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James Martin: 'Supermarkets Should Be Banned'

Confidential talks to chef James Martin about indies, EU red tape and cheese

Written by . Published on July 27th 2011.

James Martin: 'Supermarkets Should Be Banned'

JAMES Martin is a busy boy.

He's just finished filming a new TV series, James Martin's Mediterranean, which has seen him all over France, Italy and Spain for the last five weeks, and he's also planning on expanding his restaurant empire.

Speaking to Confidential editor Simon Binns at the International Cheese Awards in Nantwich, Martin had plenty to say about supermarkets, the business of food and why being a famous chef has its pitfalls.

SB: Cheese for breakfast.

JM: I know. Straight into it at 8am this morning.

SB: What have you been doing out there?

JM: I've judged four categories this morning...that's about 140 cheeses. It's a mixed bag too. Some good and some horrific.

SB: There's quite a bit of outlandish stuff. Are cheese producers having to try new things?

JM: As a nation, we're famous for our cheese production. Some of the stuff from abroad wasn't that great. They've got a lot to learn. Along with the French, Britain is probably the best known cheese producer in the world, and I think we make some of the best, if not the best.

Img_1359SB: Do you think we shout about it loud enough?

JM: I don't think people in this country know it sometimes. We're to blame for not supporting our independent producers. Forty thousand people have turned up to this show - whether those 40,000 people will go out and buy the cheese from independent shops or not is a different matter. Will they go out and find it if it's not in Asda or Tesco?

SB: The country show is a typically British thing isn't it? But to make it viable, it needs support from big companies. Asda has sponsored this event, for example.

JM: They do. But when it comes to tasting produce, you can tell the difference a mile away.

SB: Restaurants have a part to play too don't they, making sure they source ingredients from local producers?

JM: They do, and it's something we as a company always try and do. That's part of out ethos. All our meat comes from one butcher. We do the same with fish, as much as possible, but it's getting harder and harder to find local suppliers because people are going out of business. That's down to us and down to the big boys as well so everybody's to blame, but we try our best to support them as restauraters.

SB: How's the Leeds restaurant doing?

JM: Busy, but it is hard work, trying to source local fish. Some of ours has to come from Brixham. I don't mind paying extra for stuff that's produced on our doorstep. I think people will pay a bit more in the restaurant if they are getting Yorkshire lamb, for example. The issue is finding it and then acheiving consistency and quality.

That's why it's good to get around to shows like this. I don't often get out andf about too much because I'm either busy with Saturday Kitchen or some other TV show, or the restaurant and deli we run. But these are the places where you find something new and interesting.

SB: And Saturday Kitchen has taken a break now. It's become such a huge show - did you ever see it getting so big?

JM: No. I still think they're winding me up when they give me the viewing figures. It's been running four years now and we're going HD for the first time next year.

SB: Is that extra time in the make-up chair?

JM: We don't have make up - they just give you some eye drops and two cans of Red Bull and away you go. I wish we did have make up.

It's a real mix of calm and chaos, when everything's going fine, you can sit back and relax and enjoy it. When it goes wrong, it tends to go wrong quite quickly, and it's up to you to deal with it.

We're even getting Hollywood A-listers on there. I don't think a lot of them quite know what they've signed up for to be honest. But it's testament to the work that everyone puts in on the show.

SB: And when is it back?

JM: It's back on August 19. We've got five weeks off.

SB: And how about the restaurant side of things? Any plans for any more?

JM: Yes, we're looking at four or five new restaurants, all up North. We're looking at a couple of sites in Manchester. They should be open before Christmas.

They'll be similar in concept to Leeds - good modern British food, honest food that people want. Too many chefs cook what they want instead of what people want to eat. I've spent a lot of time in Europe recently and it's really changed my ideas about the way I want to do things.

I was in Naples and went to a restaurant which serves the best pizza in the world. It's been running since 1850, it serves 1,500 pizzas a day and it's two guys. One of them is 85.

The drinks menu is coke, beer and water, and the pizza menu is with cheese and without cheese. And you can't get a seat.

I've been to other great restaurants in the Med where you don't get a menu, you just pay 30 euros and you get the freshest ingredients and a glass of wine. You eat at 1pm and you're out by 3pm.

Talking turkey. And lamb, beef, etcTalking turkey. And lamb, beef, etcSB: That's a part of European style of eating that wouldn't appeal over here, would it?

