James May is not on a mission to become a celebrity chef, regardless of the fact he has – against type, and against the odds – written a cookbook, and nabbed an Amazon Prime cookery show to go with it.
He has however, “become very sympathetic to them” as a telly species. “I used to occasionally watch a cooking programme and think, ‘Oh Gordon, stop being such a big diva, standing around swearing’. But now I’ve had a go at doing it, I realised what the problem is,” says Bristol-born May, 57.
That problem, he continues, is everyone on set sticking their oar in. “Everybody has a view on cooking because most people do it,” he says. “This is not true if you’re making a programme about science or engineering or car history, where you have some authority, but I’m working on a cooking show, where I avowedly can’t cook anyway, so everybody is part of the advisory committee and it does get bloody annoying, quite quickly.
“Every time we do something, somebody in the eight or 10 assembled people in the room pipes up with, ‘Have you thought about doing it like that? Well why don’t you do it like this?’ I just think, ‘Well, why don’t you just shut the f*** up?’”
Admittedly, watching the series back, he says he comes across “quite bad tempered, which I never am normally. I’m slightly ashamed of it,” he adds, “but that’s what happens when you try and cook on TV.”
The book itself – Oh Cook! – is less fraught (although May does share his ire for chefs who go on about using ‘freshly ground pepper’ – “You don’t need to say it EVERY time,” he says with a sigh). In essence, Oh Cook! is “not about learning recipes. It’s about learning the basics,” which you can then apply to everything else. After all, “once you can roast a chicken, you can roast anything.”
He says it’s “not for accomplished chefs, or celebrity chefs or people who collect recipe books. This is a book designed to be propped up on the worktop and used like a Haynes Manual for beginners, and once you’ve made the stuff in this book, you should give it to Oxfam and move on.”
Had there not been a lockdown though, the book probably wouldn’t exist at all. “I’m very good at putting off writing, because I find it quite painful,” says May ruefully. “I couldn’t go anywhere or do any of the things I normally do to distract myself, like riding motorcycles and playing around and so on, so I sat at home and did this book.”
And like the rest of us, he also ended up doing far too much home cooking. “To the point that I was told by Sarah, my other half, to stop cooking because she was getting annoyed with me.”
“It’s very easy to do, get fat and drunk because you’re stuck in the house – I tried to avoid doing that,” he adds. “I didn’t do so well at avoiding drinking all the wine, but I did manage to eat quite healthily.”
The healthy eating has not quite translated to him joining the grow-your-own movement – yet. The former Top Gear presenter has a “little hobbity cottage” in the countryside in South Wiltshire, where he has recently embarked upon buying the field next door, “just because I’ve always quite fancied having a field”. Plus, “if I buy the field, it means nobody can build anything ugly on it”, he points out. To his happiness, it comes with a tractor. “I thought I might plough a little bit of it and have a go at growing potatoes or parsnips, something that I imagine would be quite easy – it probably isn’t.”
For a man who, in normal times, spends a lot of time on the road, he would, you’d assume, be a car snack aficionado – but no. “I’m against eating in my own car because I hate crap in the car, and I hate greasy fingerprints – I go a bit nuts about it,” says May. Although when filming and not in lockdown, he’s all about packets of nuts and fruit, cereal energy bars and the odd packet of Liquorice Allsorts. “On our Grand Tour film shoots, we can be in the car for eight hours a day, or sometimes more, and yes we snack a lot,” he explains. “TV does encourage the eating of crap unfortunately; our diets are very poor.”
His Top Gear and Grand Tour days have not been entirely fuelled by Liquorice Allsorts though. “We’ve eaten everywhere,” says May, recalling the fanciest business hotels to little roadside shacks. “And often the roadside shacks are the more interesting thing. One of the standouts was a little place doing kebabs by the road in Jordan, and another kebab place at a market in Syria, and India is fantastic for that sort of thing. You just stop and find someone making dhal and chapattis, or a little tomato curry that costs 25p or something.”
It is, he says, “a privilege and it’s quite exciting. It possibly informs your palate in some way – but I’m in danger of sounding pretentious and like a foodie.” And he is anxious to not sound like one of those.
In fact, “somebody has already pulled me up on this book,” he says with a start. “I must’ve let my guard down.” Turn to the black pudding hash recipe and the first word of the method is, ‘Blanch’. “That was a terrible word to use,” says May, genuinely disappointed in himself.
May grew up on Seventies fare: “A roast on Sunday. Quite a bit of fish. Egg and chips. Meat and two veg. The occasional Chinese takeaway – but that was a very rare treat. Macaroni cheese with sausages…” And he’s still partial to Spam, although rarely, and admits it is “a bit of a schtick” that’s become part of his brand. Hence why there’s a roast block of Spam recipe in Oh Cook!
“I do have a secret fondness that goes back to when we used to make Spam and beans when I was a teenager,” he remembers. “It used to be a camping food staple and we used to do camping a lot when I was a child, so it’s partly sentimentality, plus Spam is a funny word. And the block of Spam is funny. [And] the tins are beautiful.”
While there are more Grand Tour episodes ahead, May has – alongside his newfound telly cheffing career – just bought “half a pub”. He’s now the co-landlord The Royal Oak in Swallowcliffe (near his cottage), after its fate appeared to be in peril. “I thought, ‘I really like this pub’,” he explains, and so helped save it. “I don’t want to be in a village where there isn’t a pub within walking distance, that would make life utterly pointless.” And no, he won’t be found in chef whites out the back.
Oh Cook! 60 Easy Recipes That Any Idiot Can Make by James May is published by Pavilion. Photography by Martin Poole.
You may also be interested in…
Wise Living Magazine may receive a small commission to help support the running of this site from purchases made from links on this page, or some links may have been sponsored to be included in the article. Affiliate or sponsored links do not influence our editorial or articles published by Wise Living.