Recipe for success: the secrets of Saturday Kitchen Live
Do the wine experts really taste the dishes? How did Top Gear influence the Omelette Challenge? And what makes James Martin such a great host? As the Saturday-morning staple celebrates its 400th episode, Paul Jones reveals all...
Saturday Kitchen first aired in 2002 on BBC2, fronted by a then unknown presenter, Gregg Wallace. In 2003, it moved to BBC1 and celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson took over. But it was the re-launch in 2006 that gave us the show that has since become a fixture of the Saturday morning schedules – not to mention many viewers’ weekends.
Given a tight five-week time limit in which to produce a winning pitch for the live show, Amanda and Simon Ross of production company Cactus TV came up with the key elements that turned a few hundred thousand viewers into three million and made host James Martin a household name.
As the show celebrates its 400th consecutive episode (without a break, even on Christmas Day!), we examine the recipe for success that has made Saturday Kitchen Live the longest-running Saturday morning show in UK TV history – and Amanda reveals the behind-the-scenes secrets you’ve always wanted to know…
North Yorkshire’s finest James Martin has been the face of Saturday Kitchen for 400 episodes and counting, endearing himself to viewers with his down-to-earth presenting style and easy rapport with guests. But Amanda says it takes a lot of skill to make live TV look so easy.
“He learns the recipes in rehearsal very quickly, he’s very dexterous, he’s very good with his hands. People who’ve played golf with him say that he’s annoyingly good at sport even though he doesn’t practice so he’s physically a very capable person.”
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“He works very well with the team and he’s able to take instruction in his earpiece really well – and that’s a really big skill. He can listen to what we’re telling him and do the cooking at the same time and he’s got no ego about relying on the team, which is what makes the best presenters.
“The bottom line is he’s a really good chef – we couldn’t have somebody who couldn’t really cook, who was just a presenter.”
The guest chefs
“When we took over Saturday Kitchen we banned TV chefs from the show,” says Amanda. “We made it a self-imposed rule that everyone who came on had to have a restaurant because we wanted to make it a window on the restaurant world.”
From the best of British talent like Jason Atherton to culinary legends such as Michel Roux Sr, who has appeared on the show 12 times, Saturday Kitchen shows its viewers the best chefs in the world, cooking right in front of them week in week out. But how does such a relaxed and informal magazine-show style programme manage to attract such heavyweight chefs?
“Over the 400 shows we’ve had the world’s best chefs – Elena Arzak, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Rene Redzepi, Massimo Bottura – who wouldn’t come on any other show like this and it’s because the whole team understand and respect the best class of food,” says Amanda.
Meanwhile, James Martin has to be ready to pitch in in any way necessary to help chefs for whom live TV can be a new experience.
“Chefs like Michelle Roux Sr are gifted broadcasters but a lot of the chefs who come on, especially the international chefs, are doing their first television," says Amanda. "They run one of the top 50 restaurants in the world but they haven’t had that sort of experience and a lot of them can’t cook and talk at the same time so James has to effectively become their soux chef. You’ll notice that often when they start to talk, rather than interrupt them, James just gets on with cooking and keeps it to time.”
- Just like securing a much sought-after table at one of their restaurants, if you want the world’s best and busiest chefs to come on your show, you have to give them plenty of notice – some chefs are booked for Saturday Kitchen up to a year in advance
- 174 different chefs have so far been guests on the show
- Michelin-starred Atul Kochhar and self-styled “Greedy Italian” Gennaro Contaldo have made the most appearances – 23 each – but Gennaro will get his nose in front when he guest for the 24th time on the 400th show
“Genarro is very popular," says Amanda. "You never know quite what’s going to happen when he steps on set – some of our funniest moments have involved him. We use him as an example of how not to fillet a fish…”
The wine experts
Wine matching is one of the best ways to enhance a meal – and it doesn’t do any harm when it comes to getting celebrity guests into the swing of live TV either.
“It’s hilarious the amount of celebrities who arrive and say ‘Oh, it’s going to be a bit early for me’ and yet they’re soon happily drinking away,” says Amanda.
