Stephen Jardine: Is James Martin’s departure beginning of the end?

James Martin is leaving Saturday Kitchen after ten years at the helm. Picture: BBC
James Martin is leaving Saturday Kitchen after ten years at the helm. Picture: BBC
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SATURDAY Kitchen just won’t be the same without its talented chef, writes Stephen Jardine

When people talk about the rise of food shows on TV, one programme sticks out more than most.

Saturday mornings used to be a time for doing the shopping, washing the car or walking the dog but Saturday Kitchen changed all that.

Originally launched in 2003 with Anthony Worrall Thompson in charge the show really took off three years later when another chef took control. Ten years on, Saturday Kitchen is now a major BBC brand, pulling in over three million viewers in a slot that used to be reserved for cartoons.

However change is in the air. After a decade presenting the programme, James Martin this week announced he was quitting to look for “new challenges”. Who can blame him? For the past 10 years he has been getting up at 4am every Saturday to present 90 minutes of live television. Add to that having to produce beautiful food for the cameras while interviewing celebrities who on a bad day have nothing to say, and you have the recipe for one of the toughest jobs in television.

His great talent is being able to make it look incredibly simple to turn out a Beef Wellington while asking an actor about their latest film and finishing the whole thing in time for Football Focus. Along the way he’s also given a platform to chefs who’ve built reputations and firm followings on the back of the programme.

A regular on the show once told me that an appearance on Saturday Kitchen would fill his restaurant every day for the next month. Similarly, a bottle of featured wine is likely to have gone from supermarket shelves long before late afternoon shoppers arrive.

So what drove Martin to quit one of the best jobs on British TV? He may not have got a Saturday lie-in but a lucrative contract has given him a glamorous lifestyle with Ferraris in the garage to compensate for the early starts.

That may be the key to his decision. The news was announced on Tuesday while Martin was on the M8 driving to Edinburgh to appear at the Usher Hall with his stage show Plates, Mates and Automobiles.

Based around his twin loves of cooking and cars, the production is touring the UK at the moment, offering Martin a rare break from the Saturday Kitchen studio. He says he only made the decision to quit last week, suggesting he’s enjoying the new challenges too much to go back to the old routine.

When Martin leaves next month his job will be taken by a range of guest presenters from the food world but his departure could mark the beginning of the end for the show.

Its success was built on his mangling of the autocue and cheeky chappy approach to every guest and it’s hard to see how rotating hosts can retain that same loyal following.

Martin says he has no new role lined up but I suspect he won’t be out of work long. I shared a platform with him last year at a national conference on hospital catering.

Speaking without notes, he delivered a funny, disturbing and yet optimistic critique of institutional catering. That demonstrated he is much more than just a TV chef and I suspect quitting Saturday Kitchen is going to be a great move for him, if not for the show itself.