More than just the ‘housewives’ favourite’
He’s the TV chef we all love to, well, love. But there’s much more to James Martin than the twinkle in his eye, says Edwina Langley
Mention the name James Martin in a trendy restaurant and foodies raise their eyebrows and smirk. Most know him as the chirpy Yorkshire presenter from BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen. He is James Martin the ‘TV chef’. James Martin, the ‘housewives’ favourite.’
It must be both a blessing and a burden to be seen in this way. On the one hand, it keeps the ratings up (and, no doubt, the bank balance). On the other, it must be fairly limiting – or rather, embarrassing. After all, no one would dare call Michel Roux Jr, two-star Michelin chef at London’s Le Gavroche restaurant and sometime guest on Saturday Kitchen, a ‘housewives’ favourite’.
It is little known that James Martin grew up assisting his parents in the kitchens of Castle Howard and went on to become head chef at the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester when he was just 21. Indeed, who could imagine this ‘TV personality’ working with the same sous chef for 19 years? No, James just makes Victoria sponges on Saturday mornings and advises those who call in how to fillet fish. He couldn’t possibly be a serious chef. Or could he?
I arrived at the Talbot Hotel in Malton, Yorkshire, the day before it opened. My tour with director Tom Naylor- Leyland, took me through exquisitely designed rooms, most English in feel, and past an army of staff, so busy and orderly it felt as if I’d entered an episode of Downton Abbey.
And then, as I approached the dining room, I inadvertently crashed into James Martin. He was dressed in chef’s whites, cradling a Magimix – quite a departure from the usual T-shirt and jacket he favours on Saturday mornings. But that would make sense: on telly, he’s a personality; in Malton, he’s a chef – executive chef, in fact, of the hotel’s restaurant.
‘We’re getting there, we’re getting there,’ he said as he flopped on a sofa in the hotel’s drawing room with a Diet Coke. It was strange sitting face-to-face with someone I see grinning on screen every Saturday: close-up, he looked exhausted.
‘It’s one of the joys of opening a new restaurant. You have all this new equipment, but when you first walk into a room, you have nothing. You have to think about everything. Yeah, it’s had teething problems – but it’s not anyone’s fault, other than the guys who fitted it.’
A mammoth undertaking it might seem, but one that James and Tom seem to be mastering. And food miles aren’t proving to be a problem.
‘It’s all very well writing a fancy menu, but if we can’t get the produce delivered, then we’re going to struggle,’ says James. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time visiting local butchers, which is the advantage of living in Malton. We’re using asparagus and pork from 10 miles away and beef from five miles away. The bread’s baked 200 yards down the road and our tartlets are from a lovely little company called Roots and Fruits, and baked out of a B&Q shed in the back garden.’
What community spirit! As he chatted away the more it seemed the whole of Malton is in on the enterprise. You can’t help but will it to be a success.
‘This is a family-run hotel, with a family’s vision,’ he continued. ‘But we’d be fools to try and make everything ourselves. I’ve sent my chefs to train [local producers]. It gives them [the locals] a feel of it and I always think a hotel should be the hub of the town.’
James takes me through the menu, a drool-inducing list that incorporates hearty Yorkshire teas, ‘proper bar grub’ (like fried ‘day caught’ Whitby fish goujons) and more refined dishes from the restaurant – a twicebaked ‘Bluemin White’s’ cheese soufflé. Like all good hotels, there’s a house burger – The Talbot – and like all good burger-lovers, I fiercely tried to wangle the recipe out of James. ‘No,’ he said firmly, ‘you’ve got to come to eat here.’
And go there I will. For as maddening as it was that the restaurant was closed for my visit, at least I have an excuse to return. I saw James start to shuffle in his chair and reluctantly felt I should release him – but not without a blitz of Saturday Kitchen questions first. I discovered he can cook and present at the same time because he cooks ‘without thinking about it’. In rehearsal he doesn’t talk to the chefs, only observes, so he can assist during the live show.
And has he ever attempted the omelette challenge? ‘No. I leave it to the others.’
