James Martin Interview

What made you want to support the Big Lunch?
It was two-fold really. I'm obviously from this neck of the woods, Yorkshire anyway. And I think we're all to blame - certainly we've all done it in the past and now - for not speaking to our neighbours. I've lived in a village now for maybe four or five years and I haven't even met my next door neighbour, so I think it's a great excuse not just to meet them but for conversation. Conversation costs nothing and great things can happen when people talk and meet and I think it's a great way of meeting the whole community, whether you live on a street or in a village or in a city. While it happens a bit less up here than it does down south, I still think, having met people who've gone on to set up community centres, it's a fantastic thing to be involved in.

I live down south now and I lived most of my early days up in Yorkshire. Every Sunday lunch, we used to sit down and have a meal together and that was the farming life, wasn't it? When your grandparents came round and everybody discussed what went on that week whether the folk fell out or whatever. It was that element of conversation, you sat round the table and you spoke and you extend that into the community. What better way to meet everybody?

I mean, I do a party at my place and I invite everybody and that's generally the only time everybody's together and you're having a conversation and there are some fascinating people out there, fascinating things you can learn and people can learn off each other and help each other. You get people who don't get out and can't get out; this is a great way of helping them. I'm not saying it's the Cameron 'Big Society', you gotta help yourselves to help you - it's not that. I think this is a fantastic thing to be involved in as we reach the third year, it's hugely popular. A million people took part last year, so it's not a drop in the ocean, and great things can happen.

So will you be doing something this year?
I'm definitely going to do something for my local village. We've got a playing field that needs a little bit of work and it's up to the villages and the communities to look after it and that's what makes it special.

What do you think the most sociable food you could have at these things would be?
The great thing about these is that you can bring your own food. We're not asking you to cater for 700 people. Just bring your own. Go online and register and you can bring your own stuff and sit there and have your own packed lunch, with you and the kids and everything else... and everybody just meets and talks. You learn a lot about people. I would say just a simple picnic. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, does it?

Do you think over food is a good way to socialise?
Food's a great conversation starter and a great barrier breaker. It can stop conversation and it can start conversation. Certainly when you work in a restaurant you see it all the time and you see the atmosphere created by what food does and food is only a small part of it. As I say to the guys working in the restaurant, it's not the be-all and end-all... don't think for a minute that its food is 100% of the greatest meal you've probably had. It's conversation, it's the people who you're with, the ambience, everything else. Food is just an element - a great excuse to go out and do something.

Is it nice to have built up the stature where you can help events like the Big Lunch?
It helps with everything doesn't it? But I don't put my name to everything and I think that's important, that people hopefully believe in what you believe in. I have standards, I have ethics and I think that's important, particularly when you've been doing this for so long. I thought that the Big Lunch was a great idea. I just sat there and thought, 'I'm to blame like everybody else is'. My next door neighbour, I haven't spoke to her for three years and I live next door to her! It's kinda my fault, is it there fault, are we all to blame, you know? However, something like this that gets us all together, at least talking. You might not have to see me again for the rest of the year but at least it's something. I think it's good. It's a good excuse.

It's quite old fashioned, really. We don't really chat so much now as we did... Precisely. 40 years ago everybody knew each other and it was important that everybody knew each other to get on, succeed. But now we seem to be obsessed with just our own little world. It's almost like a prison cell, if you were just in your own little bit. Good things happen when people start talking to each other and that could be a small thing like 'the seat that's in the local village is bust, can somebody mend it?' The chippy down the road might go, 'I'll do that, why not?' Just something. It could be anything. Or if nothing comes of it, at least you've talked with guys, which is a good thing. So it's all positive, isn't it?

What made you want to open a restaurant in Leeds?
I've been looking for a place for a long time, but in terms of the infrastructure, everything they had there, I like the idea of it. It's not just a restaurant you see, it's the functions, we've got the ability to not just run a restaurant but we've got the ability to serve functions from as little as 20 to 250, that's what appealed to me as well as the restaurant, the ability to do large functions for business, corporate, private parties, it's great. Once you see it, once you're there, you see how good it is. Unless you actually go there, you don't know what it's all about.

Do you like what they're doing with the Bird upstairs?
Vineet is a fantastic cook and I think between the two of us, it's interesting. You've got the Indian way of serving their food upstairs, which is very modern, and downstairs which is the British, the local...

Do you have ideas for a general theme?
Yeah, the theme's local, British. I'm going to be a big supporter of the local community, a big supporter of the local producers. I'm looking at doing maybe a farmers' market where I can bring in the local producers and people can get to see that.

Do you think Yorkshire's good for produce?
It's fantastic. I travel all over the place, I'm privileged to travel all over the world and Yorkshire's got one of the greatest gardens and certainly the veg plots - you've almost got your own little supermarket right on your doorstep. The meat, the veg... it's brilliant. For a chef, it's actually not difficult to write a menu of great local ingredients and thanks to artisan people and local suppliers, who're passionate about what they do, it makes my job easier.

Has it had much of an influence on you, on the way you cook and the way you work?
Certainly, the way I am with people, probably more than anything. I like to build up a team and with The Leeds Kitchen, we're in the interview stage now and we've got a lot of young kids now and I'm very eager to bring on the young talent and teach people and really pass on my experience and my knowledge onto them because as a young kid I got the opportunity when I was 22 to suddenly jump up a gear and certainly up a position and somebody had a faith in me, and now it's almost my turn to give the same thing back. It's a big risk but it's all to do with training.

How involved are you trying to be? Do you think you'll be there?
I've got a flat at Clarence Dock, so I'm going to be there quite a lot, yeah. I'll be there more than any other TV chef, I'll be in that restaurant... and I'll be there.

It's important to make sure that something that's got your name on it is good... It's important to me. Yorkshire's very... they're very honest and I admire them for that. And they're going to be the first to turn round and tell me it's crap. It's very important to me that everybody's happy and it's important to me that it works, because I've spent a long time in this career and a long time working as a chef and I'm not one of these people who place chance in the stars and chance in the next TV programme. Food has been a huge influence in me, it got me where I am now but you never lose the fact of where it all started; it all started in the kitchen and that's where it's going to end and the bit in between is wonderful. However, the fundamental thing throughout all this, your main artery of it is food. You've got to be able to cook and that's why I'm busy doing what I'm doing. I'm doing masses of catering all around the world and restaurants all over the place. And it's got to be all about the food.

The Big Lunch is on 5th June, find out how you can take part at www.thebiglunch.com. James Martin's new restaurant, The Leeds Kitchen, will be opening at the end of March at Alea Casino.


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