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Q&A: James Martin

The British chef talks to Andrew Sun about his fondness for Asian ingredients and why he hates being a celebrity

 

You have a successful career as a television chef so why do you also cook at your restaurant (in The Talbot Hotel in Malton, Yorkshire, in Britain) every night? "A chef without a restaurant isn't a chef, really. For me, it's where people can go and eat the food that I create on television. I've been cooking since I was eight. My old bosses and the people who are important to me know I've worked in restaurants all my life. This isn't a competition I entered and won at 28 and then decided to be a chef. I've been involved in programmes on the BBC for nearly 20 years but I mix my television with restaurant work."

How does the "celebrity chef" label affect you? "I hate it. You're a chef by trade. I [didn't get] into TV because I wanted to do it for a living. What's important to me is to be a chef at the beginning and at the end. I got into this because the bits in the middle were fun and I get to travel, like on James Martin's Mediterranean [now airing on BBC Lifestyle]. This stuff found me but I don't seek it."

How difficult is it to cook on television? "The show I am doing now in the UK, Saturday Kitchen, is live so that's even more complicated. But the hard thing, because I'm dyslexic, is reading the cues and scripts. The cooking is easy but it's cooking while interviewing someone and having an earpiece tell me stuff that's hard. There's also little things [you learn] like not putting the pepper mill down between you and the camera."

Did dyslexia affect your career? "It affected me massively. It really pushed me into food because I couldn't do lessons. I have no interest in reading a book. I've never read a book in my life and I never will read a book. But if I am in a market, I'm fine. It's about focusing on a subject I am interested in. Mine just happened to be cooking. I was also good at art and pottery. These were the only things I was good at. So, now I've got good people around me and in my team. They're very good at writing and accounting so I have them do those things."

Are you an anti-fine-dining kind of guy? "I've trained [in] and done the Michelin route. I did that early in my career but there comes a point where you ask, 'Is this really what I want to do?' I decided to go the other route. You can take influences from fine dining and put them in comfort food. My favourite things to eat are still fish and chips, and steak and chips. Comfort food to me is also pizza. It's what chefs eat. When I get home, I'm not making a gourmet meal. I'm doing simple things."

You seem to be influenced by Asia. "I love Asian cuisine. I use loads of lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger and galangal in my restaurant. It's quite unusual for a Brit who talks about great British produce and British dishes … but I'm obsessed with these flavours. I use them in dishes from traditional British desserts to risottos. I think the British public love Asian food for the simplicity of the flavours and ingredients. As a chef, we can do so much with it. If you leave the skin on ginger then blitz it and mix it with palm sugar it makes the most amazing base for a chutney. But add it to scallops and black pudding, and it's fantastic, too. That's what inspires me to come to places like Hong Kong."

So, in addition to promotions and publicity, what have you been doing in Hong Kong? "I did a cooking session at the Hong Kong Culinary Academy in North Point. Later, we're going to go around the wet markets. It's a chef's paradise. Wherever you go in the world, the market is the beating heart of any city. Certainly, coming to Hong Kong, it's everything I expected Asia to be in terms of the crazy busy streets. I'm also going to take back some recipes, like a spicy prawn and scallop [dish] I had at a restaurant."

 

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