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He worked in some of Europe's finest kitchens, he's spent decades as the face of Saturday morning cooking and his day job includes following in the footsteps of kings and conquerors, but it all started in Yorkshire...
Words by Alex Mead.
It’s hard to be the big ticket in a place such as the 600-year-old Lygon Arms in Broadway, the unofficial village-capital of the Cotswolds, and surely the original muse for ‘chocolate box’ village pics the world over. From within these walls – or at least where these walls now stand – Oliver Cromwell picked fights with royals; Kings Edward VII and VIII spent family breaks; and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton escaped Hollywood for a rendezvous.
And now they have a 50-year-old Yorkshireman treading the flagstones, and the frisson of excitement that ripples through the dining room as he passes must be akin to that surrounding royalty and other big names back in the day. Although James Martin doesn’t really pass through, since he stops frequently to chat with a crowd almost as passionate about food as he is.
When he arrives at our table to steer us around his producefirst menu, conversation doesn’t get beyond his first suggestion – the rib of lamb – when he’s diverted on to the topic of how New Zealand lamb and supermarkets are killing British lamb prices, and he’s keen to showcase the flavour of local sheep (and it is the best lamb we’ve eaten in a long time). For while James is widely known for his television work – he was at the vanguard of the modern chef era when he fronted BBC’s Saturday Kitchen for a decade from 2006, and continues that work on ITV with James Martin’s Saturday Morning – the shows wouldn’t have worked without his own pedigree in the kitchen, which has taken in the highest of the three-Michelin-starred highs in England and France. He’s a chef first, which is why he left the BBC, he says. ‘We had to rehearse on Fridays, so I’d spend all day in London, but I’ve got restaurants – I’m not a TV presenter!’ He adds, ‘When I had that apron on as a kid I wasn’t doing it to be a TV journalist, it was to be a chef.’
James splits his time between his eponymous restaurants in Manchester and the Cotswolds and The Kitchen at Chewton Glen in Hampshire, where he also lives. ‘I’m on my way to Manchester – once or twice a month me and my chefs cook up a seven-course tasting menu; it’s got about 36,000 people on the waiting list,’ he explains.
But it all started in Yorkshire, a county that still weighs heavily – in the heart on his chef’s whites’ sleeves and the accent that’s never softened – and where he returns whenever time allows, most recently for a trip to The Black Swan at Oldstead for lunch with his mum.
‘I had an amazing childhood,’ he says, as the topic turns to his upbringing. ‘We farmed 100 acres, so we learned the value of graft, but also about food. It’s an amazing lesson in life to learn at that age: to respect the people who produce food, that it’s not just a given – people have to grow it, make it, produce it – and it also gives you a respect doing that as a career. I didn’t enjoy school, I hated it, but I loved home life. I was always outdoorsy, mending fences, fixing tractors.
‘The farm wasn’t productive at first,’ he continues. ‘Dad was working as a catering manager at nearby Castle Howard, so he wasn’t a farmer by trade, but we got this piece of land with the job and rather than let it go, he said let’s farm it, so we ended up with loads of chickens and pigs and a productive farm.’
Since farm to fork was part of life, that transition was naturally going to be of interest to a young James – although it was more the cash that made him take the plunge himself. ‘My mother will tell you I was six or seven [when I first wanted to be a chef],’ he begins, ‘but from eight or nine, I was working in kitchens doing pot washing. ‘I went to Castle Howard to earn pocket money. That’s how it started, and I think a lot of chefs back then did that route,’ he says. ‘It meant I was working in Michelin kitchens when I was about 12 or 13, because you could get away with it back then. I learnt that from being on a farm – the only way to get money was to work for it. My family weren’t well off, we were farm tenants, not owners, and along with my grandparents – my grandad worked on the railways – they got the value of work into me when I was quite young.’
Finding his way in the kitchens at that age, reckons James, has helped him survive
as long as he has in the industry. ‘It meant when you left college or school, you
knew what you were walking into, whereas now they leave college and after two weeks some can’t hack it and leave.’
Working across London included getting thrown into the ’18-hour shifts’ at three-
Michelin-starred restaurants, ‘The hours never bothered me,’ he says, ‘and I love [being a chef] just as much as I did then; I always had that work ethos.’
In his teens he also had experience cooking in French kitchens. ‘They were tough,’ he admits, ‘and it didn’t help that the French industry didn’t see the British as having the greatest food back then – they thought it was pretty shit, to be honest. It took a lot of people to change that and you see how food in Britain has evolved.’
‘Yorkshire is so big and diverse, with coastline, moors, woodlands, arable. But it ’s the people that make the place’
Which brings him back to the topic of Yorkshire, forever present in his working life, either through produce he uses, dishes he makes or even shows he produces – he did a culinary tour of Yorkshire for television. But what really makes him love it is none of the above. ‘It’s the people,’ he says, without hesitation. ‘The place is magical, so big and diverse, with coastline, moors, woodlands, arable… But it’s the people that make the place. They’re very honest and much friendlier – in London, if you speak to people they think you’re going to mug them. Yorkshire has such a
different vibe and the food is great too – they’ve got more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other county.’
The change in his home county, helped by the likes of Tommy Banks, Andrew Pern
and James Mackenzie, is stark. ‘When I was a young kid, there was nowhere you really wanted to work from a food point of view, maybe a few hotels, but now there’s bloody hundreds of them,’ he says. A lot of it is down to having the most amazing producers, he believes, but it’s also the affordability compared with London. Rather than the millions it costs to set up in London, ‘You buy a pub
for £250-300K freehold, cook in there and off you go,’ he says. And it’s not a county that’s short of things to do, either. ‘I love the North Yorkshire moors, the road from Pickering to Whitby – there’s a steam engine that runs along it too,’ he says. ‘When you get to Whitby you’ve got the best fish and chips and a walk around the arcades.’
When he talks of Yorkshire, it’s still through child-like eyes – in the best possible way. ‘York was a once-a-week treat; it would be the nearest supermarket,’ he recalls, ‘but it’s a special place, all the history there, the Shambles. I went there often but I don’t think I appreciated just how amazing it was.’ His list of favourites is
seemingly endless – the Hole of Horcum, Fylingdales, Oakham Wood and Harrogate, to name a few places; and eating places ranging from those with Michelin stars to fish and chip shops and tea rooms (see right). His recommendations are so far-reaching, it’s somewhat surprising he doesn’t live in the county – but then there are practical considerations such as having to split his week between far-flung locations.
‘I’ve got a proper routine now,’ he says. ‘I know where I’m going on which day, every week, and the travelling isn’t too bad.’ So would he return to God’s county? ‘I’ll get lynched if I don’t end up in Yorkshire,’ he responds, adding simply, ‘I really do love Yorkshire.’
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