James Martin talks new restaurants, potatoes and how, after three decades in the business, he has no intention of slowing down any time soon

It’s been 30 years since Yorkshire-born chef James Martin made the journey down to the Hampshire market town of New Milton to start a job at luxury hotel Chewton Glen, a role that set him on the path to TV stardom.   

After studying at Scarborough Technical College, where he was named Student of the Year three years running, James made the move south to London and worked for some of the UK’s leading chefs at the time, including Antony Worrall Thompson and Alastair Little, before travelling to France to work at the three Michelin-starred Maison Troisgros, in Roanne.  

However, it was his time at Chewton Glen, working as a junior pastry chef under head chef Pierre Chevillard that really gave him the independence to grow and refine his personal style.  

‘It was tough but I stuck by it, many people would have upped and left. I mean I had no money but I stuck with it and came out with an amazing experience,’ he says of those early years in London. ‘I remember when I drove down for the interview at Chewton Glen, I didn’t have enough money to drive back and then I crashed my car at the entrance of the hotel so I kind of had to get the job.’  

James’ journey from chef to TV star began a couple of years later when he became head chef of the first Hotel du Vin, which opened in Winchester in 1994 just a few weeks short of his 22nd birthday. It was a springboard to the hotel opening up nine more venues over the next 10 years and propelled him into the spotlight as one of the youngest head chefs in the country, leading to his first TV appearances on The Big Breakfast and Ready Steady Cook. 

‘Back then you had Gerard Basset, the legend of wine, Robin Hutson, ‘Mr Hotelier’ and this young chef, which was me, 21 years old with the world to prove and it just exploded the minute we opened,’ explains James, who turned 50 in June. ‘I originally got the sous chef job but when one of the guys they were interviewing for head chef didn’t turn up, Pierre, who was part of the interview panel, got me to cook some lunch for Robin and Gerard, deliberately not telling them who had cooked it. After they ate, he said to them: “You’ve already got your head chef, he’s been right under your nose all along”. They took a bit of a risk employing a 21-year-old with no experience as a head chef whatsoever but that’s the experience that I needed.’  

Almost three decades later and with more than 20 cookbooks, a primetime weekend television show, James Martin’s Saturday Morning (filmed in a studio in the garage of his Hampshire home) and countless other TV series to his name, as well as restaurants in Manchester and Chewton Glen, which he opened alongside a cookery school in 2017, you might think James would be slowing things down. But, he says, it’s quite the opposite.  

‘I think 2023 will be my busiest year ever looking at what I’ve got on the horizon,’ he says.

‘We did a nationwide tour in 2021 and we’re going again this year with theatres and palladiums booked. ITV want me to go abroad for a series again – we couldn’t do that for two years so that’s on the cards. 

And we’re expanding the restaurant business so we’re going to be going from two sites, possibly to seven, in the space of six months with the first opening in January.’ 

Great British Life: Sweet Potato Cake recipe in Potato: Baked, Mashed, Roast, Fried by James Martin Sweet Potato Cake recipe in Potato: Baked, Mashed, Roast, Fried by James Martin (Image: John Carey)

But before all that James has his latest book, Potato, to promote which follows his 2021 bestselling cookbook, entitled Butter and – you guessed it – is all about the humble spud.  

‘The potato is just so versatile,’ explains James who says he learnt a lot about the ingredient after taking on the sinking SpudULike chain with Ronnie Bartlett, of Scottish-based potato company Albert Bartlett, in 2021. ‘You can’t get much better than a baked potato with a little bit of butter and salt,’ he says. ‘Marabel are the best baked potatoes, it’s almost like you’re tasting double cream in the middle.’ 

But James’ love of potatoes goes back much further, to his younger years growing up in Yorkshire, where his father worked as a catering manager on the Castle Howard Estate and his grandparents were enthusiastic allotment owners.  

‘My grandfather used to produce the most amazing potatoes,’ he tells me.
‘I was probably about five and remember just pulling these potatoes out of the ground, taking them inside and cooking them really simply with butter and a little parsley.’ 

Filled with more than 130 recipes and techniques that will inspire you to put potatoes front and centre of your cooking, James’ new book gives an insight into why the spud is a staple in so many cuisines and offers an easy guide to which types of potato to buy when.  

‘We automatically think potatoes are the same all year round. They’re not, they’re very different,’ he explains. ‘The Maris Pipers you buy in October are very different to those you might buy in February. The structure of the potato changes over the seasons so the book gives you a little insight into that.’ 

It’s clear that, to James, this apparently unassuming ingredient is much more than just a potato. It is the embodiment of plot-to-plate cooking.  

‘To fully understand – and respect – food, you’ve got to realise how difficult it is to produce,’ James explains, although he admits that the potato is probably one of the easiest things to grow at home. 

‘You don’t even need a garden; you can grow them in a bucket or in grow bags. That’s the great thing about it and they’re great for kids – for them to see one potato sprout into 20-odd is just fantastic.’  

I ask James if, when he thinks back to his own childhood growing potatoes with his grandad, he ever thought he’d be where he is now at 50?   

‘Did I envisage it? No, I go home and I pinch myself all the time,’ he says. ‘Because, at school, I was not the cleverest, I was dyslexic and, in fact, I failed all my exams. I even failed cookery at school because I couldn’t do the written exam. But the one thing I had was passion, drive and want, not for things, but to be better. I think that, and working with amazing people, an amazing team, some of whom have been with me since those Hotel Du Vin days right at the beginning, is what’s got me where I am today.’ 

Potato: Baked, Mashed, Roast, Fried by James Martin (Quadrille, £23) is out now
Great British Life: Potato: Baked, Mashed, Roast, Fried by James Martin (Quadrille, £23)Potato: Baked, Mashed, Roast, Fried by James Martin (Quadrille, £23) (Image: Quadrille)

James’ Favourite Hampshire

My favourite restaurant: Besides my own restaurant at Chewton Glen, my favourite spots for something to eat are probably on The Isle of Wight. I like The Hut and The Smoking Lobster is really good too.

My favourite pub: My favourite place for a pint is The Wonston Arms in Sutton Scotney, it’s ace.

My favourite drive: I love the journey from Winchester to Salisbury, driving up over the plain there is just wonderful.

My favourite dog walk: You can’t beat the New Forest for a walk, it’s just beautiful.