Northern Soul chats to chef James Martin about Saturday morning telly, dogs and his culinary roots
I’ve got a bit of thing for celebrity chefs. Maybe it’s the apron, or perhaps it’s because they can cook me a decent meal?
My friend Alex and I became obsessed with cooking programmes when we moved in together. We’d binge-watch MasterChef for her kitchen beau Michel Roux Jr, as well as Saturday Kitchen for mine, James Martin. I’ve spent many a Saturday morning in front of the telly box with Martin’s dulcet Northern tones soothing my hangover, and I soon developed a full-on crush. It’s all that butter. And the Yorkshire accent. And the hair.
As I walk down Deansgate towards James Martin Restaurant at Manchester 235, my palms are a bit clammy. Sure, it’s a rare warm day, but I’m nervous and my stomach is somersaulting faster than one of those kids from Diversity.
Seated in the main dining room, being uber-cautious not to mess up the white linen tablecloths and watching the hard-working staff prepare for tonight’s An Evening with James Martin (yes, I’m lucky enough to sample Martin’s baked cod later in the evening), Martin walks over and offers me his hand (“Did he touch you?” my friend texts later, seething with jealousy). He greets me with a big, warm “hello”. He’s taller than he appears on the telly, extremely chatty and, dare I say it, even more handsome. Trying to form coherent sentences, I ask Martin what’s been going on at his restaurant.
“We’ve just changed the menu with the new season and the guys here are doing a sterling job,” he enthuses. “It’s is pretty full on with 140 covers on a Monday night. I split myself between two restaurants – I’ve had this for about four years – and then Tweton Glen (in the New Forest) which has been open a few months. I leave here tomorrow morning and go down to the other restaurant tomorrow night. That’s 242 miles between the two.”
As we chat about the menu, Martin reveals that he no longer releases details in advance.
“We used to do a lot of these dinners where we gave everyone the menu and then we’d get all these telephone calls saying, ‘we don’t like that’. It’s not designed to be a restaurant tonight, it’s designed for people to come along and chat and the food reflects that. It takes you on a journey. And it’s kind of what I want to eat – not that I’ll get chance to sit down – but the menu is designed by me and Dougie the chef, and it’s totally different to what we normally sell.”
“I’m a vegetarian,” I admit. “But I came to your restaurant a few weeks ago and it was one of the best veggie meals I’ve ever had.” Us non-meat eaters are usually an after-thought, but Martin’s restaurant goes the extra mile.
Martin tells me that some of his chefs are vegetarians and they strive to be inclusive. “I always say to the guys that we need to appeal to everyone.”
Less than a month ago, ITV announced that Martin would be taking to our TV screens once more. This time as a pre-recorded show from his own kitchen to be aired on a Saturday morning, at the same time as BBC’s Saturday Kitchen.
“I can’t tell you much about it really as I don’t know much myself. We haven’t even got a date yet.”
He continues: “I had a meeting this afternoon – the crew came up to Manchester – and we are developing ideas. We have a blank piece of paper in front of us and a huge amount of talent back in the office that make the programmes work. It was my idea with the French series (James Martin’s French Adventure) and Keith Floyd’s car [Martin drove around in Floyd’s classic Citroen 2CV] and they made it happen on screen.”
Is he looking forward to the new challenge? “I certainly wouldn’t have done it a year ago. But I am pleased to be doing it now. It’s slightly different and I am a different person to who I was 18 months ago. It’s exciting that it’s my company making it. We managed to pull all the people and all the expertise for this – I call it my hobby as being a chef is my real job – and like a restaurant, you need a talented team around you. We’ve got great producers, great cameramen, great editors, great sound guys, and I’ve worked with those people for 23 years.”
I, for one, am excited to have him back on Saturday morning telly. “The amount of people who’ve been saying it,” he laughs. “I left here to go to a meeting earlier and three people clocked me in the car park and asked me about it. “I don’t wish it to be a competition [with Saturday Kitchen]. It’s just one of those things. I want to do it because I feel that I owe it, that I want to give something back for 23 years of people supporting me. It’ll be everything that I’ve experienced in 23 years of television all put into two hours. It’ll be a stonking show.”
