touch with where their food comes from and just what goes into producing amazing food. Being a farmer is really hard and it would be nice for people to appreciate what goes into making what goes onto their plates.”
Turn to Page 34 of today’s magazine to try some of James Martin’s recipes from his new book, Butter.
The TV chef is hitting the road with a new nationwide tour in 2022. James Martin Live will visit 18 towns and cities across the UK featuring demonstrations, cooking tasks and featuring some special guests. He will be at Harrogate Convention Centre on March 12. www.ticketmaster.co.uk
BUTTER: Comforting, delicious, versatile, over 130 recipes celebrating butter by James Martin (Quadrille) Photography: John Carey