Back to his roots
After leaving Saturday Kitchen, he headed off on culinary adventures to France and America, so what persuaded James Martin to return to home turf?
I n the early years of his career James Martin would have struggled to make his latest TV series. Going off in search of the finest food Britain has to offer when the Yorkshire chef was starting out, the pickings were slim.
He could have headed to the coast for fish and chips and there would have been a trip to Bradford on the trail of the country’s best curry, but there would have been little in between.
In the early 1990s we had only just stopped thinking of the Berni Inn as fine dining and had only just started to find our culinary feet. “The country has changed so much over what is a short period of time in terms of its food history,” says Martin, whose new series James Martin’s Great British Adventure is currently being screened on ITV. “The food is so good all over Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, thanks in part to the amazing people growing, farming, fishing, making, brewing and working in the food and drink industry, making it one of the best in the world.”
For his previous two forays on the small screen, Martin took a tour of the kitchens of France and the US. Both were a celebration of culinary heritage, but he found Britain much more outward looking.
“What is so special is the use of old and new techniques and embracing cultures from around the world that gives us – chefs and cooks – the ingredients to make our job a lot easier.”
His journey took him from the Orkney Islands where the sheep graze on seaweed to Cornwall where he deep fried plaice on a rock face overlooking Padstow. In between he went foraging for mushrooms with Edinburgh Michelin star chef Tom Kitchin, had a curry with the food critic Grace Dent and discovered the best gin he’s ever tasted in a small corner of Snowdonia.
“I’ve been involved in food all my life, from when I was a young kid helping out at the pig farm back at home,” says Martin, whose parents farmed on the Castle Howard estate. “It was there that I got to understand that great food comes from great ingredients.
“Not just that, though. By working with food, as I do, I feel you have a much better understanding and respect for it. You realise that producing food – either growing, catching or making it – takes a lot of time, skill and hard work, and without a doubt you respect it and the people who produce it so much more.”
Martin has long been a champion of Great British food, but his latest journey around our shores further whetted his appetite and he has particular admiration for those who are quietly doing great things.
“There are certain things I would love to go back and see again, like the crab fishermen off the coast of Scotland, who brave the seas to bring us the best-tasting crab you will ever eat, to the small batch of pro-foragers who, as I witnessed, brave the rugged Welsh coastline in a tiny canoe to grab some rock samphire and other bits from the overhanging cliffs.
“I don’t think there is a country in the world that has managed to change the views that other countries have about their food more than Great Britain, as we found when we had to choose a route around the country.
“There were hundreds more food producers and restaurants we didn’t get to see and many counties we had to just drive straight through.”
Martin decided to begin his journey at the Waterside Inn at Bray. Set up by the Roux family, it has held three Michelin stars for 30 years and is rightly regarded as a culinary institution.
“It is a very special place and if it housed a family tree of all the people who have worked there, past and present, you would see how much this place has influenced the industry since it began,” says Martin. “There are teams of chefs and waiters in kitchens all over the country who will have had a connection with this place somewhere in their food chain.
“On this journey I had the two best meals I’ve ever eaten in this country. A big statement, I know, but Gareth Ward at Ynyshir is a top-class cook as is Sat Bains, whose restaurant in Nottingham, which sits under a flyover down a pothole-lined road, is one of the best in the world.
“So much so that I decided to stay after the crew had gone and work the night’s service with him and his brilliant team.”
Never afraid to get his hands dirty, Martin has become one of the country’s most recognisable chefs and this series marks his 25th year on the small screen.
“Great Britain is a very special place to be and I feel so lucky to live, work and, of course, eat and drink here.”