Celebrity chef James Martin has always been a hit with the ladies, but it’s quite something to see in real life. A queue of women in their best dresses excitedly line up to have a photo taken with the heartthrob. Later, one will ask him to marry her. She may or may not be joking.
I’m at Dinner with James Martin, hosted by the man himself at his critically acclaimed restaurant in Manchester’s Great Northern.
We’re promised five courses introduced and cooked by the chef with matching wines, and the chance to ask James anything we like by writing a question anonymously on a sheet of paper. He’ll pick a selection of random questions and answer them between each course.
This could get messy.
We start with a glass of prosecco, and an amuse bouche – “or a bloody soup, as I call it,” says James. The vivid green pea veloute is dressed with mint oil and flecks of puffed wild rice, with al dente fresh whole peas and broad beans sitting at the bottom.
“The peas and broad beans come from my garden in Hampshire,” he says, to cheers from the audience. “So if they’re rubbish, sorry.” They’re not, of course.
More wine is poured, and the first question James gets asked is predictable enough. What is his favourite butter? “Anchor,” he says.
“But Lincolnshire Poacher butter is great, too. Or in the Isle of Wight there’s a Jersey herd that do the best butter. But you can’t buy it because I buy it all.”
Guests have travelled from far and wide for tonight’s event with James. Several are staying the night in hotels. Others have been before and say they try to go to every event James does.
The next event is already sold out, says James, but there will be a Sunday lunch event coming up soon. Eyes light up.
Then comes the big question. “‘Will you marry me?'” he reads out, blushing. “Oh my god!” The diners erupt with laughter. He swiftly moves on.
And then the next dish is served: delicate Manchester Gin and vanilla cured salmon with cucumber ketchup, pickled ginger and a beetroot cracker, with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet.
One lady is celebrating her 70th birthday. She is thrilled when James stops by the table and wishes her many happy returns. “That’s made my year, that,” she beams.
Who would James most like to cook for him? “Shaun Hill,” he says, without missing a beat.
“He’s 72 now, at The Walnut Tree at Abergavenny, and still cooks in the kitchen. I actually applied for a job with Shaun when I was 18.
“I’ve still got the letter from him turning me down. It’s framed, in my toilet. I took it with me when I went to have dinner there recently. It’s one of the few times I’ve cried in the kitchen.”
The fish course is roasted monkfish with Korean flavours: chilli gochujang paste, deep-fried aubergines, sesame seeds and spring onion.
“It’s a seasonal fish, absolutely fantastic at the moment,” says James. His version is superb, full of robust, salty, spicy flavours.
People ask questions about James’ dogs and about his cars, knowing the chef is a self-confessed petrolhead. “‘We’ll be in the bar later, we’ll meet you for a drink’,” he reads out, eyebrows raised, to more laughter.
James’ favourite comfort food is fish and chips, we learn. “And the best is from Whitby,” he says. “End of.”
And our main course, James says, is his favourite dish of the night, served with a glass of Bordeaux.
Burnished bronze crown of Goosnargh chicken comes with wild mushroom and truffle risotto, French Roscoff onion (“the best onions you’ll ever taste,” says James), onion ash and chicken jus.
When it comes to people, James says his favourite out of all those he’s interviewed is Jackie Collins. And the hardest?
“Monty Don,” he says. “We were just about to go live, and he turned to me and said ‘I don’t want to discuss anything about gardening’. So for nine minutes we talked about seabass. It was the hardest interview I’ve ever done.”
The best hangover dish is “definitely a bacon sandwich,” says James, in response to one of the questions. I suspect, as the wine continues to flow, a few people may be needing one in the morning.
Pudding is British strawberries and a zingy lemon verbena pavlova with a glass of sweet Sauternes.
“Everyone loves strawberries, cream and meringue,” he says. “So that’s what you’re getting.”
Jamie Oliver is the hardest working guy he knows, and what’s happened to him is a real shame, says James. But he’d choose Gordon Ramsay to cook for him, if there was a choice. He reckons Gordon’s former chef Clare Smyth at Core in London could be the best tip for three Michelin stars this year.
The mini jugs that come with the pudding are from James’ own house, he says. “So no stealing them, I want them all back.”
Given the devotion of this chef’s fans, he’ll be lucky. Might be worth checking a few handbags on the way out, James.
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