Famed for his comfort food-style recipes, award-winning celebrity chef and TV presenter James Martin is the face of ITV’s James Martin’s French Adventure. The lifelong Francophile shares some of his favourite French dishes with World Food Tour.
Q. Let’s start with your French adventure. What would you say were the highlights of the trip?
JM: I suppose going back to where I learnt to cook really, visiting places that I’d never seen before, like Lake Annecy and L’Isle sur la Sorgue. I think the accumulation of everything, a little bit of reminiscing but also—for me—places that I’d never been before. Obviously meeting somebody like Georges Blanc and Pierre Gagnaire and some of the great chefs in the world took part in the programme as well—but I think visiting places that I’d never been to before.
Q. What would you say were your top three French destinations?
JM: Lake Annecy I think is a place that people should go and see. Everybody thinks of Lake Como being absolutely beautiful but Lake Annecy was spectacular. That’s a place I’m definitely going to go back to. L’Isle sur la Sorgue which was famous for a floating market—one of the most beautiful—has an antiques market every Sunday, which is stunning. Then probably in the Bois de Boulogne, which is in a park in Paris, going back to a restaurant called Pré Catelan, that was spectacular.
Q. What would you say were the best dishes that you ate on the trip?
JM: So many. Probably the best [restaurant] was Pré Catelan, I had this langoustine ravioli which was absolutely spectacular, so good I had it twice.
Q. Was it hard narrowing down the recipes you included in your book to just 80?
JM: France is famous for so many different dishes, you have to pick and choose the areas. We probably could have done another three series and gone back out there again, but it’s so difficult to pick and choose some of the best places. But it came down to where you get the produce from, the areas we wanted to visit, so it is difficult to choose—I think we’ve done France justice, the response we’ve had from the press and the critics and stuff like that has been amazing.
Q. Would you go back to do another series there?
JM: I’d love to go back…I haven’t been asked to do another series yet so it’s all to do with whether people still like it. It’s doing really well in the ratings and the book’s in the top one or two so it’s all going well, everything’s right but we’ve not had the meeting yet to say: ‘We want another series, where do you want to go?’. Fingers crossed.
Q. There are lots of very classic French recipes in the book—did you put your own spin on any of them?
JM: Yeah, I think you have to [put your own spin on them] really when you’re cooking on location anyway, because when you’re doing a show like that and you’re having to cook on a bench in the middle of a field, you haven’t got the luxury of your own kitchen and your own oven. You’re having to make do with what you’ve got, hence a lot of the dishes that we did are variations of French classics. There are pure French classics when you get to the comfort of your own home—which we did as well—but certainly when you’re on location you’ve got to adapt to what you’ve got.
Q. Were there any particular dishes that you were wary of putting twists on?
JM: Yeah, things like chicken blanquette. That’s a dish that classic French chefs taught me and it hasn’t been changed over the years and I didn’t want to change it. The difficulty you have in France is the ingredients are different to what they are in the UK—particularly cream, which is one of the ingredients that you need for it. So over in France they don’t really have double cream like we have in the UK, they have whipping cream, so you’ve got to learn to adapt and change to that when you’re cooking. Something like that, that’s classically French, I didn’t want to ruin.
Q. What keeps you returning to French food?
JM: It’s the same thing with British food—I’ve just got a passion for food, wherever it’s from. I’ve just come back from Asia, and experiencing the different flavours that they have there…I’m fascinated by food. It’s not just from one particular country. People have travelled all over the world in recent years and sadly ignored France and I don’t understand why, it’s right on your doorstep. But there are other countries around the world that I’d like to visit as well, it’s not just France. It certainly holds a special place in people’s hearts, because of holidays and bits and pieces, and it is spectacular when you get out and about off the beaten track.
Q. You’ve mentioned that the whole trip was partly inspired by Keith Floyd and Floyd on France, what was it about him and his programmes that you admired?
JM: Well he was the first chef that took away the bench, took away the matriarchs stood behind the bench—‘Now you’ll sit and listen to what I’m going to do, and bloody pay attention,’—that kind of stuff, that’s what it always used to be about, and he took that away, and he made food more accessible. He made it more fun. He did all those things with a unique style and a unique way of communicating.
Q. Were there any aspects of Floyd on France that you echoed in the programme?
JM: We wanted to make it real, we wanted to shoot it generally on one camera, so that’s where you get the feel of that sort of look. But I think the experience I have of 23 years of mainly live TV enables you to play around with that as well, so people have said that it’s the new Keith Floyd—that’s quite an honour—but it’s not meant to be a copy of Keith Floyd. We only visited two of the places that Keith Floyd went to in the entire 40 shows, so it was always supposed to be shot in a fun and interesting style. When you do it with one camera you can make it that way.
Q. Did you have any Floyd-style mishaps on camera during the shooting of the series?
JM: I had quite a lot of things…the dog pi**ed against my leg, I set quite a few things on fire on the programme, and I drank more drink than I’ve ever drunk in my life in three months—but I had a great time, and hopefully that comes across on camera.
Q. It seems like a lot of TV chefs owe a debt to Floyd. Would you say that a lot of TV shows can be too polished nowadays?
JM: I think food isn’t like that—I’ve always tried to be real with my food, food isn’t about little pretty shots of sunlight beaming through shots of golden syrup. It’s fine, and it’s alright to watch but it’s not real. Anybody who cooks at home realises that there’s dogs, kids running around everywhere, there’s crap all over the place when you’re cooking Sunday lunch. It’s real, so don’t hide that. And that’s where I’ve always tried to be honest and tried to be real in terms of the food that I cook on TV.
