Recipe for success
Despite an early setback, James Martin has discovered the winning ingredients for success. He takes time out from the kitchen to talk about how he cooked his way to the top, the wonder of pastry and why good British grub is the best in the world…
At 39, James Martin – who celebrates that big birthday in June next year – loves to learn. But rewind 20-odd years and, thankfully, when others in his shoes might have been put off, he wasn’t.
Picture the scene. North Yorkshire, late August 1988. A pubescent James Martin joins his friends at school on GCSE exam results day. But glaring out at him was one subject. Cookery. Fail.
‘There were only two boys doing cookery in my class,’ recalls James. ‘Me and a guy called James Bower. Out of everyone, it was me and him who failed. He’s now a chef, too.’ However, James wasn’t put off. He’d known for years he wanted to be a chef.
‘I was in a school in Yorkshire where rugby and cricket were the big thing. To do cookery was not really the done thing. To be sitting on the school bus with a wicker basket on your lap, with Tupperware full of ingredients, was a tough thing to do when you’re a young kid – and a boy. But I just enjoyed cooking too much not to do it.
‘Unfortunately, we were taught the theory of cooking, not the practical side of it – and that’s why I failed. I wasn’t very good at it academically, but I could do it practically. I get the feeling it’s still taught the same way today – kids learn the genetic compound of a carrot but they don’t know how to cook the damned thing!’ A master of his art Persisting with his vocation, James began his formal chef training, aged 16, at Scarborough Technical College, winning Student of the Year three consecutive times.
From the young boy who wasn’t too keen on the ‘theory’ of cooking emerged a young man who was to make his name as a pastry chef – ‘quite a technical subject,’ he laughs. Jump to the present and he admits, ‘I enjoy the technical side of it – the temperatures, textures and the right or wrong. With savoury dishes you can play around with them if they don’t work. But desserts are either right or wrong. It’s literally that.’
While training, James’ work was noticed by Antony Worrall Thompson, who brought him to London to start his career in the kitchen at One Ninety Queen’s Gate, followed by dell’Ugo. James then spent some time travelling throughout France, working in the kitchens of French chateaux. And the rest, as they say… In the genes The seeds of James’ destiny were sown at home. It was his mother who first taught him to cook – ‘ever since I can remember,’ says James.
‘My grandmother was a brilliant, traditional cook. She taught my mother, who’s also a wonderful cook, so it kind of passes on. We never had packet stuff – it was always fresh food that was home cooked. We lived on a farm so our pork came from there, our chicken from the farmyard and the eggs from the chickens – that was normal for me. We didn’t have a lot of cash – so that’s what we had. You ate well but you also had proper grub such as stews and hotpots. My mother had an Aga stove and she used to do a lot of slow cooking on that.
‘My mum taught me how to make a roast dinner when I was about seven or eight. Roast chicken with proper gravy – not all that fancy jus stuff, you can learn that later in life – but proper gravy,’ says James. ‘If you can master a roast dinner you can get to grips with a lot of cookery, because it’s about timing and that’s where people get flustered. It’s all about understanding that you don’t have to cook things at the last minute, which is learnt with experience and knowledge and you pass that on.’ Expert inspiration Once his mum had laid the basic cooking foundations, James’ earliest professional inspiration came from the legendary Michel Roux senior.
He’s now just as likely to be found on the golf course with the Frenchman as he is in the kitchen. ‘We’ve become good friends over the years, but when I first met him it was like meeting one of your childhood heroes. The Roux Brothers On Patisserie was one of the first pastry books I ever bought – it was the bible of pastry work when I was younger. I can remember the recipes, the photographs. It was their dishes, ideas and techniques that I learnt when I was a young kid, and it’s also where my whole desire to be a pastry chef came from.
‘Michel was someone I aspired to meet as a young chef and when I did, he lived up to all my expectations – and more. Not only is he a great chef, but, in terms of being a restaurateur, if you could package what that guy is and do it in your own right, then everybody would have the magic ingredient. Michel’s got a unique ability with people, is very good with everybody and runs a great restaurant. I’ve always maintained that it’s very easy to open a restaurant, but it’s another matter to actually run it.
‘At the end of the day, Michel’s got nothing to prove with anybody any more. He’s been there, seen it, done it, got the T-shirt, 27 years, three Michelin stars and passed it on to his son. What’s enjoyable now is that you get to see the man, Michel. Before, you just saw him under pressure in a kitchen.’ Under the spotlight The place most of us get to see James, seemingly in his element, is over a late breakfast (for us, not him) on BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen. James will have been presenting this show for five years come next year, having taken over the helm from his original mentor, Antony Worrall Thompson.
After all that time, does he still feel a certain amount of pressure working on a live television cooking show? ‘I believe that when you’re doing television – especially live – you’re also learning a new trade and still training. I’ve spent 15 years of my life trying to find a programme that I feel comfortable with. And I think Saturday Kitchen ticks all the right boxes. It fits me and what I’ve been trained to be doing. It’s got everything I like.
‘We’ve got great chefs on the show, excellent guests, live cooking and a lot of chatting as we cook. It’s not an easy programme to do, but I feel at home doing it.
When James gets down to business, there’s one ingredient he cooks with a lot. Repeat, a lot. Butter. It’s the one thing that he unashamedly believes makes or breaks a dessert. And, let’s face it, he knows a thing or two about how to make a good dessert.
