James Martin: entrepreneurial passion, practice, product – and pans

Entrepreneurial TV chef James Martin is hitting the road again, this time exploring the food of Great Britain, his travels will be documented in twenty episodes of what looks like the ultimate culinary road trip for any foodie. The first four episodes were broadcast last week covering Scotland, the highlights being the Highlands and Edinburgh sessions with Scottish Michelin starred chef Tom Kitchin. No honestly, that’s his name.

James Martin is one of my favourite chefs. He has been a constant presence in our house through his books, and having presented some of the most popular TV cooking shows, including the entertaining Saturday Kitchen.

His passion for food began when his father took the role of catering manager at the Castle Howard estate, and then aged thirteen, a trip to the South of France in an HGV gave him the opportunity to experience food and wine in some of the best chateaux in France – and he was hooked.

He started his formal catering training at Scarborough Technical College, and was Student of the Year three years running.  After college, he worked in London under the guidance of chefs including Antony Worrall Thompson and Marco Pierre White. He also travelled around France working in chateaux kitchens and gaining experience in Michelin star establishments.

His TV career began in 1996, and in 2006, he became the presenter of the BBC One show Saturday Kitchen, making it a Saturday morning staple which regularly attracted 3.5 million viewers. Recently he has been on our screens touring James Martin’s American Adventure and James Martin’s French Adventure.

As if this wasn’t enough, James Martin Manchester restaurant opened in 2013, listed in The Sunday Times Top 100 UK Restaurants for 2015/16, and in 2017 he opened The Kitchen Cookery School at Chewton Glen. A premium café, James Martin Kitchen, offers sit down dining and grab and go options at Stansted Airport, inside Debenhams at intu Lakeside, Manchester Piccadilly station and Glasgow Airport.

And there’s more. He developed the menus for Thomas Cook airlines, covering three million in-flight meals they serve each year. He is also Executive Chef for Virgin Trains East Coast, designing and developing their First-Class menus. He endorses a range of kitchen appliances with Wahl, kitchenware with Stellar and has large collection of stylish and modern tableware with Denby Pottery.

Putting aside his multi-channel revenue streams and brand building, there’s something truly inspirational about seeing the level of James’ effort and passion laid bare when cooking.  I’ve long been a passionate cook and constantly developing my culinary craftsmanship. As far as I’m concerned, food is about taste, texture and simplicity, cooking is not an opportunity to make a climbing frame out of vegetables or building blocks out of meat. My food is chunky and unpretentious, a bit like me!

I’m an avid reader of cookbooks for inspiration. Giorgio Locatelli’s big Italian book is a great read, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg book has a load of good ideas and Rosemary Shrager’s recipes are simple and fool proof, so ideal for me. Heston Blumenthal is just too posh and too fussy for me. I spend more time trying to use the letters of his name as an anagram and spell something rude. That lush nobleman is my best effort.

Forget being in a rock band, I’ve always wanted to be in a top restaurant kitchen. That feels like a rock star adrenalin rush. I want to hang out with the dudes in the kitchen and cook like that. I’ll even wash the pots just to be there. I’m reliving memories of all the TV cooking shows I watched, from Fanny Craddock and Johnny, to the Galloping Gourmet to Delia, Rick Stein.

I love cooking at home, if you came round to my kitchen you’d have an amazing time, there’s nothing that my old battered tins of herbs and spices can’t improve. Take the home made artisan sausages I craft. Seasoned with Italian spices, seared in hot avocado cooking oil. Oh and rhubarb. I love rhubarb. I can’t get enough of rhubarb. Rhubarb and okra sweet and sour soup, a classic Vietnamese dish, or Danish rhubarb cake with cardamom and custard, and my signature dish, pan-fried mackerel with rhubarb coleslaw.

James Martin shows passion, creativity and expertise, and a genuine love of his craft and what he does. How many of us commit ourselves to our business like this? Very few I suspect. Most of us settle for a bit of effort with occasional bursts. We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. Martin steps out of his comfort zone in the glare of national television and bares his soul. And sometimes his sole.

As always when looking at entrepreneurial endeavours like this, I try to find lessons we can take into our startup thinking. Here’s what I’ve learned from James Martin:

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes celebrity chefs try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be radically different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and more often than not, the simple, well-prepared dish with an inspired twist ends up the better meal. Attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles.

Strategise before filling the pans  Martin is an experienced chef, but you can see the thinking and planning that goes into a ‘performance’ of his TV cooking demonstrations. He thinks through each and every small activity from the ingredients required, to the time allocated and how he presents the finished offering. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven. Having a clear strategy is key.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency. Businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events of significant adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and be able to respond with a back-up plan is vital. You can see on his live shows that Martin is an agile thinker.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Yes, you have a Plan B, but often Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay clam and present what is completed with conviction even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with clear instructions. In business, ambiguity or inaccuracy in a process can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful outcomes in scaling a startup venture. The pressure of live TV cooking is a perfect example of how to get things done when the heat is on.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Chefs know the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product. The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve. We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the preparation of each dish, Martin is frequently tasting and thus testing the current status of the cooking. Sometimes trust in your own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a big risk to take in business. Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it with some of your colleagues and selected clients to see if it can be improved.

Time is an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, and final presentation – an aspect Martin obsesses over – it’s vital each item is served at the optimal moment of peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. Time is an ingredient in cooking, Timing is everything for entrepreneurs.

Put emotion into your products One of the criteria for putting a dish onto his menus is that the item evokes emotion for Martin. So far in his current TV series, we’ve had scallops cooked on an outdoor BBQ in Stromness, Arbroath smokie scotch eggs, and homemade crumpets with lobster, spinach and samphire. Each captures the imagination, Emotion engages customers is a key lesson for all entrepreneurs.

Continuous product iteration Martin subscribes to the practice of constant innovation, and works in an environment where his dishes can evolve on the fly. This is a luxury other product categories can’t to the same degree given the kitchen offers the opportunity for frequent experimentation, so gives him advantage. But if you study the early works of great contemporary painters and architects, like Picasso and Frank Ghery, like Martin, they mastered the classics of their craft before they started to routinely innovate, a habit and instinct all entrepreneurs need. You only learn by doing.

You can be a street artist, an author, a dancer, a chef – there are no boundaries on being an entrepreneur, it’s an expression of self. We don’t always associate chefs with entrepreneurship, but Martin is as much an entrepreneur as a tech product inventor.

Imagine you are a chef for a moment. In front of you is a blank canvas of ingredients, sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life. Right beside you are your creative tools – the knives, the whisk, the oven. It’s a simple set up, but combined with the human imagination and an ability to execute, has the makings to create a unique piece of work with the power to inspire.

Business life occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil, salt and pepper, and the world is your omelette. Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

What chefs like James Martin do is take the spark of a new idea, curate and test it, and make it a reality. A little bit of intuition, passion, planning and magic creates an opportunity to win customers, that others don’t see. That that’s entrepreneurial thinking, in any walk of life.

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