Q. What would you say are the biggest challenges of working as a TV chef? I imagine a lot of people think it’s easy when in fact it’s not easy at all…
JM: A lot of people do think it’s easy until they’ve had a go, and then realise that it’s not that easy. I think there’s a lot more responsibility on you than there used to be, when I was just working as a head chef I could say what I wanted, nobody would give a damn. Now if I say stuff it’s plastered all over the pages of the newspaper, so you’ve got to be very wise in terms of what you’re going to say, but also be respectful of others, because what you say can make people or damage people, you know what I mean? And I’ve always been true to myself, and I believe in what I believe in. I’ve never followed any trends, and that’s the key to it. I think the key to longevity in this game is try to never follow trends. My publisher just turns around to me and says: ‘Your book is the only one in the top 10, it’s number one at the weekend, now it’s number two…you’re the only one in the top 10 that’s not low fat or low sugar or low carb, low whatever it is.’
I don’t wish to follow trends, it would be so easy for me to just write a health food cookbook, then you’d sell another 100,000 copies, it’s not about that is it? It’s about what you believe in.
Q. You’re right, there are so many healthy eating cookbooks out there—what do you think about clean eating?
JM: I think the only person who knows what he’s talking about is probably Tom at the moment, Tom Kerridge, because he’s been through that, I’ve seen what’s happened to him. But I’ve always said if you’re going to lecture people like some of the guys do you need to be a doctor or a nutritionist, not somebody who’s just popped up on YouTube, you know what I mean?
Q. Do you miss working on Saturday Kitchen?
JM: Not really, no. I enjoy taking my dog for a walk now and having a wonder around the garden and pottering around doing stuff that I don’t normally get to do. I miss the people, the cameraman and those guys, but I don’t miss getting up at 4am on a Saturday morning.
Q. Is it nice not to have to interview celebrities while you’re cooking on screen?
JM: I enjoyed that to be honest with you, I thought I was reasonably good at it, but I enjoyed it. But you know, a different chapter of life. And who knows; there may be something in the future where I’ll do that [again], I don’t know—it was 10 years of my life so it was a big chunk.
Q. Were you surprised by the reaction when you left?
JM: Massively, you don’t realise. All I ever got to see for 10 years was a group of cameramen, that’s all I saw was six guys in a studio…you don’t see what people see until you’re outside of it. And on the outside of it you realise, ‘Christ almighty it was quite a big show!’
Q. You mentioned earlier that you’ve just returned from a trip to Asia. Aside from French food, what other global cuisines do you like—are there any that you’d like to do a TV series or write a book about?
JM: I love Spain, Asia I think is fantastic, Australia, Japan, America. There’s so many places out here that I’d love to go visit and go do shows on, but until the powers that be tell me, ‘Yes, we really like it and we’re off again’ then I’m quite happy in the restaurant. I’ve got enough on my plate, there’s enough for me to do to fill this year already. Already the office is taking bookings for 2019…there’s enough on my plate at the moment. If the guys say, ‘Yes, you’re off again’, then I’ll go again. I think part of it is that—a bit like the French thing—you kind of know half of the food that’s out there. But the other interesting bit is that you don’t know the other half if that make sense—and that makes it interesting for the viewer.
Q. Do you think there are any cuisines that don’t receive enough attention?
JM: I think there are lots. There are a lot of cuisines that don’t get the acknowledgement. I think British is one of them, I think American is another. There’s lots, it’s changing, you know people are travelling a lot more than they ever were so they’re experiencing different things. But the world’s a big place and food is a massive subject so there’s always something to talk about and there will always be lots to see that people haven’t seen before.
Q. Can you tell us about some of the exciting projects you’re working on at the moment?
JM: Well I’ve got a new restaurant opening up, a place where I used to work when I was 19, at Chewton Glen, which has just been voted the best hotel in England, I’ve got a new restaurant opening there in about six weeks. I’ve got a fair bit of work to do on that, and then what else have I got? Manchester is doing really well, I work with P&O onboard Britannia, so I’ve got that, I do all the food for Thomas Cook airlines, I do the food for East Coast Virgin Trains, so I’ve got six cafes on the go—there’s enough. There’s enough to fill seven days a week quite easily.
Q. Do you prefer working on TV or just being in the kitchen?
JM: I prefer being in the restaurant to be honest with you. It’s where it all started and it’s where it’s going to end. I’m quite happy working in a restaurant and I’ll be quite happy in 20 years time or two years time. I won’t ever stop enjoying food, just because I’m on TV is another thing. I got spotted on TV because I was head chef of a very successful restaurant when I was 22 years old, so I never went looking for it. It was never on my radar when I was in college, it found me…I didn’t find it.
Q. Are there any lessons that you’d tell your younger chef self when you were just starting out?
JM: Always believe in yourself, always follow a dream; have a dream—and have goals in life. Those goals in life can vary, they can change, but have something to strive for. That could be financial. Mine wasn’t, it was academic. I was never any good at school but I always wanted to be a head chef. I always strived for that kind of stuff rather than be told what to do all the time. It’s nice to listen and learn when you’re younger, but you’ll get to a certain point in your life where you’ve got to stand on your own two feet and prepare to make the jump and be prepared to take risks.
Q. Do you think it’s harder for young chefs starting out now than when you started?
JM: Easier. Easier because there’s a lot more places to go work, you don’t have to work the hours that I did. But certainly, there’s a lot more choice than people had before. When I was training you had to go work in France you had to go work in London, that was it. Now there are places all over, so the choice is a lot more and the opportunities are more because good quality chefs are difficult and hard to come by. So if people are good and people stick their head down and want to work then they will do very well in this industry now. •