For more than 15 years, celebrity chef James Martin has been whetting the appetites of viewers with his numerous TV shows. Since taking over the wildly successful BBC series Saturday Kitchen in 2006, he’s become one of the country’s most recognised gourmet experts. Ahead of next month’s BBC Good Food Show we persuaded him to step away from the stove for an exclusive chat with So magazine.
James, you’re among the UK’s most famous chefs, but who do you rate in your profession?
All the guys who come on to Saturday Kitchen – including chefs like Michel Roux Senior and Thomas Keller. It took me five years to get Thomas on the show; chefs like that don’t do TV. He runs probably the greatest restaurant in the world – The French Laundry in California – and it’s always great to have people like that on, because then everyone else follows suit. In terms of TV chefs, I would say probably Rick Stein because I find his programmes fascinating and I’m learning all the time.
So is Thomas Keller’s eatery your favourite restaurant ever?
In the UK there are quite a few to choose from. There never used to be, 15 or 20 years ago, but now there are lots of great restaurants. I’ve been trying to get Pierre Koffman on the show. People won’t know this but most of our greatest chefs went through his kitchen. He runs Koffman’s at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge; I was there the other day. Also there’s the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, which is famous for Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant but he’s a relative new boy compared with the Waterside Inn. It’s had three Michelin stars for 25 years. It used to be run by Michel Roux Senior and now it’s under his son, Alain. That family is probably one of the greatest in the world for food and we should be privileged that they’re here in the UK. They’re unique. What other family has got fathers with three Michelin stars and their sons running three and two-star restaurants?
How did TV discover you?
I was spotted when I was at the Hotel du Vin in Winchester [for which he became head chef at the age of 21]. When I was 24 a customer called Mary came into the restaurant with Lloyd Grossman, because they’d been filming in the area. She was the producer of a new live show for Sky and was looking for new chefs, so she asked if I was interested. I was very far from TV Land then, but she said “we’ll send a car for you” – it was the first time I’d been in a chauffeur driven car. I was taken to London and got the TV job, but I was still trying to do my other job.
How does fame effect your career as a chef?
It has positives and negatives. The negative is that you’re not there [at your restaurant] 24/7 like before, but the positives are that you are much more knowledgeable than I ever would be otherwise and I’m probably a bit lucky. I never thought I’d travel where I have and that certainly makes you a better cook. Without Saturday Kitchen I wouldn’t get to meet that many amazing chefs. It feels like I’m being a part of their kitchen. Most people look on TV as being a separate job but I see that as part of the other work I’m doing. My restaurant [The Leeds Kitchen in the city’s Clarence Dock area] wouldn’t be as well known, but you have to perform better because customers expect more when they come in. I’ve got young kids, aged 18 and 19, coming into my kitchen and it’s great to give them the opportunity I had at 21.
Do you have to compromise on life in the kitchen?
I’m cooking in there tomorrow and on Saturday night. I admire Jamie Oliver for what he’s done and achieved, but I’ve just got the one restaurant. My kitchen is busy as hell and we’re trying our best, that’s just what we do. Guests want chefs to actually be there.
On Saturday Kitchen you interview some fascinating people – is it hard to cook and chat at the same time?
People have said it’s probably the hardest thing I can possibly do, but the advantage is my first ever TV job was live for Sky. Because of that I’ve been used to live stuff and cooking on time for years. I think with all these things, it’s a learning process in this job. The first day on Saturday Kitchen, I was terrified – I’d been plucked from Ready Steady Cook and put in charge of this monster, but by the second week it was getting the highest viewing figures it had ever had and it’s just gone nuts. When it comes to interviews, I don’t like name-dropping but Michael Parkinson gave me the best advice when I met him at a dinner. He said: “Before you come out, know more about the interviewee than you know about yourself. If the researchers give you a book to read, read it, then you’re never short of conversation.” So I read it all. The interviewing is the hardest bit of the show but research makes it much easier.
Any plans for this year?
We’re looking at a couple of sites [for a restaurant] and there’s the possibility of a hotel. That would be my maximum though, I’ve got no interest in a global empire. You’ve got to be happy and content with your work and I feel quite privileged to be in this job. I’m quite happy and that’s a good place to be. You can still want more but I’ve got no aspirations to go to Los Angeles.
Click here to find out how you can win tickets to the BBC Good Food Show and meet James Martin in person.