JM: But if you're in that situation where you have a great dish then I think you can do that. There are some good ideas that have changed my view on how I can do things in the UK.

SB: So what's the state of British food?

JM: Very good. It's the place to be in the world I think. I thnk there's America, Australia, Japan - Tokyo will always be the best place to eat in the world - but when I was training, France was always the place to go but now they are coming over to us.

In terms of restuarants and thinking about food, we're still behind Spain and Italy though. They have markets over there that you'd kill for over here.

We're probably a victim of our own obsession with cheap food and convenince. When there are no butchers or fishmongers left and we're all eating stuff out of packets, then we've only got ourselves to blame.

We look at certain markets as a gimmick or tourist attraction when they should be a source of food for people in that area.

We should have banned supermarkets a long time ago. You should have one or two in a town and that's it. Villages shouldn't have any. It's mental. Try finding a supermarket in a French village, or Naples. There are none.

SB: Do you think we don't farm well enough?

JM: No, I think we do. But you can't blame the farmer for going to the supermarkets because that keeps them in business. As soon as they get dropped, a lot of them go bust.

SB: It is heartbreaking when you see a fishmonger working behind the counter in a supermarket because it closed his shop down.

JM: Supermarkets argue they are concerned with quality, but they're not. It's all about cost. An independent is all quality and it's not about buying a Ferrari for a lot of them, they just want to produce great food.

SB: What about the celebrity status that chefs like you have? Can you use that to try and change things?

JM: We can go on about it. It's making life harder as a chef. But farmers could perhaps be a bit more forward in selling to us. Look at America. They created a bottled drink that is now the biggest selling in the world, because they market the hell out of it. 

I've been to so many food festivals in this country where they have great produce but they're not out there selling it to people. Nobody is going to do it for them. It's a different mindset.

But the tide is changing for the better. For 20 years, we were on our arse. But now we've got great produce and we're understanding food a lot more. The shame is that a lot of good businesses have gone while we were waiting for that to happen. Scott's Butcher in York - 160 years of expertise and it's gone.

Sweet Baby JamesSweet Baby JamesSB: Is there a new generation of butchers and bakers to help give it that push?

JM: There are artisan guys out there doing good things, but it takes time. We're not helped by the amount of red tape we have to deal with in the UK.

If you go to Italy, they don't give a shit about EU regulations and laws. I don't agree with a lot of what they do but you have to allow a certain degree of common sense.

SB: Do we need a food tsar then? Someone to lead food development directly?

I just think we need less red tape If we're part of Europe, all adhering to the same rules, why is the UK having to conform with rules from Brussels when nobody else gives a shit?

I think the government and agencies need to understand food more. All they do it sit at a desk and make it more and more difficult for us. It's very frustrating as a chef.

Cheesed offCheesed offAnd the bigger you get as a chef, the more you get targeted. Me, Heston, Jamie. We've all been had. People want to go out and get us. Environmental health have tried to shut down my deli for the same thing they let supermarkets get away with.

It seems to be common in the UK sadly. People go after success. I'm not successful by any means, but as soon as you get a bit of status, you get targeted.


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5 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

RayJuly 28th 2011.

In Birmingham, James Martin has a bit of a reputation of being an arrogant idiot, but I have to say that much of what he says here makes sense. I'll be interested to see if the rhetoric is mirrored in the Manchester restaurant(s) he is to open.

AnonymousJuly 29th 2011.

For one extraordinarily good looking guy WHAT was JM wearing in this interview?......

rustumlongpigAugust 1st 2011.

I dont usually have a lot of time for the food "Stars" having worked in every facet of the food industry since 1964 and being a little cynical when I hear these "Brand new " ideas and Hey look what weve discovered!!! Stuff that we were doing quietly , years ago.
However I agree totally with our boy here and get rid of the supermarkets and their controling power of life or death over the real dedicated food makers and producers

I recently had the pleasure of the company of Fred
Taylor (A distant relative) the Yorkshire Dales cheese guru now into his 86th year and as sharp as a tack. Fred judged cheese competitions throughout the land back in the day , and he describes to me the difference of the cheesemaking process now and then and the reasons that the farmhouse cheeses were so much better by using the RIGHT cultures to the process thereby achieving the subtle differences in the cheeses from Dale to dale . The supermarkets and brussels between them could well be responsible for the death of the Farmhouse cheeses that are so unique and distinct from the awful pap wrapped in sweaty plastic that we are becoming conditioned to accept!

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