In conversation with James Martin - We talk food, TV, racing and why he hates his celebrity tag

In conversation with James Martin - We talk food, TV, racing and why he hates his celebrity tag

Food fans flocked to Manchester last night to rub shoulders with top TV chef James Martin at his Manchester235 restaurant.

 

James and his team were at the Restaurant to celebrate their second birthday. I went along to meet him ahead of the party.

 

I’ve met James Martin a few times in the past, and even when you’ve got him in a quiet corner he’s still the centre of the room’s attention, people from his team popping over with a question, phones ringing, he’s an accomplished multi tasker.

 

James Martin PosterDespite his apparent Midas touch he’s not a pompous prick, when you talk to him or watch him on TV you can see he’s a smart fella, he’s honest and straight talking and when I mention his name to people; invariably they show genuine excitement, he is a lot of people’s favourite ‘Celebrity’ chef. That said, he’s not keen on the Celebrity tag at all.

 

I can’t stand this celebrity chef status thing, he says

 

In fact I hate it, I mean, do you ever see me at a red carpet event?

 

Contemplating that question, I don’t think I have seen him gracing the red carpet, but ‘hate celebrity’ is a strong reaction. I wonder why.

 

On the surface he’s nonchalant about fame and fortune, not the sort to peacock himself on a red carpet for extra social media merit, that would be too needy and too obvious for James, he is more subtle.

 

He has his own successful TV show which presumably means that celebrity gravitates towards him, especially a show that’s format includes celebrity guests, I’m starting to think Chef Martin is his very own red carpet.

 

I rib him a little bit by saying ‘You might not grace the red carpet but you do plenty of hob-knobbing. I hear you on Chris Evans’ show quite often, he’s always mentioning you. You’re Chris Evans’ favourite chef for sure…

 

I’ve been mates with Chris for 22 years, he shares smiling.

 

He phoned me up and said ‘Can you help us out on Carfest?’ and borrow a couple of my cars, I said that was cool, The farm where Carfest takes place is my next door neighbour and it belongs to Jody Scheckter, I introduced Chris to Jody when they were both at my house for dinner, so yes you can blame me for that…

 

I speak to Chris for advice, I call him up and say what you think about this opportunity or that… He’s very astute, always knows what’s next, he’s super quick and very on it. I’ll call him and he’ll tell me if it’s right or wrong, and he’s very supportive. After Saturday Kitchen (if it’s gone well) the first text I get will be from him, he’ll say something like “Watched it, Bang on!” It’s great to have support and mutual respect with someone like him.

 

I’ve got a lot of respect for Chris, he works hard and he’s very good at what he does. He calls me the Black Sheep of the cooking world.

 

Go on…

 

Nobody really knows what I’m like in the kitchen, and I quite like that.

 

There are two distinct camps, on the one hand you have your Celebrity cooks like Nigella, Paul Hollywood, and Marie Berry and don’t get me wrong these are terrific at what they do, and on the other hand you have Chefs, who don’t like the celebrity group and vice versa. I’m somewhere in the middle really.

 

That’s why Chris describes me as the black sheep, I’m neither one nor the other.

 

Because of my CV and the places I’ve worked and the people I work with I have respect from the people who matter and that’s those on the Chef’s side of the fence. Michelle Roux Junior, Pierre Koffmann and the like.

 

Being known can be very useful, I did a show recently and needed a top chef, I picked up the phone, made the call, there was no deliberation the answer was just Yes, and they’re not doing it for the £300 you pay them, they’re doing it because they know you, respect you and they like you.

 

When Saturday Kitchen came about I wrote a list down of chef’s I wanted on the show - the list contained names you would never think of now. Legendary names and not always TV chef’s – the producers thought I was mad but I knew if we had such a high calibre of guest the show would have a successful format.

 

James attributes his popularity to his honesty,

 

I think you’ve got to be honest with yourself, honest about what you do, honest with everybody.

 

Whether I’m in front of 4 million people on a Saturday morning or whether I’m talking to you, I’m no different. I don’t like this Jekyll and Hyde thing in my industry and I don’t want anything to do with it.

 

Once you start taking yourself to serious, it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, you become obsessed with your own Self.

