He’s holed up in a five-star luxury hotel in London’s leafy Knightsbridge. Last night, James Martin enjoyed dinner at the two Michelin-star restaurant, Bibendum, which is run by his mate, the former Ludlow chef Claude Bosi, and today it’s time to press the flesh and sell his forthcoming tour.
James is on the road this month, appearing for a sell-out show at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall tomorrow. It’s aptly called On The Road Again. The superstar chef will be building on the unrivalled success of his 2016 tour, bringing the experiences of his hit TV shows French Adventure, American Adventure and Saturday Morning with James Martin to his new live show.
His cooking skills will be on display and he plans on dazzling audiences with his skill, speed and dexterity – not forgetting his usual unabashed humour.
Audiences can expect an entertaining, fast-moving immersive show, jam-packed with James’s signature cooking demonstrations and full of exciting twists, big surprises and some very special additions. Although food will be at the heart of the show, James will also be joined by special guests and much, much more.
He says: “I can’t wait to get back on the road for this tour. Last time around I was absolutely blown away by the reception. It was really thrilling to be able interact more directly with an audience, which is something I can’t do on TV. Lots has happened since the last tour, I’ve been on a culinary journey of a lifetime with my French and American Adventure TV shows and my Saturday morning show. I hope to integrate these fabulous food experiences into a tasty live show. I’ll be pulling together my favourite recipes and mixing in plenty of surprises and special guests in what I hope is going to be feast of a performance.”
The tour reflects James’s love of hearty food as well as some of his other passions . . . the great outdoors, and, of course, fast cars. There will also be a regional guest chef at each event, adding an exciting dynamic to the show.
James will welcome guests to his on-stage kitchen, including some of his celebrity friends and members of the audience. And there will be an exciting twist every night as James attempts to create a dish in the most difficult of circumstances.
With more than two decades in TV, James is truly a superstar chef. Whether skateboarding across the kitchen as a child or taking part in the world’s most prestigious vintage road race, James has never been one to sit still. During his tour, he plans to give insight into two passions – cooking and cars – which have fuelled his hopes, dreams and successes and made him the household name he is today.
He adds: “It’s very important for me that we put on a show and a performance. It’s not just going to be me standing at an oven baking some bread. I had such great feedback from the first tour that I am determined to put all my energy into this one to make it even better.”
The Birmingham date is a standout for him. “To be truthful, the Symphony Hall show as the highlight from the last tour. It’s a really impressive building. I do Birmingham and it’s always the NEC with the Good Food Show or the Symphony Hall. I just think it’s spectacular.
“Other chefs are doing bits and pieces. Nigella Lawson, Paul Hollywood, Gino D’Acampo and The Hairy Bikers are all doing tours. From my perspective, it was just about waiting for the right people to do it with. I didn’t want it to be a trestle table and a few slides.
“So I teamed up with Live Nation. Anyone who knows anything about tours knows Live Nation are the ones – they’ve done everything from Genesis to the Rolling Stones. They know how to build a stage and a set. We went on tour two years ago and it was a huge success. This came off the back of that. We couldn’t do a tour last year because we were in America.”
James doesn’t plan to hit the road again. Though he’s still a relative youngster at just 46, he’s done touring. Though fans will be able to see him live at food festivals and similar events, he’s got no plans for more tours like this one.
“This is my last one,” he says.
What, like Status Quo?
He half laughs.
“It’s a lot of work. I’ve been rehearsing for nine months for the ending. That’s the amount of work I’ve put in. TV shows are one thing but tours are a whole different thing. The amount of time it takes is immense then it’s 21 days on the road. If you’re used to it – say, if you’re a band – maybe it’s fine. But as chefs, we have restaurants to run and other things to do. It’s tiring. I’m heading towards 47 now and I’m not Status Quo.”
He is, however, excited about what’s to come. The man who has redefined the role of the TV chef, who remains the daddy of TV cook shows, is putting his neck on the line in the live arena. There’ll be no crew of technicians to get him into the right place at the right time. He’ll be flying without a safety net.
“The show is very interactive and I’ve got a bunch of mates coming along to take part. We’ll have everybody from Ross Kemp to Mark Knopfler, from Dire Straits. I’ve got about 300 chefs taking part in the end section and we’ll be cooking nine dishes we create in the two-hour slot and each one has it’s own story. There’s an interaction bit where we go off on one about modern day social media platforms and people criticising you on them, which I quite like. We’ll show some of the tweets and Facebook posts that I get.
“The whole thing will be totally different to TV and the Good Food Shows at the NEC. You won’t see anything like it. No chef is doing anything like this. It’s a show. It’s not walking out with a pan and saying ‘here’s another dish’. We’ve spent months making it, months coming up with the ideas. We literally spent 18 months doing the video for the end bit and we only just finished the video today. There’s an awful lot going on behind the scenes and it won’t be on TV or released as a DVD. It’s basically my way of saying thanks to the fans because it’s been an amazing journey. But this will definitely be my last tour. It’s knackering.”
