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James Martin: 'I Was On The Michelin Path Before TV'

David Blake talks fame, Michelin stars and fat arses with the TV chef on the first birthday of his MCR restaurant

Written by . Published on October 2nd 2014.

James Martin: 'I Was On The Michelin Path Before TV'

WHEN Manchester235 announced that twinkle-toed TV chef and Saturday Kitchen frontman, James Martin, was to take the helm at the once-revered Linen restaurant, eyebrows hopped up foreheads.

"I would have loved to have been a racing driver, but my arse is too big and I haven’t got the talent."

Casino restaurants are one thing, particularly in Britain, but a 'celebrity chef' (typed with a wince) in a casino restaurant takes a sledgehammer to the alarm bells. Even more so when you consider how tits-up the last one went in Leeds (though Martin takes little blame).

So many had dismissed James Martin Manchester before the doors even swung open. Celebrity folly. It'd pass.

It didn't. Praise began creeping out. Martin's brigade (shored up by head chef Dougie Crampton) were strong and talented, Martin was even doing the unthinkable, he was actually spending time in the kitchen.

Martin in the frayMartin in the fray at Manchester235

Confidential editor-in-chief Jonathan Schofield recently labelled his dishes 'excellent', 'gorgeous', 'exquisite'. There was an element of surprise, perhaps there shouldn't have been. Martin has always been a great chef. It's just with all the dancing and presenting, super cars and glamourous girlfriends, we'd forgotten. Forgotten the prodigious young talent, trained under super-chefs such as Michel Roux Snr and Pierre Koffman, the 22-year-old head chef that opened the first Hotel du Vin.

Ready, Steady, Cook, Ferraris and a bandana followed. It's been much that way ever since. But now he has four Ferraris. Still, aged 43 and all Martin now wants is a small 30-seater pub. Perhaps even the star that TV snatched away...

We caught up with James Martin in the Vega Lounge of Manchester 235, hours before he was set to feed over 150 people at the first birthday of James Martin Manchester.

James, you're one year down, happy with it?

We're so much busier than we expected. We've had to build a big brigade in the kitchen, bring in more front of house, put in more covers. We expected 40 to 50 covers a night, that's about the norm. We're nearly tripled that. Friday and Saturday nights we can do up to 200 covers.

Did you worry about pulling in the punters tucked inside a casino?

It had advantages and disadvantages. Being in here people don't see you from the streets, there's no real footfall, so people need to know where you are (the 40ft portrait outside Great Northern probably helps. Ed.). From the positive side we're only closed for around four hours a week, it's a 24 hour operation here, it's like running a hotel. I'm fairly used to it after a couple of years at the casino in Leeds.

Do you sometimes spread yourself too thin?

No because I've only got two restaurants, here and The Talbot (Malton, North Yorkshire). I often come and spend days cooking in the kitchens and the customers don't even know. Usually, the staff don't know I'm coming either. I spend much more time in the kitchen than people think, this week I've done six out of seven days in there. But it's my job, that's what I do, that's my trade. I just happen to do a Saturday morning TV show too. This morning I was up at 6am helping the guys at the Talbot with breakfast, tonight I’ll finish here at 1am.

Martin with the Talbot brigadeMartin with the Talbot brigade

Do the two lend to each other?

It certainly pays to be doing both. Without my kitchen experience we wouldn't get the chefs we feature on the show, we wouldn't get Michel Roux Snr or Pierre Koffman if i hadn't worked for them as a lad. They're my heroes. They've both eaten here actually, but there's no fanfare, they just turn up. I know they're coming though...

Is it hard to leave the kitchen to their own devices?

I've got fantastic young teams at both my restaurants. In Malton I've just offered my 23-year-old sous chef the head chef position at The Talbot. Same with Dougie here, I trust them. You've got to give these young guys a shot like I was at 22 at the Hotel du Vin. The talent is there, but you can't teach these guys eagerness. Being a head chef is not just about cooking, trust me.

At what point did your career jump?