 

To be frank – if nobody watches my show I’m quite happy to go back to my restaurant. I’ve made enough money to enjoy my life (*he says this tentatively rather than boastfully) and I’m very privileged to do this and I’m flattered people watch what I do.

 

Fame and celebrity Is not something I shoot for, I wouldn’t dream of going to the BBC with an idea, they come to me and every time I’m surprised, me? What? Why me? You seriously want to give me a Saturday Morning TV show up against my old boss Antony Worrall Thompson? Wow – you’re brave…

 

I do have to pinch myself sometime, I was on set recently, VT’s are rolling, we’re back on live in 4 minutes, I glance over to the side of the set and I can see Marie Berry, Michel Roux Senior and Sir Michael Parkinson and I’m about to interview Sir Michael Parkinson. It’s moments like that I think ‘**** me this is great, how on earth did this happen’ I think as long as you think that it will make you up your game each time. That’s what I’m trying to do.

 

Every day is different, tonight 160 heads here in Manchester and then we make our way to Royal Ascot to prepare for a 150 head lunch on Saturday, sometimes it feels surreal that people come to me for Dinner.

 

It’s a weird thing because all we do is create the food and the best meal is invariably not about the food. I always try to impress this on my chef’s - The key to a great meal is replicating something you’ve had at home. I bet the best meal anyone reading this has ever had wasn’t in a restaurant.

 

It’s 25% about the food, 25% about the place and 50% is the people around you and that’s the meal there. We try to replicate that, great service, great food simply cooked and the atmosphere speaks for itself, this place will be bussing tonight. That’s what it’s all about.

 

I did want to be a racing driver but my arse is too big!

 

 

Were you always going to be a chef?

 

I did want to be a racing driver but my arse is too big!

 

Don’t forget I’m a farmer’s kid, the closest I got to a go cart was a massive Ferguson tracker. It was never going to happen for me.

 

I’m still into racing, I was testing with Jason Plato yesterday at Goodwood, we’re racing next weekend and that’s my release, to be there learning off these drivers is amazing.

 

I put Chef’s, artists and even drivers in the same pot, they all want to learn.

 

Yes, they all want to learn, how are they at sharing?

 

Not so good, they don’t want to share. With the team they will but outside of that- not a chance. A lot of the drivers are interested in food which is great for me.

Jason helped me shave 5 seconds off my lap time yesterday by sharing some great tips.

 

One thing racing driving and chefs have in common is you have to be nuts to do either for a living, let’s face it - who wants to start at 8am and work until 1am and do the same again the following day.

 

How do you pick young chef’s to work in your kitchen? What do you look for?

 

I judge all my chef’s by their food and their taste, I don’t care about your past or your cast. The important thing is that you’re here to learn and be part of a team. If you want to be part of my team I’ll respect you and give you a chance.

 

I was given the opportunity to be a head chef at 22 and I grasped it and ran with it - that’s why I’m here. I’m here because people have given me opportunity, yes you have to fight for those opportunities and I grafted hard, when my head chef told me to be in at 8am I’d be there at 6am because I wanted to learn. You can tell the best chef’s and the best famous ones because they really do know how to graft.

 

Who’s out-grafting the rest?

 

Jamie Oliver without doubt, he works harder than anyone I’ve ever known in any field, he works his ass off.

 

Is a Casino a good place to have a restaurant?

 

When I suggested we do this to my team a couple of them pulled a face and weren’t sure if it was right but I saw it as a way to test ourselves.

 

Admittedly you don’t HAVE to gamble when you go there but you do have to walk through the casino ala Las Vegas.

 

It has it positives and negatives, being here our guests benefit from a later license which gives us flexibility and there is plenty of foot fall and let’s not forget this place is owned by the Caesars Palace Group. When they want something done it’s done which is great.

 

You had a restaurant in a casino in Leeds that closed, why is it working here but not there?

 

It did work there, the council were dragging their feet over the super license request, in the end they gave it to someone else so as we were located within the Casino we had to close. I moved the team over the Pennines to Manchester, Dougie is now head chef, he was my sous chef in Leeds it’s still the same team here after 2 years.

 

With that, I congratulate him on 2 years open, an impressive accomplishment for any venue, and all the more impressive for a restaurant.

 

It is very easy to open a restaurant, it’s not so easy to run one. He says to finish.

 

www.jamesmartinchef.co.uk | @jamesmartinchef