Hail to the chef

Joyee Chan

James Martin may be a famous TV chef in his native Britain, but he tells Joyee Chan that his Mum cooks even better

Joyee Chan |

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BBC celebrity chef James Martin taught a cooking class at the Hong Kong Culinary Academy.
Just in time for Mother's Day, James Martin admits he owns much of his success to two very important women: his mum and gran.

Martin is a man of surprisingly simple pleasures. With a growing reputation as the premier foodie on British TV - he's been on popular shows such as Ready Steady Cook, Sweet Baby James and Saturday Kitchen - you'd expect his kitchen at home to be filled with luxurious ingredients such as white truffles and foie gras. But for this top chef, kitchen life is more down-to-earth.

Growing up in a Yorkshire farmhouse, Martin is greatly influenced by the traditional, rustic dishes his mother and late grandmother made with the region's bountiful fresh produce, like oak-smoked cheddar, and rhubarb.

At age eight, food was already a huge part of his life. "I learned to cook even before I learned to read [partly due to dyslexia]," Martin told Young Post on his visit to Hong Kong.

Martin took every opportunity to stand at the stove with his mother while she prepared her signature roast potatoes and rich gravy on Sundays. He also loved watching his grandmother, whom he described as a great pastry chef, make what he claims to be the best bacon sandwiches and parkin, Yorkshire's take on gingerbread.

The first things Martin's grandmother taught him to cook were Victorian sponges and children's treats. But he thinks aspiring cooks these days should start with an omelette, because that's a typical test given during interviews at high-end restaurants. "People think it's easy, but that's not the case," he says. "To get it perfectly seasoned, cooked, shaped, and presented, you have to have a solid foundation."

When Martin was 12, he was already overachieving in school cookery classes. He served flambeed chicken with mange tout instead of the fairy cakes the rest of the class made. But not everyone was impressed, including his teacher, as dyslexia got in the say, and Martin failed his exams. He couldn't jot recipes down and often had to improvise.

Undeterred, Martin refused to give up his dream of becoming as great a chef as his mother and grandmother. He landed a place in what was one of the country's top catering colleges at the time, Scarborough Technical College, where he won student of the year three years running. Upon graduation, he was offered a job by British celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson in his restaurant.

From there, he was appointed head chef at a luxury hotel chain, where he was spotted by a TV producer. He appeared on Junior Master Chef, has hosted his own shows, and published 10 cookbooks.

In 2011, Martin hosted a BBC documentary, Operation Hospital Food, to pay tribute to his grandmother, who spent her last days eating poorly prepared food. His remedy was to take tinned, reheated food off the menu, and instead serve fresh soup, chicken and roast vegetables, dishes that are more appetising, and easier to digest, yet didn't cost much more.

Martin once wrote in an article that food should be therapeutic, but that hospital food had not caught up with the breakthroughs made in medicine every year.

Despite his achievements, he still says his mother cooks certain food, especially Sunday roast, better than he does, thanks to her 65 years of experience.

"I can't beat her," he says. "Sometimes you can't compare yourself to your mother. You think you can, but you know your place."

And while Martin used to cook on Mother's Day, this year he planned to take his mum out so he can spend more time with her - and avoid that look that mothers do so well, when you haven't quite got things right.

Visit scmp.com for a video of James Martin in action, and talking about his passions

See Chef Martin in action in James Martin's Mediterranean on BBC Lifestyle (Now TV #221 or Cable TV #131) every Saturday at 6:45pm

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