‘For me, you get flavour from butter. You get flavour in pastry and desserts and you can’t cook desserts without making them with butter. They just wouldn’t taste the same if you made them with margarine, so I won’t use it.
‘I get frustrated with chefs when they jump on the latest bandwagon or follow the latest trend. I’ve always stood by my guns. I’ve always said I like my butter and my cream, and I love my lard and dripping. But there are other chefs who spend hours eating lettuce and on treadmills.’ Learning on the job It’s certainly not the lettuce-eating, treadmill-pounding chefs who manage to impress us – and James – with their culinary skills when they guest on Saturday Kitchen. ‘I’m always learning new and interesting things,’ explains James.
‘We have different chefs coming on the show every week, with different techniques and recipes, and what’s great for me is I get to see them all, so I have a little insight into more or less every restaurant in the UK.
‘Catering is a small business when you’re in it, but a massive subject. Every week is almost like a little cookery lesson for me. It’s often to do with new and interesting ingredients. I really enjoy having the Indian chefs Atul Kochhar and Vivek Singh on the programme, because learning how to make a decent curry properly certainly isn’t easy. Don’t believe anybody who tells you it is. These guys have a unique ability to put spices together, which is different to what I do when I get home, but they’re using the same recipe! I never stop learning.’
Rising to the challenge One steep learning curve James recently embarked upon was when he returned to his home county of Yorkshire to work in the kitchen of Scarborough General Hospital, in an attempt to transform the standard of the food there.
‘I think everybody’s got a story to tell with hospital food, but for me it was important to realise that changing one thing was better than trying to overhaul the whole lot overnight. There was no way we were going to achieve the impossible.’
Operation Hospital Food with James Martin (which was broadcast on BBC1 in September, but is due to hit our screens again at prime time soon), saw the chef tested in ways he may never have imagined as he created a nutritious new menu for patients.
The hospital’s catering manager, Pat Bell, even played him at his own game (as fans of Saturday Kitchen’s omelette challenge will attest) in a serious effort to explain the issues
her chefs face on a daily basis.
She challenged James to make 90 fresh omelettes for the patients in just 50 minutes. And – unlike many of the offerings from the competing chefs on Saturday Kitchen who have to knock one up as quickly as physically possible – James’ omelettes all had to be edible. To his credit, he rose to the task, but the harsh reality was that needing to produce large quantities of food in a short time was a miniscule part of a much bigger problem.
‘I was incredibly frustrated by the project at times,’ admits James.
‘In the UK, we’re losing nine milk producers a week – that’s nine dairy farmers a week going out of business – and yet the hospital kitchen was buying all its milk from a centrally sourced unit, most of which came from abroad. It was pure madness.
‘The NHS has a buying power of £500 million a year. If it spent just half of that budget on local produce, then the majority of local suppliers – about 50% of them – wouldn’t go bust. And all it takes is a telephone call, but unfortunately that didn’t happen as much as it should have done. I was really trying to fight from that corner.’
Brits are best James travels further afield than his Yorkshire roots in his new TV series, James Martin’s Mediterranean (due to be broadcast soon). In this great new programme, we see James sail into different ports, from the Greek Islands to the Spanish Balearics, to meet local chefs, farmers and ex-pats who show him their area’s freshest, locally sourced ingredients, which are then cooked for them by James aboard his boat. But, as a well-known lover of British food, does James still favour our island’s culinary offerings when it comes to the crunch?
‘I’d still always choose British,’ he says. ‘We don’t appreciate what we’ve got here as much as our European counterparts. The only difference between certain places in Europe and what we’ve got is the weather.
In Crete, for example, they’ve got amazing olives because of their great weather, but the meat is rubbish.
Ours is fantastic. Wherever you are in the Med, you’ve got different kinds of weather – whether you’re on the coast or inland – and all that is reflected in the food.
‘It’s the same ethos here. We’ve got our own particular weather pattern. There’s a massive difference in climate between Scotland and England, so you’ve got great ingredients in Scotland that you don’t have down here and vice versa. We’ve got a unique place and I think we produce some of the best food in the world. Roast fillet of British beef is just amazing. Yes, you can go as far away as New Zealand for its lamb, but actually, it doesn’t taste as good as salt marsh lamb from the UK.’ A tasty platter And for all you James Martin fans out there (many of whom he gained for his tasty footwork, not his tasty food, after he had ‘his fix of reality TV’ on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2006, managing to reach the semi finals), his latest venture really does allow you to sample some of his mouth-watering offerings.
Life, Fork & Spoon is his new nationwide home delivery service, which launched at the prestigious BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham in November – where James was host.
‘Life, Fork & Spoon offers people bespoke, individually produced, handmade food that’s available to them direct to their doorstep,’ explains James. ‘It’s not your typical mass-market catering – our lemon tarts, for example, aren’t stamped out by a machine and then moved on to the next machine to be filled. They’re individually made, individually lined tartlets. The food is for people who want to throw great dinner parties, but haven’t got the time to cook. It’s the cheating element – the homemade feel, and the homemade taste. You can take the treacle tart out of the packet and it tastes as good as it does when you’ve just made it yourself.’
We wouldn’t mind betting that with James’ creative flair for darn good puddings, it’ll probably taste a whole lot better.
Picture: NEALE HAYNES