Why British food is Britain at its best: As his new series celebrates the nation’s finest produce, James Martin says the best thing about Brexit is that we’ll all be eating more of it
- James Martin, 46, explores foods across the British Isles in a new series
- The TV chef is joined by Nick Nairn, Tom Kitchin, Michael Caines, Michel Roux Sr
- James shared his fury over everything including food becoming political
- He says maybe Brexit will cause people to support the food produced in the UK
- Speaking about vegans, he questions why we can’t simply eat food and enjoy it
The Brexit vote had only just happened when James Martin hit on his latest idea for a TV show.
Just as he had taken off around France and the US on a foodie adventure, he would explore these great British Isles of ours, seeking out cause for celebration.
It sounds like he had a premonition we would all need cheering up.
‘I had a feeling the Brexit thing wouldn’t be straightforward,’ he agrees.
‘I remember thinking, “Well, let’s show the country at its best.”’
How timely – with all this talk of food shortages to come, and people stockpiling tins of beans – to highlight the food we do produce in the UK, he says.
‘If one good thing comes out of it, then maybe it’ll be that we support the food we produce.’
TV chef James Martin, 46, spoke about his decision not to follow trends in his new food show in which he explores the British Isles
So, last summer, off he went with the TV cameras on an epic tour of the British Isles, travelling from Cornwall to Orkney, via Wales and popping over to Northern Ireland for good measure.
Along the way he met Michelin-starred chefs, ate in some of the finest restaurants in the land, cooked on beaches and hung out in chip shops.
Over the next two weeks we are featuring recipes for some of the dishes he cooks along the way – from Welsh lamb with gnocchi to a Scottish-inspired whisky chicken with wild mushrooms – and frankly, it all sounds rather glorious.
‘It helped that it was during that heatwave,’ he admits.
‘The weather was amazing and the scenery was stunning.
‘We used a lot of drone footage for the filming, particularly in Scotland.
‘I’m not sure I really understood how beautiful it was before.’
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Little wonder so many fellow chefs wanted to tag along on this very British adventure.
He is joined by culinary giants like Nick Nairn, Tom Kitchin, Michael Caines and his old mentors, Michel Roux Sr and his son Alain.
There is another unexpected guest for lunch too. His mum, Sue, pops up in one episode.
‘It’s the first time in my 23 years on TV that she’s appeared on camera,’ he says.
‘We go to her local village pub, which does the best scampi in England.’
No three-Michelin-star lunch for her then? ‘No, she wanted the scampi.’
And how did she fare in front of the cameras? ‘Well, she went all Yorkshire on me.
She said, “If I speak, will I get paid?”’
James (pictured with Tom Kitchin as they cook by the water’s edge in the Highlands) says he wants to encourage people to ‘eat what they like’
Frankly, his mum sounds as much of a character as some of the fishermen and farmers he meets on his travels.
One may imagine having a millionaire celebrity son would have changed her life.
Not at all. Retirement could have beckoned many years ago, but she won’t hear of it.
‘I got my work ethic from her, and she hasn’t let go of it.
‘She still works in a clothes shop four or five days a week, even though she’s 70.
‘I could tell her to slow down, but I know she wouldn’t listen.
‘In fact, it would probably be bad for her health, because she doesn’t know how not to be busy.’
His mum is his role model in life – and not just for her gravy.
‘She represents everything I stand for, as did her mother before her.
‘If I try to do anything in life, it’s to emulate her.
‘She isn’t impressed by celebrity, or by anything really.’
She certainly keeps his feet on the ground.
‘She’ll watch me on telly and then give me notes. I shouldn’t wear this, why did I say that?’
But it sounds like one of his biggest treats is when his mum allows him to pay for a (non-pub) lunch.
‘I took her out the other day to somewhere special. We got a nice bottle of wine, a treat.
‘It’s important to keep that bond. I’m 47 this year.
‘A lot of my friends have lost their parents. When it’s gone, it’s gone.’
There is something unashamedly old school about this series.
‘It’s not just about fine food,’ he insists.
‘We also look at things like where you find the best sausage roll in Britain.’ Is there a definitive answer? ‘Yes, the Isle of Wight.’
James (pictured with Nick Nairn in Orkney) claims his family who farmed on the Castle Howard estate in Yorkshire would disown him if he jumped on the vegan bandwagon
James’s favourite guests are gnarly fishermen, rather than hipster types.
And where are the vegans? Surely no food-based show these days is complete without them.
He snorts. ‘London media b*******!’ he says of the kerfuffle about Greggs and their vegan sausage roll.
‘So he didn’t do Veganuary this year? Isn’t he jumping on the bandwagon and bringing out a clean eating book?
‘No, and I never will. I’m a farmers’ lad. I’d get disowned,’ says James, whose family farmed on the Castle Howard estate in Yorkshire.
‘This show celebrates that 86-year-old who pulls out crab pots with his bare hands.
‘I want to help him, not slag him off. I want to help the farmer.’
He’s furious at how polarised the country has become – not just with Brexit, but with more mundane matters like what we eat.
When did it all become so political, he says, throwing up his arms.
‘Why can’t we eat food and just enjoy it? Food is such a pleasure of life.
‘Why can’t we just enjoy it for what it is?’ Veganuary is a dirty word in his book.
‘Nothing against vegans. One of my chefs is vegan. Eat what you like – and teach the rest of us how to cook it better.
James (pictured rustling up a dish with Michael Caines in Exmouth) says the country is obsessed with eating as they please throughout the year but moaning in January and February
‘But don’t lecture me on what I should eat.
‘In this country we have an obsession with eating whatever we want for ten months of the year, then we moan about it in January and February and make all these changes.
‘No other country in the world does that! I say, eat what you want, but don’t put your opinion all over social media.
