He’s one of the most recognisable chefs in the country, but Yorkshire lad James Martin will always care more for food than fame. Here's how this straight-talking chef made his name on the small screen.
James Martin is in a curious position. As a veteran of Ready Steady Cook and having just stepped down as the host of Saturday Kitchen—the longest-running Saturday-morning show in TV history—the 43-year-old is, by all accounts, one of the most successful TV chefs of this century. And yet he never aimed to be on the small screen, let alone stick around for two decades.
Cooking up a storm on the hugely successful Saturday Kitchen. Image via BBC
From humble beginnings…
"I’d never imagined doing this for a living,” he says in dulcet Yorkshire tones. “When you’re 16 and training in college, or 18 and getting your a*** kicked in London 24/7, TV was never on the horizon, was it? Your dream was to be a head chef.”
In fact, working in a kitchen has always been Martin’s ambition. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t passionate about cooking,” he says.
“I used to help out at restaurants at the ages of eight and ten, and by the time I was 12 I had my own little business that catered for parties and weddings with my mum.
He cooked for his first wedding at the tender age of 13, and the experience “put me off weddings for the rest of my life. You’re trying to please everybody, and then the photographer takes two and a half hours so everything’s overcooking. I’ll never cater for weddings again. That’s the golden rule.”
Martin, of course, was destined for much greater things than local celebrations. Continuing his prodigal trajectory, he won “Student of the Year” three years in a row at Scarborough Technical College.
Graduating on a Friday, he’d moved to London by the Sunday to throw himself into the culinary capital.
If you can't take the fire…
One of his first jobs was at Antony Worral Thompson’s restaurant, and he was subsequently snapped up by Marco Pierre White.
“It was all I ever wanted to do,” he explains, “and it’s still all I ever want to do.” But that’s not to say it was easy. He worked incredibly long hours for very little pay—a state of affairs that didn’t dent his passion one iota.
“It’s the best job in the world. The hours are irrelevant—they come with the job. If you don’t like the hours, don’t be a chef.”
“When you’re 16 and training in college, or 18 and getting your a*** kicked in London 24/7, TV was never on the horizon."
The young chef was surrounded by exquisite food all day, and yet his mother still had to make sure he was being fed.
“She used to send me dinner vouchers for Marks & Spencer to get food because I had no money… I remember Michael Jackson brought out an album and it took me six weeks to save up a tenner to buy it. That’s how little money I was on back then.”
His life changed when, at 22, he was headhunted for the position of head chef at the newly opened Hotel du Vin in Winchester.
“We had an eight-month waiting list for tables—it went nuts. Because of that, famous people used to come down for a meal and you got spotted. But it’s not like I went looking for it, and I still don’t to this day.”
So followed his stint on Ready Steady Cook, followed by ten years hosting the ever-popular Saturday Kitchen. The luxuries afforded by a successful TV career have certainly changed his lifestyle, but his work ethic is as strong as ever.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t passionate about cooking.”
He describes the previous Saturday, where he got up at 4am to film Saturday Kitchen, then hopped on a train to Manchester to visit his eponymous restaurant. “I worked the entire night service and finished at about a quarter to one.” For those counting, that’s a 21-hour day. Where does his drive come from?
“I was a farmer’s kid,” he shrugs. “You get nowt for nowt in life—you’ve got to work for everything. What better existence can you have than waking up in the morning and enjoying your job as much as you did when you were 18? I wouldn’t change a single thing because I don’t want for any more.”
Mastering a dying art
One of his recent projects is Sweet, a sumptuously shot cookery book that’s a follow-up to his popular 2007 tome Desserts.
The recipes, although deceptively simple, have quite a cheffy presentation—twisted willow appears majestically on top of a chocolate dacqouise, for example. It’s a deliberate decision for Martin, who was a pastry chef for 25 years.
“Pastry is a dying art,” he laments. “People say it’s primeval, and that chefs want to be in the kitchen with the fire. But it’s nothing to do with that, I don’t think. It’s the hours—pastry chefs have to work much longer. There just isn’t the talent out there now.”
Martin himself is never far from a kitchen, but having done his time in the capital, he now happily resides in the Hampshire countryside.
“I’ve got no interest in living in London,” he says emphatically. “I’ve got my car collection, I’ve got my dogs, I’ve got green grass and I’ve got trees. In London nobody knows each other; I live in a village, and if the house alarm goes off, there’ll be people round in two minutes.”
Lest it sound idyllic, Martin points out that his beautiful home and his success have come at the expense of other areas of his life.
“The sacrifices you make are huge. All your mates are married and have children. It was quite funny—my friends came over to my house last week, and we were walking through my garages when one of them said, ‘So this is what you could have had if you didn’t have kids.’ ”
"One old chef once told me you get two things in life for free: parking tickets and syphilis… you’ve got to earn respect."
Does he not want that sort of family life? He pauses for just a second. “No. I’ve not got that and that’s fine. It’s a lifestyle choice. The sacrifices you make doing your job are colossal, but the rewards are huge. And I don’t mean financial, it’s in here and here,” he adds pointing to his head and his heart. “That’s what matters.”
He has no time for complainers, either. “Being a chef isn’t hard work—it’s not coal mining, is it? You’ve got the luxury of food, you’ve got camaraderie and you’ve got warmth.” He suddenly laughs to himself.
“One old chef once told me you get two things in life for free: parking tickets and syphilis… you’ve got to earn respect, and that means more to me than anything.”
Read the full interview in March's edition of Reader's Digest