There's more to American food than burgers, says James Martin
The TV chef tells Ella Walker about exploring US cuisine, and his great friend Antonio Carluccio
It might be two years since he quit Saturday Kitchen, but TV chef James Martin is still faintly defensive of his decision to leave the hit BBC show.
‘There was no channel to go to, I didn’t jump ship or anything like that, contrary to what people said,’ he explains. ‘It was too much. It was just work, work, work, work, and I didn’t mind it, but then I wasn’t getting any younger. I could do it when I was 30, I’m 45 now.’
A work-life balance had been somewhat elusive for the Yorkshireman, who didn’t take a holiday from the Saturday Kitchen studio for a decade, spending his weekends wistfully ‘linking to Rick Stein going out and about’.
‘I did really get pangs of jealousy,’ he admits – but it’s finally his turn to barbecue beside a creek, smoking a cigar as the sun goes down (check out page 144 of his latest cookbook, James Martin’s American Adventure, for photographic evidence).
The book and accompanying ITV series (a follow-up to last year’s French Adventure) saw Malton-born Martin eating and cooking his way across the US, travelling 13-odd thousand miles in eight weeks, by motorbike. ‘A lot of TV land is, you arrive in a car, sit down with a chauffeur and off you go; I didn’t want to do that,’ he says. ‘None of that stuff – I want whatever fauna to hit me in the face and to talk about that when I get there.’
When he started the trip, Trump had just got into power, and, exploring middle America, says Martin, ‘you realise why’.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ he recalls of Texas and Louisiana, where he says the mentality is: ‘I’m having my gun, I’m having my pick-up, that’s what I’m having; don’t tell me otherwise’.
‘You can walk around a supermarket and buy a M16 machine gun,’ notes Martin, disbelievingly, ‘but to them, everybody else has got ‘em, [they’re thinking], “I’ve got to protect my family”. I’m not saying it’s normal, far from it, but you can understand it.’
Driving along one road in Texas, it became something of a joke among his crew that every three miles there was ‘a Dunkin’ Donuts, a rifle range or a lap-dancing club – for like 100 miles! It was quite surreal’.
Focusing on the US through its cuisine though, rather than purely its culture, gives you a whole new perspective on the place. ‘Food is a great leveller,’ says Martin.
Once you’ve adjusted to the portion sizes (‘Everything’s big in the States, but you can’t tell the Americans – just don’t eat it all if you don’t want to’), there’s so much more to grub in the States than burgers and barbecue (although of course, Martin still tackles both) – even if it’s hard to completely detangle food from politics.
Take ‘sea air’ strawberries. Riding along the coastal roads of Santa Cruz, Martin spotted Mexican pickers collecting the scarlet fruits. ‘It was that moment in time Trump was on about Mexicans. I thought, ‘Here we go, what’s going to happen?’ It’s a bit like the UK. Brits don’t want to pick strawberries, so who else is going to? Someone’s got to. It’s crazy.”
Government rhetoric aside, what makes the strawberries taste so ‘amazing’ was the exceptional environment they grow in. ‘You get this particular mist, this chill,’ explains Martin, ‘and it coats the ground about two miles inland. It’s not fog, it’s just this real thin, really weird, peculiar layer of dew that hovers.’
In Fort Worth, Texas – ‘It’s like Disneyland meets cattle. It’s really odd, they do these big longhorn cattle drives and ride up and down the street’ – it was the climate he had to contend with while cooking. Martin remembers cracking an egg into a bowl before prepping the rest of his ingredients for a recipe, and when he went back to his egg, ‘it was cooked, that’s how hot it was. That was the only time we’ve gone, ‘No, we can’t do this, things are cooking before they’re even in the pan’.’
Most poignant, though, ended up being a visit to an artichoke farm, where Martin made pasta with artichokes, cavolo nero and Parmesan, a dish his much-loved friend, the late Antonio Carluccio, once cooked for him.
‘He showed me how to prep artichokes properly,’ he remembers. ‘So I cooked this artichoke dish not knowing what would happen, but I did it in the middle of a field on an artichoke plantation.’
The book is dedicated to Carluccio, who Martin says had a ‘massive’ impact on him. ‘I remember being at award things, and probably the two most uncomfortable people in there were me and him, and we used to pull a chair up outside,’ he recalls. ‘It was all going on at one about two years ago; he’d won an award and I’d won an award, but we weren’t even in the building, we were outside just chatting.
‘Food was our great love. He, like me, didn’t like pretentious cooks, he had no time for the stereotypical TV chef – he liked people who were passionate about their jobs. He said, “If you’re put on that step to talk to people and to teach people about food, have respect for it and understand your subject”. I admired that, and I learnt from it, and hopefully I’ll learn from it to this day – yes, you can have fun like he did, but don’t disrespect the food, because it takes an awful lot of time and hard work to produce.’
- James Martin’s American Adventure by James Martin, photography by Peter Cassidy, is published by Quadrille.