Celebrity chef and Saturday Kitchen host James Martin, talks to Exclusive about life growing up on a farm, his love of cars and the secret to his culinary success
What can we expect from your new live show Plates, Mates & Automobiles?
A strong beginning, a great middle and a blowout end! I’m not just going to stand on stage and say ‘Now here’s a scone recipe.’ We’re going to give people something they won’t expect. We’ll have a different guest each day – from F1 driver Mark Webber to Mary Berry – and I’m training two hours a day, seven days a week, for the next four months just to do a certain part of the show. I can’t tell you what yet though!
What is it about fast cars and bikes, and foodies that tends to go hand in hand?
I think a lot of racing drivers and chefs are similar – they’re all nuts and they’re all keen on food. I’ve spoken to a lot of racing drivers about this – everyone from Jenson Button to Sir Jackie Stewart to Jason Plato – both racing drivers and chefs have that hand eye coordination and love their food.
Are you all workaholics, too?
We’re dedicated, certainly. We all want to do well at whatever we do. Food requires a lot of work and effort and knowledge, and driving is the same. You’ve got to have a certain natural ability, but if you want to do well you have to practise hard and keep learning.
Your dad was a catering manager – is that where your love of food came from?
I started as a pot-washer aged eight to get a bit of pocket money, then I got involved in what was going on in the kitchen. I was catering for weddings when was 11 or 12, which put me off weddings for the rest of my life! Even now, when you’ve been in the kitchen cooking all night and you go to the door and hear the conversation in the restaurant, it’s really special knowing you’ve played a small part in making an amazing atmosphere. And food is a small part; it’s 25% about the food, 25% about the atmosphere, 25% about the service and 25% about who you’re with at the dining table.
Where did your love of cars begin?
I was driving on the farm where I grew up when I was eight years old. Then I bought a Mini from the Exchange and Mart with my pocket money when I was 10 and painted flames on the side of it. Then I got into radio-controlled planes (and started crashing them all), then started flying myself 10 years ago and got my pilot’s licence. I remember working in London aged 17 and wandering around after work peering at amazing cars through the windows of car showrooms. I never dreamed that I’d start collecting the things one day.
Did your passion for cars come before your passion for food?
No, the food led to me being lucky enough to buy my first car. When I started doing the media bits and pieces I bought a Lotus Caterham with my first pay cheque. It had no roof, no doors, and I used that to go to work – it was the most ridiculous thing. I had no house at the time; I was living in a flat above a Chinese takeaway!
What’s the first thing you learnt to cook?
Beef stew and dumplings. We were farmer’s kids, so Sunday roasts were as glamorous as it got. One Thursday a month we’d go out for a posh night out, as my folks called it, to a Berni Inn for a steak and wrinkly peas and I tried French mustard for the first time when I was there.
A lot of people can relate to that – is that the secret to your popularity?
You just have to be you, be honest and don’t try to act like anything else. I don’t go chasing for it, that’s the key. I don’t do red carpets, I feel really awkward when I do PR junkets because I don’t want to talk about my private life. I don’t like the way that food’s going on TV. To me it’s my job, my life, my passion, so when it becomes a game show and a gimmick I’m not really interested. Hopefully my show will keep plodding along because it’s honest and open; there’s no tits and tinsel, as we call it!
Where are your favourite places to eat out?
I go to Koffmann’s at the Berkeley Hotel and I go to The Feathered Nest in The Cotswolds, I go to Eric Chavot’s Brasserie Chavot in London, I think he’s the greatest cook cooking in Britain at the moment, Sat Bains in Nottingham, which is amazing. There are some great places around and about and no doubt we’ll be trying a few when we’re on the road on the tour!
Are there any dishes you just can’t get right?
Not really, I just don’t like horseradish, I can’t stand it! I know we’ve got it in our restaurant somewhere but if I find the guy who did it they’ll be getting their P45!
So what would be your food heaven and food hell?
Food hell would definitely be horseradish! Heaven would be langoustines and properly fresh crab meat – you can’t beat it.