Yorkshire chef James Martin talks about why he chose the humble spud as the subject of his latest cookbook and how you should be cooking yours this Christmas. Interview by Rebecca Pitcairn, photography John Carey
“York is really something special, I’ll end up retiring up there most certainly. It’s a lovely part of the world,” Malton-born chef James Martin tells me when I ask him about life after stardom and whether he thinks he will choose to settle in the north or the south of the country.
The 50-year-old chef, who owns properties in Yorkshire and Hampshire, has been based predominantly in the south for over 30 years, yet his accent and warm nature remain undeniably northern.
Brought up on the Castle Howard estate, James remains a Yorkshire lad through and through and still spends plenty of time in his home county – “although not as much as I’d like to,” he tells me.
It’s not the first time I’ve interviewed the TV chef. We first met around 12 years ago when he was promoting James Martin’s Great British Dinners and he remains just as charismatic and easy going now as he was back then.
There’s no doubt that this down to earth character is the reason over half a million people tune in to ITV each week to watch James Martin’s Saturday Morning and why his other television programmes, books and live shows continue to be popular 26 years on from when he first appeared on our screens on The Big Breakfast and Ready Steady Cook.
This time we chat, he’s on the book tour again, promoting Potato which follows 2021’s bestselling cookbook, Butter. “We looked at all the ingredients there are and a variety of different things and, with the price of everything going through the roof, we thought that the potato is just so versatile,” explains James, who last year took over the sinking Spud U Like chain with Ronnie Bartlett of Scottish-based potato company Albert Bartlett. “I now know a lot more about potatoes than I ever did and it’s a fascinating subject.”
James’ love of potatoes goes back much further however, to his younger years growing up on the Castle Howard estate, where his father worked as a catering manager, and from visiting his grandparents’ allotment, which overlooked the former Rowntree Macintosh Confectionary factory in York.
“That’s what got me into food in the first place,” he explains. “My grandfather used to produce the most amazing potatoes. Potatoes and roses were his thing because he used the most amazing fertiliser – horse manure – so the ground was so rich. You’d simply peel them, boil them and we used to have them with a little spring or chopped parsley and butter and that’s all you wanted. That was one of the main dishes that changed my philosophy with food, that made me fall in love with food. I was probably about five and remember just pulling these potatoes out of the ground, taking them inside and cooking them really simply.”
Filled with over 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, as well as plenty of ideas of different ways of serving your potatoes this Christmas.
“The roast potato is of course what most people do, but there are so many other interesting ways,” says the Scarborough Technical College alumni. “Hasselback potatoes, for example – just cut them with a knife and roast them and you get this amazing crispiness to them. And mashed potato, or Pommes Aligot, most people have leftover cheese at Christmas so use some blue cheeses or a bit of Emmental. Emmental in a mash tastes absolutely amazing.
“There’s also your classic Boulangère, which is potatoes and onions and water and is named after the old bakers’ ovens in France. The bakers used to use their ovens in the morning and, as the coals died down, the villagers, who had very little money so just used simple ingredients, would take their potatoes, onions and water and cook them in the leftover embers of the wood fired oven. You can do them at home on a tray and then put lamb on the top – and one thing we have in Yorkshire is amazing lamb – and let the juices run onto the potatoes.”
But the book is about much more than the potato. For James, this unassuming ingredient is the embodiment of field-to-fork cooking. “Nowadays, as chefs, we’re always trying to reinvent the wheel, but I’ve got allotments and little veg plots at home and at the back of my restaurants and I try and teach my chefs the same thing; to fully understand food, you’ve got to realise – and see – how difficult it is to produce,” James explains. “When you see how difficult something like a humble potato is to produce, you respect it a lot more.
“I think, because of Covid and because of the price of food going up, we’ve learnt to respect food and the people who produce it a lot more because it can be taken away from us so easily.”
And, James adds, the potato is a staple ingredient that can easily be grown at home – an activity he envisages we’ll all be doing much more of in the current economic climate. “It’s a great way to cut costs, but it’s also a great way for the younger generation to learn where their food comes from,” he says. “You can grow them in a bucket, you don’t need a garden. It’s great for kids to see one potato sprout into 20-odd, it just wants water and time.”
And with that, time on our interview comes to an end as James has to rush up to Yorkshire to scout out venues for a new restaurant – one of five set to open up and down the country in 2023.
“We’re looking at four or five sites in Yorkshire that are for sale. The sites are already up and running, but we’re looking to take them over and help them out with food,” he explains. “I think you can do two things in this climate – you can consolidate or you can push forward.”
With another busy year ahead, it doesn’t look like James’ Yorkshire retirement is going to come any time soon.
POTATO: Baked, Mashed, Roast, Fried by James Martin (Quadrille, £23) is out now
James Martin on his favourite places in Yorkshire
I used to spend every Christmas at the Black Swan at Helmsley – I’d go every year. I will be in Yorkshire this year, I usually go up Christmas afternoon to see my folks.
One of my favourite places to go and eat is Whitby – you can’t beat fish and chips at the Magpie Café.
I still love to go and walk the dog around Castle Howard, where I grew up and through the village there, Coneysthorpe.
The idea of cutting potatoes like this is that you get a much crispier roasted new potato. The key, however, is cutting them down enough so that they open up during cooking but not so much that you cut them into pieces.
800g new potatoes
75g butter, melted
25ml olive oil
a few sprigs of rosemary
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan)/400°F/gas 6.
- Place the potatoes between the handles of 2 wooden spoons and cut them at 2mm intervals until the knife hits the handles, so you don’t slice them all the way through.
- Pop the potatoes onto a roasting tray. Drizzle over the butter and oil, sprinkle over the rosemary and season.
- Roast in the oven for 45 minutes–1 hour.
- Serve with fish, lamb chops or chicken breast.