Cooking up a storm
PUBLISHED: 06:46 23 June 2014
James Martin is a very busy man - so much so he is in the middle of cracking a lobster when we talk. "I have a dinner party in tonight, so I am just prepping," he explains.
Despite being one of the most recognisable faces on television, he still works in the kitchens of his restaurants and his passion for food is at the heart of everything he does.
This month he will be at the Royal Norfolk Show, demonstrating a variety of recipes and showcasing the best local produce and ingredients.
“I have never been to the Norfolk Show so I am really looking forward to it. I would love to do more country shows but they are usually at weekends and obviously it clashes with Saturday Kitchen.
“For me, they really illustrate the importance of understanding the food and produce around you. I like to get a list of all the suppliers and producers who will be there at the show and then decide what to cook. It is pointless showing people how to make something if they can’t get then go and get the ingredients. Norfolk really does have some fantastic produce on offer.”
James is no stranger to the county and is full of praise for its food offering – not least that of his good friend Galton Blackiston at Morston Hall, a regular visitor to James’ Saturday Kitchen programme.
“We have been mates for about 10 years and I am a big admirer of what he has achieved. We still argue about who makes the best fish and chips – Norfolk or Yorkshire. Of course he will always say you have the best in Norfolk, especially now he has his new fish and chip shop. I am looking forward to trying them.”
Since he made his television debut almost two decades ago, James has rarely been off the screen, appearing in and hosting a variety of food programmes. It is as presenter of the hugely successful Saturday Kitchen on BBC One that he is best known – with the magazine-style food show regularly attracting more than 3.5m viewers.
“It is a pressure because it is a live audience in front of a few million viewers, but I just don’t stress about it,” he laughs. “I am still working in the kitchens at my restaurants, so when I do Saturday Kitchen, to be honest, it feels like a bit of a release. To me it is just cooking; it feels no different to cooking in front of eight people.”
The guest list on his show – both in terms of other chefs and celebrities – is impressive and James believes this is in part, down to a mutual respect.
“If I open a restaurant and it is rubbish I am not going to survive very long in this business, even if people like me on the television. So I think the reason we get the amazing chefs we get on the show is, I hope, because they know that I am as passionate about food as they are.
“Michael Parkinson is coming on in a few weeks and I cannot wait. Never in my life did I think I would be interviewing on television the man who I watched interviewing all these amazing guests over the years. To me, he is still the best chat show host there has ever been and of course he is a fellow Yorkshireman.”
James’ decision to become a chef was almost inevitable. His parents were both passionate about food and his father ran the catering side of Castle Howard stately home in Yorkshire, so from childhood James was there listening and learning.
“I was eight years old when I really started getting into food. My mum and dad were real foodies so I started cooking very early and helping my dad. When I first started I didn’t think about a career in television, I just wanted to be a chef. Apart maybe from Keith Floyd, there were not the television chefs or the programmes there are now.”
At 16, he went to Scarborough Technical College to begin his formal training and while there he was student of the year three years running. After working for a series of top chefs, by the age of 22 he had opened Hotel and Bistro du Vin in Winchester as head chef and he has since gone on to open several other restaurants and food businesses, as well as winning many top industry awards.
“I knew I was reasonably alright at it but you need to work with some of the best chefs to get better and I was lucky enough to be able to do that.”
In recent years, he has been working with the NHS as part of BBC series Operation Hospital Food with the aim of improving hospital food. However he is clearly frustrated at its stunted progress.
“I would love to do another series of Operation Hospital Food as it has been part of my life for five years and I feel like there is still so much to do. The success over that period has been, I think, immense and there is no reason why we can’t do it on a bigger scale, but getting anyone in government to listen is not easy,” he says.
“We have shown it doesn’t cost any more money at all and it comes from one simple, positive aim - to improve hospital food for patients, staff and visitors across the board. With the election next year though, I am wondering whether some politicians might be more inclined to listen then.”
As well as his restaurants, his TV work and writing countless books and food columns, James is also an avid motor racing enthusiast – in particular, vintage cars - and has recently acquired his pilot’s licence. But does he get much time to fit in a waltz around the dance floor these days following his success in Strictly Come Dancing?
He laughs: “No! And I don’t miss it. Don’t get me wrong, at the time I absolutely loved it and I never expected to reach the semi-finals, but I don’t ever have any inclination to do it again”.
With that, the cooker buzzer goes, and it’s back to the lobster.