James has enjoyed a remarkable career. His family were farmers on the Castle Howard estate and as a boy he helped his mum in the kitchen, which sparked his interest in cuisine. He lived in Welburn, attended Amotherby School in Malton and Malton School. After studying catering at Scarborough Technical College, he trained at Hostellerie De Plaisance, Saint-Émilion, France. He then worked at the three-Michelin star restaurant Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France, before moving on to join the staff of Anthony Worrall Thompson’s One Ninety Queen’s Gate restaurant in Kensington, London. That gave him a taste of what was to come – both as a cook and as a sometime TV star. James subsequently moved on to Alastair Little in Soho, London; the two-Michelin star restaurant The Square, in Mayfair, and then another two star restaurant, Harvey’s, in Wandsworth.
Personable, good looking and with talent to spare, he made his way on to TV in in 1996 with programmes including James Martin: Yorkshire’s Finest (set in various Yorkshire locations with an emphasis on the county’s cuisine), Ready Steady Cook and The Big Breakfast. He also co-presented BBC Food’s Stately Suppers with Alistair Appleton, and then appeared on the Channel 4 programme Richard & Judy, where he would visit a member of the public in their own home who had been nominated to be cooked a ‘comfort food’ meal. From 2006 until 2016, he was the presenter of the BBC One show Saturday Kitchen.
He has to pinch himself when he looks back over the past 20 or so years.
“It’s amazing. I feel very lucky. On the last tour, we played to nigh on 150,000 people and the adrenalin is amazing. But you don’t know what to expect. If you go to a car fest or food fest you have a pretty good understanding of what we’ll be doing. But this is very different. People are buying tickets and hotels and meals beforehand, it’s a big deal for them, so you have to put on your ‘A’ game every night for 21 nights. You have to perform. You can’t have an off day.”
For all his prowess as a light entertainer, James is first and foremost a damn good cook who cares passionately about great ingredients. It’s little wonder he’s mates with Britain’s best chefs – they recognise in him a kindred spirit who is an avowed believer in good provenance and the best ingredients.
“I think I’ve always tried to concentrate on ingredients and food. Cookery changes and morphs into different things but the food is always the most important. When I started it was game showy with Ready Steady Cook. Then it went serious in that chunk in the middle with Great British Menu where it was more serious and now it’s gone massive. It’s factual and light entertainment. “We’ve always gone on about ingredients and producers and we try to make food fun. We never diss the food or wreck it. I’ve been a farmer for so long and that’s what influences me. You have to understand how difficult it is to produce good food – and that’s always in the back of my mind. With the shows I’ve done over last 15 years, I’ve tried to showcase that and also work with the best chefs in the world on my shows.”
He’s still something of a fanboy when he’s around talented cooks. Last night, for instance, he was with former Ludlow cook Claude Bosi – enjoying the food and being dazzled by the Frenchman’s skills.
“I was with Claude last night at his restsurant and when you are with someone like that you can only have the utmost respect for them. I can’t cook like that. But they want to come on my show and they don’t take the p*** out of me. I’m their wingman when we’re on TV. I’ve always got their back. That’s what I try to do, there’s no stitch up there. When you do live TV you could easily stitch people up but you have to promote them. They come on for a couple of hundred quid. They miss a lie-in. I’m grateful that they take the time. They have a talent that I don’t have.”
James still finds time to cook. He’s at the pass in his restaurant two or three times a week and still loves being in service. It’s what he does. It’s what he loves doing. It’s what he first dreamed of when he was 10 years old.
“I love it just as much and I care just as much about the issues. We’ve got Brexit looming and we’re in danger of destroying some of our agriculture. Lamb farmers in Wales could be wiped out because we’ll open the floodgates to New Zealand lamb, which is a 24/7, 365 thing. It’s a tricky moment for food producers and we need to look after them. There’s no such thing as cheap good food. You can have good food but you have to pay for it. Farmers aren’t driving round in range rovers. They don’t go off to the Lamborghini dealership on their wages.”
Ah yes, fast cars. James loves them. It’s one of the perks of the job. “This was never my plan. My journey is something that I’ve never taken for granted. You respect everything and everybody that takes part in it. It’s been the most phenomenal ride.”
Tomorrow he’ll be back in Birmingham; a city that feels like home. “I’ve done the Good Food show for 20 years, never missed it. Birmingham has a huge food scene with more Michelin stars than anywhere in the UK outside London. I lived there for four or five years in my twenties. It’ll be good to be back.”
And the prodigal son will be most welcome.