He’s fast and funny, like all good chefs. James Martin has no time for navel gazing; life’s too short for that.
He’s sharp and snappy; to the point. Fancy pastries, rural living and fast cars are what makes his day.
James is one of Britain’s most popular TV chefs. He’s an A-lister, alongside Jamie, Nigella, Mary and Paul. Every Saturday morning, three million fans turn on their TVs to spend 90 minutes with the man from North Riding in Yorkshire. They have done for the past nine years. During that time, he’s brought the nation’s greatest chefs into our homes, working with Tom Kerridge, Jason Atherton, Thomas Keller and others who are simultaneously exceptionally talented and popular.
“It’s not a bad job is it?” he says, with typical understatement. “I think it’s the best cheffing job in the world.
“Every week I get to be a commis chef to some of the best people in the world. You have to be a chef to present a show like that. All I get is a quick rehearsal to learn a dish. But the guys who come on the show know that I’ve done three quarters of the work. You’ve got to be all over a dish to make sure it’s right.
“But it comes with experience. TV is hard but working in restaurants is also tough. The pressures of the two are very different. We have an hour-and-a-half and when the little red light comes on there’s nowhere to hide. But I love the show and I love the team. We know straight away, within 10 minutes, whether we’ve got a great show or not.”
James’s popularity has made him one of the nation’s most successful cook book writers. He’s written 15 of them, including his latest, the moreish and intoxicating Sweet. This book is packed with 70 fabulous recipes that will thrill anyone with a passion for the sweeter things in life. From simple classic bakes to lavish, cream-filled gateaux, it features a range of sophisticated showstoppers that crown Martin as the King of Puds, the Champion of Home Baking.
“I’ve wanted to do this book for the past four years,” he says. “I started writing it three, or three-and-a-half years ago then the publisher told me to do it a year ago.
“We got a great photographer, Peter Cassidy, back on board and gave it a go. All the photography is done at my house. I made every single dish and I plated every dish.”
It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a man who became a pastry chef by accident. At the early stages of his career, James was learning his trade at some of Britain and France’s finest restaurants – including a three Michelin star and a brace of two Michelin star establishments. Unexpectedly, he found himself on the pastry section.
“Nobody wanted to work on the pastry section. I was 18. The head pastry chef went to the toilet, disappeared and never came back. Within six hours, I was the pastry chef – it was sink or swim. But I’ve always enjoyed it and always had a knack for it.
“It’s great when the idea for this book came about because this is what I love. We were very creative when we made it. We were trying to photograph desserts on plates, but sometimes that didn’t work. So we’d do them on table tops, try different things. There’s a strong work ethic because we all want things to be the best. We want desserts to look impressive.” Sweet was photographed in James’s own kitchen. “It was fun. I’ve got a giant clock on the wall, I can’t take it off because the wall would collapse if I did. That’s in the book.
“It’s great when you are able to cook in a kitchen like this because you’ve got everything to hand. And when you’re actually at home, too, you can do a lot more. The photographer didn’t want my clock to feature on the cover, so he had an idea to create a very cool backdrop, using a slate grey colour. We got piece of wood, painted it with blackboard paint, rubbed chalk on and off to give it a slate effect and it worked beautifully. That’s the joy of doing things at home, you can come up with ideas and run with them.”
- Watch James in action on Home Comforts
Not that James enjoys all aspects of writing books. What parts grate?
“Well, the writing for a start,” he laughs. “I’ve already got the publishers chasing me for the next book. I’ve got this demon software, it’s a headset where you can talk into the computer and it types it up for you.
“But you learn over the years how to pace yourself and lock yourself away and get it done. With me, I won’t move until I’ve written a big batch. I’ll tell myself to write 30 and I won’t go out the door until they’re done. It’s difficult but I’m still here, 17 or 18 books later.”
Having written so extensively, the challenge is on to continually find new dishes. However, James finds much of his inspiration from travel.
“Travel is a good part of that. But then you look at my job on the TV and there’s not many chefs who get to work with the greatest chefs in the world. I have the best chef’s job because I get a glimpse of what the big boys are doing every week. And I still learn from those guys. I’m going to go to a restaurant in Nottingham, Sat Bains place, which has two Michelin stars, as a work experience. I’m going to do a couple of days there, away from the cameras, to learn how they work and try to improve.
“I’m still at the stove most days. People don’t realise that. I’ve got my restaurant and I’m there throughout the week. I block out the days in my diary. That’s where I go. It’s where it all started and where it will end up. The fluffy stuff in the middle is fun. But it’s all about cooking. I ventured into the kitchen when I was eight and I’ll still be there when I’m 80.”
The former Strictly Come Dancing star is also hitting the road next year for his first live tour, Plates, Mates And Automobiles. The show starts in Glasgow in February and reaches Birmingham Symphony Hall on March 22.
“I’ve been cooking live on TV for 20 years now and I felt it was time to do something I’ve never done before that was truly special. I’m so excited to be heading out on my first ever tour, doing what I do best but on the big stage.”
It seems that success has given James the life he always dreamed of: and in his case, that’s meant a garage full of classic cars. He won at the Brands Hatch Mini Festival and has raced a GT Aston Martin.
“I love cars,” he purrs. “And if I find myself with too many, I’ll just build another garage. I like my 1964 Mini Cooper. But my 1965 Ferrari 275, now that’s a proper toy. They don’t just gather dust, I race them. I’m a wannabe racer.”
As they say: Life is Sweet.
Tickets for Plates, Mates And Automobiles, priced £30, are available here.
By Andy Richardson