I've been doing television now for nearly twenty years, eight years on Saturday Kitchen alone. The major turning point for me was Strictly Come Dancing (Martin made it to the semi-finals of the BBC dancing show in 2005), after that the phones didn't stop ringing. It took me from one of twelve TV chefs doing alright on the scene to being a household name. From then I could pick what I wanted to do, and I wanted to go back up North. When I got offered The Talbot Hotel in my hometown I didn't think twice. I used to cycle past that on the way to school everyday.

Just one of Martin's super car collectionJust one of Martin's super car collection

What if you could have been something else?

I would have loved to have been a racing driver, but my arse is too big and I haven’t got the talent. Mates of mine are racing drivers, I'm big into cars (Martin has a super car collection like a Middle-Eastern Prince). I was racing at Goodwood with Jason Plato (two-time British Touring Car Champion) only two weeks ago, but at 43 I know to stick to what I'm best at.

Let's say I walk in here as a punter, what three courses should I have?

To start the thai crab rissotto (£7.95), for main the British Wagyu beef (£18.50), to finish the white chocolate and whisky croissant butter pudding (£7.00) - that dessert hasn't been off my menu for twenty years.

Our steaks here are just fantastic. Being an ex-farmer we're sourcing meat from places I know and from farmers I know, farms where I could tell you exactly what cattle and how many cattle he's got on his farm. I like to pick produce for my restaurants from places I've been to and seen, and that doesn't have to be within a 30m readius.

James Martin MCRJames Martin MCR

James Martin's birthday bash foodJames Martin's birthday bash dish

Are people too hung up on locally sourcing?

Why would you stick to a 30 mile radius when the best pork I've ever tasted, Redhill Pork, is from Lincolnshire? Don't get me wrong, locally sourcing is great, but produce in these islands as a whole, that's all of us, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, is so amazing. Why would you limit yourself to 30 miles away.

If you took pals out for a meal in Manchester, where would you go?

My mates would probably tell you Pizza Express. As a venue, Australasia is lovely, but I’d probably go Bolton way to eat Nigel Haworth's food (Northcote Manor, Ribble Valley). I'm of the opinion that good cooking will always shine through, he cooks my kind of food.

Following recent Michelin news, is there too much emphasis placed on chasing stars? Has it become outdated?

I don't think it's dated, it's great to have accolades like that. Only this morning I spoke to Michel Roux and congratulated him on thirty years with three stars at The Waterside (in Bray, Berkshire), that's a record outside of France. But when you go to these restaurants you'll understand why they've got stars. At least once in your life eat in the most expensive restaurant you can afford, only then will you understand what all the Michelin fuss is about. There's a tremendous amount of work goes in, it comes from quality and consistency every single time.

The difficulty for Simon (Rogan) and The French is that he has London now (Fera, Claridge's), which has just gained a star. And L'Enclume, that's just magical food. It'll happen in Manchester. But Michelin won't be dictated too, I like how they go about it, they don't listen to anyone else, they just get on with it.

Martin and the Manchester teamMartin and the Manchester team

Do you believe there's any Northern snobbery?

No I don't believe in that. Yorkshire has more Michelin stars than any county outside of London (it’s also the largest county. Ed.), and it just got another star too. We'd love to have one in Malton, but ultimately I judge a restaurant by how busy it is. For me McDonalds have got their consistency and quality better than anyone else in the world.

Finally, if you could trade your fame for a Michelin star, would you?

Difficult one that. If it hadn't been for TV that was the way I was heading. It’s certainly sent me off on a different adventure. I was discussing something similar with my team earlier, I've asked them before if we should just buy a small 30-seater somewhere and concentrate on that. I'd only do the restaurant and the Saturday morning show. If I wasn't in the kitchen, then we'd close the place. I've seriously thought about it, even now it's in the back of my mind. If I retired in ten years I'd just buy a small pub somewhere, cook only the food I wanted to cook. Perfect.

You can follow @David8Blake on twitter.

You can find the James Martin Manchester restaurant in Manchester 235, Great Northern, Deansgate, M3 4LP. 0161 828 0345.

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