‘I don’t. Who would listen to some Yorkshire chef anyway?’
What’s perhaps surprising is that he has survived 23 years in the notoriously fickle world of TV.
He says he’s only done it because he has ignored food ‘fashions’.
‘I don’t follow trends. I’ve tried not to jump on any bandwagon.’
He says even his publishers have questioned that.
‘I’ve had them say, “Let’s do a book on such-and-such,” and I’ll say, “Why? Because some other person’s book sold more last time?” No. That’s not me.’
But hasn’t he joined the healthy eating brigade in the past? He lost a couple of stone last year, I remind him.
He groans. ‘Well, yeah, but I’ve put it all on again.’
Oops. ‘I’d never really watched myself on TV before, but I have set up a production company so we now do all the editing in-house, and that means you can’t avoid seeing yourself on the screen.
‘With HD and everything, you end up saying, “Oh my God, I have put on a bit. I shouldn’t tuck that shirt in. Look at that chin.”’ Big sigh.
‘But what can I say? I like food.’
Ditto the campaigning side of the business, which has become de rigueur for the likes of Jamie Oliver.
You don’t see James Martin marching on Parliament, or calling for sugar taxes, or coming out against Turkey Twizzlers.
‘I do admire Jamie. I admire his work ethic, and what he has achieved. But that sort of thing just isn’t me.
James (pictured with Nick Nairn in Orkney) revealed he was sent on a course for help with reading the autocue after he started on Saturday Kitchen 13 years ago
‘If I started a campaign then I’d be seen as walking in his steps, but it’s just not my thing anyway.
‘I do get involved (he talks of low-profile work with his local hospital, helping with the menus), but I don’t do it for television.’
Has he watched Jamie’s business woes (with his string of restaurants getting into financial trouble) with terror?
‘Jamie has been quite open about everything. He took his eye off the ball.
‘That happens in this industry. The right hand misses the point of the left hand.’
Like Jamie, he has quite the empire – a string of restaurants across the UK including The Kitchen at Chewton Glen in Hampshire, where he can be found working behind the stoves, book deals and, of course, now his own TV production company.
Not bad for a man who left school without a single qualification (‘not even in cookery. I failed that,’ he points out), and whose dyslexia made a telly career look unlikely.
‘When I started on Saturday Kitchen 13 years ago, they sent me on a course because I was struggling to read the autocue.
‘It was invaluable. It taught me that I had to walk and talk at the same time.
‘If I was moving, it would make it easier to read that autocue.
‘It sounds daft, but it really is the key.
‘By moving my legs and my arms, I get distracted from the problems.
‘I still do that to this day. If you look, I’m always moving. If I sit still and read stuff, I will cock it up.’
James (pictured) who quit Saturday Kitchen two years ago, revealed he was skeptical at first of doing tours that meant being away from his restaurant
Two years ago he famously quit Saturday Kitchen, complaining that he wanted his weekends back.
Did he get them? No, in a word.
He has been on a rather relentless treadmill ever since, juggling a new show, Saturday Morning (which is pre-recorded), with one-off telly projects like his big tours.
Oh and in the past two years he has taken to the road for two rock star-type tours, which even he admits was an odd thing to be doing.
Since when did TV chefs become rock stars too?
The show was part cookery demonstration, part one-man show (where he reminisced about everything from cars to curries), and, he says, cried out for a big finale.
‘I did learn the guitar for it,’ he admits, laughing a bit at how he can now manage several Oasis numbers and has callouses on his fingers to show for it.
‘At the start I didn’t think the idea of a tour would work, and I’m not sure I would do it again because it involved being away for five weeks at a time, which is a long time to be away from the restaurant.
‘But we sold out the Hammersmith Apollo, so – bloody hell!’
Why do it in the first place, though? Is it for the money? ‘Well, anyone who says that isn’t a factor is lying,’ he admits.
‘But to be honest, I was asked, and at the time, contrary to popular opinion, the phone wasn’t ringing.
‘I was reading all this stuff about how I was being lined up for Top Gear.
‘No! The phone was not ringing, so I thought I’d give it a go.
‘Being on tour gives you a chance to think, “What next?”. It was a rollercoaster, but a good one.
‘I think I realised about two years ago that it was the first time I’d been content.
‘I’m happier still now.
‘I don’t feel the need to change, to pretend, to chase anything.
James (pictured) says going on tour gives him a chance to think, he realised about two years ago that for the first time he’s content
‘I’m forty-bloody-seven this year, at that stage where you realise you are turning into the old guard.’
Has this slowing down got anything to do with a more settled home life? He has been with his girlfriend, Louise Davies, for over eight years now and although he’s secretive about their future plans (‘No kids yet?’ I ask. ‘If there were, I wouldn’t tell you,’ he quips back), he seems happy.
Professionally, he says, he’s more picky about projects, ‘only doing what I want to do’.
That includes filming his Saturday show at home as much as possible.
‘That was never the case in the old days, but it’s great and guests love it too.
‘It’s more chilled out because they just come to my house.’
A lot of food shows on TV feature ‘fake’ homes, that have been stunted up for the occasion. Not his.
‘We’ve had complaints in the past because I’ve had the dog in the kitchen – but it’s my kitchen.
‘Where is the dog supposed to go?’ It must be weird, though, having celebrities nosing around your larder?
‘It can be. In the early days, when Boyzone were popping in, I did have a few “pinch me” moments, but it all makes for a really relaxed show.’
What about the washing up, though? He shares a secret.
‘Well, we always have a team lunch after we’ve finished filming, but we eat from paper plates, precisely to save someone having to do that.’
We’re not sure his Michelin-starred mates would approve.
James Martin’s Great British Adventure begins this month on ITV.
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