As I’m a dog-lover, I ask Martin about his Lazar Apso. His fans go wild for the cute pooch and he’s currently training up a gun dog. “They’re a bit different to regular spaniels,” he says with a laugh. “But I don’t get him for another two years until he’s fully trained.” So, are the dogs going to be featured in the programme?
“It depends. We put a call out to the reviewers – what do they want? I am sure they’ll fit in as it’s filmed in my house so they’re bound to be in there somewhere. They’ll be in the back of the shot, or eating food off the floor. And that’s what we wanted. It’s going to be based at home so we’ve got a nice veg garden, a BBQ area, a pizza oven, we’ll utilise the outside space. ITV has just gone, ‘we’re chuffed to bits that you’re going to make it’ and what you fill it with is entirely up to you. But there are going to be a few surprises in there.”
After the success of Martin’s cookery road-trip, ITV has commissioned another prime-time adventure which will see Martin touring America.
“Again, we’re working on a blank canvas. This afternoon we had a large map and they said, ‘where do you want to go?’ There are several places that I want to visit. But it shouldn’t all be about the food, it should be about the places too. America is a bit like France, the reason it worked well is because it gave people an insight into how stunning the country is, and totally the opposite of what people thought. And, I think America can be the same, we just have to be quite clever about where we go and what we do, and because of that, we’ve got to travel further.
“And like we did with the French series, every dish will be cooked in one take. It was all shot live. We never took anything twice and that means you can cram a lot more in and, in terms of the programme, fill up the content.”
My Dad is a huge fan of Martin and, as a mechanic and former rally driver, he loves cars (he was gutted when Martin didn’t become the new face of Top Gear). I tell Martin this and ask if the show will feature classic American cars. “The aspirations are grand, but it might get narrowed down a bit. There is a classic car involved. There’s a pick-up involved. There’s a motorbike involved. And there’s a plane involved. There’s a bit of everything really.”
A “bit of everything” sums up Martin’s approach. First and foremost he’s interested in cooking and food, but he likes to keep things exciting.
“We might be doing another Supercar day here which is quite interesting. I am trying to get my mate, Dougie Lampkin (professional motorcycle trials and EnduroCross rider) up here so he’ll be riding his bike through the restaurant and outside, and all through the whole place, jumping all over the tables and everything else. We are just putting together ideas for this following year. Brian Turner is also up for doing another dinner.”
While a restaurant in a casino might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I like the juxtaposition between the two spaces. When you’re there you almost forget there’s a bar downstairs, or a black jack table, or that you’re even in Manchester city centre.
“It’s like your own little oasis,” agrees Martin. “You don’t notice the casino. There is a restaurant in America like that, it’s in New York and it’s called Per Se, and it’s one of the best restaurants in the world, but it’s in a shopping centre. You go up an escalator, and you think ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ and then you go up another one and you go into an oasis. People will say no, and I will always question them, ‘why are you saying no?’ If you’ve got good food, people will find you.”
The whole evening is fantastic, from the amazing food – which Martin is clearly passionate about, explaining each dish – to a Q&A which gets more NSFW the more people drink (and he refuses to read out the questions) as well as a few interesting titbits about what he’s got coming up for both the restaurant and his telly show. He’s at ease with his guests, laughing and joking. As he chats about his upcoming American road trip, Martin reveals that his golden rule during six months of filming is “never eat anything that’s bigger than your head”.
He also recounts a funny tale involving his Grandad. “When we get to Texas and Memphis – don’t tweet this for Christ’s sake otherwise I’m going to get in trouble – we’ve got permission to film at Southfork (of TV’s Dallas fame). I’ve got this line I want to say at Southfork, as the guys I am filming with want me to dress up as a cowboy and sit on a bloody horse and all that sort of stuff, so my plan is that I’m going to lean on the fence and look at the guy sat on the horse, turn around to the camera and say, ‘I know what you’re thinking’. My Grandad was a farmer and he taught me an invaluable lesson in life. I was seven-years-old when he gave me this cracking bit of advice. As he leaned on a very similar fence surveying the horses, he said, ‘lad, never ride anything that’s bigger than you are’.”
“Okay,” my friend Danielle says as the night ends. “I get the crush now. He’s lovely.”
“I know, right?” I swoon. “So lovely.”
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.