James Martin is no stranger to stately homes but Chatsworth Country Fair will mark his first visit. Catherine Scott meets the TV chef who is always in demand.
James Martin’s earliest food memory is his mum cooking for him on the family farm in Yorkshire. “We used to have a dining room table, centrepiece of the farm, a big oak dining room table,” recalls Martin.
“It was just all the people sat around the table; my gran, my auntie, my granddad, my uncle. My granddad used to have an allotment, so he used to bring the potatoes, my uncle used to bring bits and pieces, my auntie was a great pastry chef so she used to bring parkin. We just used to sit down and have lunch and my mum would cook a roasting joint, every single Sunday.”
My Yorkshire: James Martin
With his mother being a great home cook and his father catering manager at Castle Howard, where a young James Martin would spend a lot of his childhood when not helping out on the farm, it was inevitable that he would want to pursue a career in food.
He struggled at school being severely dyslexic. “I got one O-Level in art, the only other person I know with just one O-level is Alan Titchmarsh and it doesn’t seem to have done him any harm.”
Martin, now 47, doesn’t see his dyslexia as a negative. “I never have,” he says. “Often people with dyslexia are talented in other ways. It has never held me back although I do struggle reading scripts and I have agreed to write the forward in my mate’s autobiography and I am already worrying about how I am going to do that.
"But I have built up a successful business and production company despite having dyslexia. I know my limitations and so I employ people who can do the things I can’t.”
James Martin: The Yorkshire chef on why he really left Saturday Kitchen
And so leaving school in Malton with one O-Level, Martin enrolled on a catering course at Scarborough College where he won Student of the Year for all three years he was there.
“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.”
At 18, he headed for the bright lights of London and worked at One Ninety Queen’s Gate, Alastair Little in Soho, The Square in Mayfair and Harvey’s in Wandsworth. Two years later he took up a position as junior pastry chef at the acclaimed Chewton Glen before moving to Hotel Du Vin in Winchester where he achieved his ambition of becoming a head chef – at just 22.
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. 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. “It’s all a bit of a blur, as I was working 18 hours in the kitchen, trying to mix cheffing, TV… and driving everywhere. I started prepping at 4am, got in the car at 5am, got to The Big Breakfast at 7.30 am and was back in the car at 9am, heading back to start lunch service.”
Then he was asked to co-host with Ainsley Harriott on Ready, Steady, Cook a job he held for nearly ten years. “It was ahead of its time in many ways,” he says of the live BBC cookery show. “There really weren’t that many cookery programmes, not like there are now, and the public just loved it.”
Ainsley Harriott goes back to his roots
Although Ready Steady Cook was his big break into television, to many it is the hosting of another BBC live cooking show, Saturday Kitchen, that made Martin a household name.
However, he says he may never have been offered the hit show in the first place if he hadn’t appeared on Strictly Come Dancing where he reached the semi-finals in the third series in 2005 with partner Camilla Dallerup.
“Strictly was great fun, but incredibly hard work,” says Martin. “Anyone who knows me knows I will throw everything at it, but like most people who enter the programme you think it is going to be easy, it is so difficult. Getting through to the semi-finals was brilliant and it was after that the BBC offered me Saturday Kitchen. I don’t think I would have been offered it if I hadn’t done Strictly.”
He took over the Saturday morning show from Anthony Worral Thompson and made it his own, increasing the audience from 1.2 million to around 2.5 million, peaking at 3.5 million.
But in 2016, after ten years at the programme Martin decided to quit the show which is now hosted by Matt Tebbutt. “I just felt enough was enough.”
He also wanted to do something else which included travel and so when ITV approached him and asked him what he wanted to do he knew the answer.
Keith Floyd has always been something of a hero to Martin and so he had the idea of travelling in Floyd’s old car through France and James Martin’s French Adventures was born. “Keith Floyd was unique,” says Martin.
“He did things differently to everyone else, he didn’t really care too much what people thought about him and he was an incredible raconteur and he was passionate about what he believed in and would stand up for it.”
Although television is what we know James Martin for, he is still very much a chef. He has run a number of restaurants since Hotel du Vin, including at the Talbot Hotel in his home town of Malton. For the last few years he has been back at Chewton Glen.
Taking cookery courses and cooking at the chef’s table. And later this month he is cooking at the Chatsworth Game Fair again passing on his knowledge to others. “I like to do four or five dishes that people can actually cook at home. I’ve never actually been to Chatwsorth before and I am looking forward to it, but having spent a lot of my childhood at Castle Howard I think it will feel very much like going home.”
Martin still loves his fast cars and his dogs, but having found success, he is now more relaxed. “You can plan what you need to plan but there are some things that are beyond your control such as your health. I feel in my life that I have achieved more than I ever would have thought I could have achieved.
"But for the first time in my life and I am truly content and in a very happy place. I feel I can choose the things I want to do now, rather than always feeling like you are chasing success.”
Chatsworth Country Fair takes place from Aug 30 to Sept 1. James Martin (August 31) will be joined by Queen of Cakes Mary Berry (Aug 30) and the Hairy Bikers (Sept 1). For more information on the event and to book tickets, visit www.chatsworth.org/countryfair