Celebrity chef James Martin has been cooking professionally from the age of eight! Following record-breaking viewing figures for his highly successful show, Saturday Kitchen, he has been discovering and baking his way along the east coast of America with his new TV show for the Good Food channel, James Martin’s United Cakes Of America. He meets Lynda Clark to talk about his latest adventures and his amazing career >>
James is definitely a country lad. He was brought up in a farmhouse in North Yorkshire and always had a passion for cooking. “I started cooking when I was about six and then, when I was eight, I cooked professionally for extra pocket money,” he says. “I worked at the Castle Howard estate where my father was catering manager and then, when I was 11, I was asked to do the catering for a wedding, which I did all on my own – it was pretty interesting, but I just got on and did it as I have always loved cooking.”
James wasn’t a keen academic student and at 16 he left school and started out on his dream career. He began his formal training at Scarborough Technical College where he was Student of the Year for three years running. The chef, Antony Worrall Thompson, met him at the college, noticed his excellent work and invited him to come to London to work in the kitchens of 190 Queensgate, followed by dell’Ugo. “I had never spent any time in London so it was all very new and quite challenging but a great experience,” explains James. “I then worked at Chewton Glen, which was incredible, and I stayed there for two years. By that time I was 21 and decided to open my own place. I opened the Hotel and Bistro du Vin in Winchester, and I did something pretty unusual – I changed the menu every day. It was a huge success, and we had massive waiting lists especially at weekends.”
It was then that James’ television career started. In 1996 he was on Ready Steady Cook, and this was followed by a whole host of very successful shows. He also had some fun when he appeared on the highly popular show, Strictly Come Dancing, although he had his doubts before it started. “I wasn’t at all keen to do any kind of reality show, and when I turned up and saw who the other contestants were I thought I’d be the first out, but I ended up getting to the semi-finals, which was incredible – and it got me noticed too! In fact, it was after Strictly that I got asked to do Saturday Kitchen, so it was probably a good move. When we launched Saturday Kitchen, we had about 1.2 million viewers, but now it’s nearly three million! It’s pretty staggering and very, very popular.”
James is a very busy man and, apart from all his television work, he owns The Talbot Hotel in Malton, North Yorkshire, and The Leeds Kitchen. Obviously he is passionate about cooking and food and has cooked at some of the top restaurants, but his favourite treats are a chocolate éclair from Marks & Spencer and his mum’s roast dinners. “She is a fabulous cook, and her roasts are something else,” he says. “When I’m cooking for myself, I like to make risotto, and I’m a fan of anything in breadcrumbs too – simple stuff really.
“I can vividly remember my first step on the property ladder. I was renting a flat above a Chinese takeaway in Winchester, and I was doing OK. The big problem that I had was that in order to get a mortgage you needed five years of accounts, but I only had accounts for six months. I walked up and down the high street, and even though I had about a 50% deposit, nobody would give me a mortgage. Then I decided to try one last place, which was the Bristol & West. Luckily, the person I saw was a fan of the restaurant I worked in and was very positive and said they would give me a mortgage. The big problem was that I hadn’t actually found anywhere to buy! I left their offices and literally walked a few yards up the road to an estate agent, and I went in and told them I wanted to buy an apartment and that I had £150,000 to spend. It was fairly surreal as they told me that there was a place opposite that was not quite finished being renovated, but it was a great buy. Believe it or not, I made a very quick decision and bought it without even seeing inside!! The whole thing took about 10 minutes – it was my ‘instant home’. I now live in a house in Hampshire, which has seven bedrooms but, to be honest, it’s too big. You basically only really live in a very few rooms, and there are all these empty bedrooms. I have also got three garages for my collection of cars. I honestly think that when you buy a home a main consideration should be the kitchen and bathroom as these are the rooms that will cost the most to renovate. If they both tick the right boxes, other rooms can have a lick of paint and will look fine.”
James is very aware how hard it is to buy your first home and his advice is, “Try, try and try again – it’s the best investment you will ever make. Don’t overstretch yourself as it is the most expensive thing you will ever buy. I also advise anyone not to be frightened of a project but to take good advice from the experts. Interest rates will not stay as they are now and are likely to go up, so look to the future and see if you can still afford to buy and pay the bills, even when interest rates change. Keep control of your finances as well, and don’t let your dreams overtake you.”
When James isn’t slaving over a hot stove, his biggest hobby and passion is for vintage motors, and he has about 12 classic cars. His favourite is a 1960s Ferrari. “I do love my cars, but the way I look at it you never actually own a car, you are just looking after it for the next generation. I particularly like Mini Coopers and I race them too. My collection has just sort of grown and grown.”
His new venture is across the Atlantic in America. He has teamed up with Britain’s leading food channel Good Food to discover, bake and taste-test his way along the east coast of the US in James Martin’s United Cakes Of America. “Originally they wanted me to go from the east coast to the west coast, but that was going to take a very long time, so we decided to just concentrate on the east coast. I had some time off from Saturday Kitchen, and we managed to shoot the series in about 14 days. I went two days before the London Olympics began and came back two days after it was all over. It was really fun to do as it combined both my passions – driving and cooking. I drove a classic car and visited all the different cities and towns, sampling authentic desserts in each state. I met some truly inspirational people along the way too. There was one person who, in 2008, started making cupcakes and now they have six bakeries and cook 15,000 cupcakes a day with queues round the block – pretty amazing! Another person bakes apple pies to a very special recipe that are sent to the White House.
In each episode, James learns from home cooks and professional bakers who lay claim to the secret of making the best the US has to offer. He debunks the myths about the provenance of the all-American apple pie or classic chocolate brownies and uncovers the history of lesser known treats such as pummies or shoofly pie. James then puts his own spin on favourite American recipes, which can involve anything from adding Yorkshire parkin spice to New York cheesecake or the world’s first cream tea whoopee pie!
American cakes and desserts have made a big impact on British culture recently, with cupcakes and whoopee pies becoming big trends. Viewers will see the secrets behind these recipes and how James’s British versions fare in comparison. Each of the new recipes from the series will also feature on goodfoodchannel.co.uk as well so everyone can have the chance to try them out at home.
“I had a wonderful road trip making the new series, and I learnt so much from the people I met,” says James. “It’s a very different type of show for me as it’s a travelogue as well as a cookery programme. It was a great experience, and I loved every minute of it.”
James Martin’s United Cakes Of America is new and exclusive to Good Food, Sundays-Wednesdays at 9pm from 24 February (Sky/HD 247, Virgin 260)