Celebrity chef and heartthrob
The queue snaked around the specially erected marquee well before it was due to open; some had been standing around for more than an hour and a quarter to ensure they got the best seats.
Others had been on the road for a similar amount of time in their determination to get a close look at the man who is a heartthrob as well as a celebrity chef: James Martin.
He was at Denby Pottery to give two cookery demonstrations and to unveil his latest book, Slow Cooking. There was no shortage of buyers – many of them lined up to have their copy signed and to get a photo with one of the most popular chefs ever to enter people’s living rooms through the medium of television.
Forty-year-old James has had an astonishing career, with millions of viewers tuning in to watch his latest BBC1 programme Saturday Kitchen. He has a passion for performance cars and recently obtained his pilot’s licence, which meant he could fly home from Denby in a helicopter.
But James refuses to be drawn into the celebrity culture and maintains that first and foremost he is a working chef.
Speaking before the first demonstration, he told me: “Anybody who says they can’t cope with all that sort of stuff (celebrity) is completely mad. Just buy big gates for your house. You can easily get away from it.
“I don’t go looking for it. That’s why I don’t do Twitter and Facebook. My life is actually quite boring. I just go to work and I go home. I’ll have a pizza like anybody else and watch TV. I’m quite happy.”
Sipping a Diet Coke – he admits he cannot do without the drink – he cheerfully answers my questions, occasionally talking very fast, otherwise pausing to ensure he puts over his views as succinctly as possible.
It is obvious that James is the same in the flesh as he is on television: what you see is what you get. There is neither pretence nor artificiality with James.
He was born in Malton, north Yorkshire where his family were farmers. He “fell in love” with cooking at a very early age and all he ever wanted to do was be a chef.
After leaving school he studied catering at Scarborough Technical College. He was student of the year for three years running.
“A lot of people at my college were going on a night out, having a hangover and missing the lessons. I was never like that. I used to finish college and then go to work in a restaurant. I just surrounded myself with food. I think that helped me to go up a few rungs on the ladder.”
On leaving college he joined the staff of Anthony Worrall Thompson’s restaurant in Kensington. Three years later, at the ridiculously young age of 22, James became head chef at the Hotel du Vin in Winchester where he changed the menu every day.
Word got around that his restaurant was special and one evening Loyd Grossman and his producer who were filming Through the Keyhole nearby paid him a visit.
This would lead to his television breakthrough. He spent nine years on Ready Steady Cook and appeared on a number of other programmes before settling into Saturday Kitchen.
About 2.2million people have been watching the series and that figure rises to almost three million in the winter. James can hardly believe his good fortune.
“I feel I’ve got the best seat in the house of any chef anywhere in Britain. I get to work with these amazing chefs week on week, chefs that I can call my friends.
“I just go into chef mode. I know I can do it. The presenting is the hard bit but the cooking is the easy bit.”
He is quick to correct some of the misconceptions about television: “People don’t actually realise that TV finds you, you don’t find it. Then it’s up to the viewers whether you’ve got a job.
“I suppose it’s like running a restaurant – if you’ve got no customers you’ve got no business. It’s the same thing with television: as soon as people stop watching it, you’re gone. It’s very fickle but it’s the truth.”
James is quick to condemn those people who crave fame but do not want to work hard for success.
He does not frequent parties hosted by glossy magazines and he does not court the paparazzi.
“If you want anything in life you’ve got to work for it, it’s as simple as that.”
“I think unfortunately the UK has got this celebrity culture. (Celebrities) have probably got zero talent but they’re put on a pedestal. The public are not daft and they’ll find out in the end.
“It’s like food in a way – it comes full circle. I’m so pleased that food is now being respected for what it is and food programmes are becoming more and more popular, like the Great British Bake-off.
“I’ve known (presenter) Paul Hollywood for 14 or 15 years. He’s a brilliant baker, one of the best. But he doesn’t go round thinking he’s the big ‘I am’ and neither do I. You’re just you.”
James now has a huge amount of experience and is prepared to give the best advice possible to any youngsters who want to become chefs. But the man who runs The Leeds Kitchen and the restaurant at the Talbot Hotel in his home town of Malton does not see himself as a role model.
“Last weekend I was in both restaurants and I was cooking behind a stove. I don’t go in wearing a suit, wander through the kitchen and walk back out again. I’ve got my chef’s jacket on, I’ve got my apron on and I cook.”
James is not only a chef, restaurant owner and a television presenter – he is also a motoring journalist with a weekly column in a Sunday magazine, has written several books and has his own product range. So how does he fit it all in?
“I work probably 20 hours a day seven days a week. I’m quite happy to have five, six hours kip and I’ll be up at seven o’clock in the morning.
“It’s that drive that continues to keep me going. It’s not a financial thing – I’m a workaholic. I was brought up on a farm to be a workaholic.
“If you want anything in life you’ve got to work for it, it’s as simple as that. I went to London with 20 quid in my pocket and a dream. I had nowt! Nobody gives you anything in this world – apart from a parking ticket. You’ve got to work for everything.”
Throughout his demonstration James refers to the Denby range which carries his name. He has been working with Denby over the past decade, a partnership which suits both parties.
“I’m a great fan of theirs. They had faith in me ten years ago when I first started this journey. They took a risk in asking me to help them. Now we work together fantastically well.
“Often a lot of companies go ‘right, there’s the pattern, put your name to it and clear off.’ These guys haven’t been like that. Everything that we do is a calibration of the two of us working together, which really helps.”
Towards the end of the interview James risks upsetting every single one of his female admirers by admitting that he is in a relationship. But he will not be thrusting the lady into the limelight, preferring to keep his private life private.
“It comes down to this world of celebrity where too many put their lives out there. I cook for God’s sake. It’s food, not Trisha.”
Despite the revelation that he is spoken for, there will, I suspect, be just as many women drooling over James Martin when he makes his next appearance at Denby in the spring.
* This article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Country Images magazine