Al Gordon talks to TV chef James Martin – star of Saturday Kitchen and proud Yorkshireman, whose looks titillate the tastebuds as much as his cooking…
Born and raised in the pretty market town of Malton (now one of Yorkshire’s top foodie destinations) 39-year-old James Martin represents the kind of multi-talented, effortlessly clean appeal on which the BBC prides itself. After all, it was Auntie who gave him his big break, offering him a series – James Martin: Yorkshire’s Finest – that showcased the best of the county’s cuisine, and brought the man himself to a wider audience.
“That was a massive thing for me,” he recalls cheerfully. “It was my first real step into serious television. I’d done a number of guest bits, but to land my own series was special. It was a major challenge though – I’d been in the kitchen for well over a decade, so to be presenting food and travelling around talking to people about their passion, it was a step in a new direction for me, and a sharp learning curve.”
He emerged unscathed, going on to take over the Saturday Kitchen reins from Anthony Worrall-Thompson six years ago, when the format was revamped. It’s one of those shows, he says, “where viewers can take as much or as little away from it as they need to.”
With an aspirational audience looking for inspiration for their weekend meals, it must be stressful? “We work our socks off to make sure everything goes to plan – and when you’re dealing with food being cooked live, it very often doesn’t – but our philosophy is if we can implant a few ideas or inspire some original flavours or cooking methods, then that’s enough.”
Add in a regular column in The Mail on Sunday and the launch of his Cuisina range of cooking appliances, and the TV chef’s worth is only set to rise. “I’ve been very lucky and had a few nice breaks along the way, but like any chef, it’s about being passionate with your food. As soon as you lose that, then it’s over. I have a busy schedule but I still need to find time to think about dishes and put together new ideas for the kitchen. It’s pretty incessant.”
Food, one feels, will never not be part of the Martin make-up; after all, his foundations lie in baking with his grandmother as a four-year-old; by the age of ten he was helping his father in the kitchen at Castle Howard. It’s a surprise, then, that it took until 2011 for him to open his own restaurant in the UK.
“I’d done the restaurant thing on a cruise liner and it went well,” he explains, “and there’s also a delicatessen that I own in Winchester, where I live, but a full-time land-based restaurant is something else entirely. The Leeds Kitchen – based in Clarence Dock in Leeds – took a lot of thought and a lot of planning. It’s not something to enter into lightly, but I think we’ve ended up with a fantastic combination of food and ambience, and it’s a project I’m hugely proud of.”
And his biggest food inspiration? It’s a question to ask all good chefs, and, like all good chefs, he has a ready answer: “Trips to my mother’s house, undoubtedly! You can list off a bunch of fantastic restaurants… great chefs, incredible ideas – from the Waterside Inn in Bray, run by Alain Roux, to Tom Kerridge’s Hands and Flowers in Marlow – but my favourite meal out would be Sunday lunch at my mother’s house… you can’t beat it. She makes better roast potatoes than me, roast beef with Yorkshire puddings and none of that fancy jus stuff… it has to be proper gravy.”
Food faves come down to what you remember from childhood, he says. “And for me it was ultimate comfort stuff.”
That’s not a typically ‘cheffy’ attitude… “I think we all recognise food can be a bit pretentious at times, and it’s unnecessary. At the end of the day it’s about making yourself feel good. That doesn’t have to be anything other than good, honest, quality produce,” adding, “Give me a bacon butty on white sliced bread with proper butter any day. You can keep the French baguette – it’s all about proper authentic great British white sliced bread.”
James Martin: acclaimed chef, proper food fan…and, of course, true Yorkshireman if ever there was one…
James will be appearing at the BBC Good Food Show Summer from 13 to 17 June