‘TV personality’ and ‘housewives’ favourite’? Perhaps. A passionate, skilled and dedicated chef? Certainly. I challenge all foodies to visit his restaurant in Malton. You may still raise your eyebrows – but I bet you will leave with a smile, not a smirk.
The Talbot Hotel, Yorkersgate, Malton, North Yorkshire YO17 7AJ: 01653-639096, www.talbotmalton.co.uk
JAMES MARTIN’S BUTTERMILK PANNA COTTA WITH RHUBARB PIMM’S
At the Restaurant at the Talbot Hotel
For the panna cotta
- 300ml double cream
- 1 vanilla pod, split lengthwise
- 100ml condensed milk
- 2 gelatine leaves, soaked in cold water for at least 10 minutes
- 350ml buttermilk, at room temperature
For the rhubarb Pimm’s
- 8 sticks of rhubarb
- 200ml Pimm’s
- 1 lemon, juice only
- ½ orange, juice only
- 75g sugar
1. For the panna cotta, heat the double cream in a small saucepan with the split pod. Remove from the heat once it has boiled and add the condensed milk. Gently squeeze dry the gelatine leaves and add to the pan. Stir until the gelatine has dissolved. When the cream mixture has cooled to near body temperature, add the buttermilk and stir in gently. Remove the pod; scrape out the seeds and stir them into the cream mixture. Carefully pour into four 8-10cm ramekins, making sure each mould has a good amount of vanilla seeds in it. Allow to set in the fridge for at least four hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/ gas 5. Cut rhubarb into 2in batons, pour over the Pimm’s together with the lemon and orange juice, sprinkle with the sugar and place in the oven for about 10 minutes. The exact time will depend on size and ripeness of the fruit. When cooked, the tip of a knife should easily pierce the fl esh with no resistance. The fruit juices will blend with the liquids in the dish.
3. To reduce the liquid, remove the fruit carefully with a slotted spoon, pour the juices into a small pan and boil down to a syrup-like consistency. Return the fruit to the syrup off the heat and allow to cool.
4. To serve, dip panna cotta moulds into hot water for a few seconds, then gently turn out each buttermilk panna cotta in to the centre of a soup plate. Add a spoonful or two of the syrup and place the rhubarb on top.
JAMES MARTIN'S CONFIT LAMB NECK SALAD
At the Restaurant at The Talbot Hotel
- 1kg lamb neck fillet
- 1-2 litres rapeseed oil
- 2 banana shallots
- 75g drained capers
- 75g gherkins
- 3 tbsp flat leaf parsley leaves
- 3 tbsp mint leaves salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Ingredients for the salad:
- 110ml/4fl oz water
- 110ml/4fl oz white wine vinegar
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 5g fresh picked mint leaves
- 2 medium turnips, peeled, thinly sliced on a mandoline
- 100g/4oz watercress leaves
- 4 spring onions, trimmed, sliced on the diagonal
- 1/2 cucumber deseeded, peeled, sliced into thin strips with a peeler
1. Place the lamb into a sauté pan, making sure the saucepan is big enough to hold the entire fillet in one layer, and then pour over enough rapeseed oil to totally cover the lamb.
2. Place the saucepan on the hob and bring to a very gentle simmer (just hot enough for a few tiny bubbles to burst on the surface). Simmer for 1 ¼ hours until the lamb is tender.
3. When the lamb has cooked, allow to cool in the oil for 30 minutes, then lift the lamb out and place onto kitchen paper to drain and cool.
4. Meanwhile, create a pickling sauce by mixing together the water, white wine vinegar, sugar and salt in a bowl until well combined. Add the turnip slices and mix well to coat them in the pickling liquid. Set aside to pickle for 1 hour, then drain off 3/4 the pickling liquid. Add the pickled turnip slices to the remaining salad ingredients and mix well
5. Peel and slice the shallot. Roughly chop the parsley and mint leaves. When the lamb is cool enough to handle, shred into large pieces. Place the watercress onto plates, top with the shredded lamb, then some shallots, capers, gherkins, parsley and mint. Then the slices of turnip and cucumber Season with a little salt and black pepper then drizzle with the olive oil.
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931