Viewers are paying close attention to what’s being poured and what the chefs and guests have to say about it and (as many of us know from bitter experience), a wine that makes a splash on Saturday Kitchen is pretty much guaranteed to sell out, with viewers phoning up their local supermarkets to reserve it or buying online during the show.
Sending the wine experts to locations across Britain provides a nice bit of local colour – “a window on the world,” as Amanda puts it – but there are also plenty of practical considerations when it comes to choosing the vintage and the venue.
“People always ask ‘Why do you go all over the country and then go into supermarkets to get your wine?’” says Amanda. “But the wine has to be widely available. It has to be wine that people can get absolutely everywhere. So if we went to a little independent wine shop and got something from a vineyard that only produced a couple of hundred bottles then it wouldn’t be inclusive.”
Price is also an issue, with Saturday Kitchen known for pointing out some of the best wine bargains, although inflation has had an impact.
“We give ourselves a price limit,” says Amanda. “When we started it used to be £4 now it’s £10 – we try to stick under the £10 mark which is another reason that supermarkets are our best source.”
So how do the show’s experts go about matching the wine to the dish? Do they actually get to taste it?
“The wine experts are sent the recipes and they all cook the dish, which is very important,” reveals Amanda. “They then come up with a shortlist of the wines they think would work, and based on that we decide roughly the town or area we want to go to. If they choose a wine that’s only available in a certain supermarket chain we have to make sure it’s a town that has that supermarket.”
- Wine experts Susie Barrie and Peter Richards are two of around only 300 highly respected Masters of Wine – and one of only six married couples who have both made the grade
- Susie is the show’s most successful matcher – “her choices are always spot on,” says Amanda
The Omelette Challenge
This egg-cellent addition to the Saturday Kitchen format has been a smash hit with viewers who tune in for James Martin’s often eggs-tremely tenuous puns as well as to watch Michelin-starred chefs sweating it out against the clock and each other to make what should be one of the simplest dishes possible – a three-egg omelette.
The Omelette Challenge leaderboard, on which the chefs change places as they post faster times, is reminiscent of devices on other popular shows and Amanda reveals that in a roundabout way a certain Mr Clarkson and co provided the inspiration for the segment.
“We were unashamedly trying to think of a Top Gear-type game that would resonate. And we knew that with chefs omelettes are really important – some chefs, particularly the Roux family, ask potential employees to cook eggs – so we thought an omelette would be a really good test.”
The challenge also serves as a handy “buffer” that allows the production team a precious few minutes leeway if things aren’t running exactly to time.
The number of questions James and the guest chefs take from viewers in the live phone-in or via Twitter depends on how long the omelette challenge has taken. But even then, there are limits: “If someone decides to spend a minute-and-a-half to cook an omelette [see below] we’re tearing our hair out,” says Amanda.
- In 400 shows the challenge has used 2,400 eggs
- The fastest omelette ever was made in 17.52 seconds by Paul Rankin; the slowest was by Yotam Ottolenghi in 1 minute 15.36 seconds.
- Genarro Contaldo is the chef who has spent the longest – six months – at the top of the omelette challenge leaderboard
- To mark the 400th episode Genarro and Paul Rankin will go head to head for an Omelette Challenge trophy
Despite what viewers might like to believe, James Martin does not come up with the trademark egg puns himself. They began with executive editor James Winter and coming up with the best (or worst) ones has now become a weekly office challenge. “James Martin pretends to hate it,” says Amanda, “but I think he secretly enjoys it.”
Food Heaven and Hell
Before celebrities guests can appear on the show, they must first share their so-called Food Heaven and Hell – a favourite ingredient they’d love to have cooked for them and the one they usually avoid at all costs. The chefs and viewers who phone in then cast their votes on which of two dishes they’d like James to cook and – Heaven or Hell – the celeb has to try it.
“We plan out both dishes so we really could cook Heaven or Hell,” confirms Amanda.
“What we always find amusing is that the celebrities don’t lie about Hell. People always say ‘why don’t you just choose something you vaguely don’t like?’ but they really are honest. It’s because we have very good, disarming researchers to talk it out of them. And then they get to the studio and they go ‘Why didn’t I think about lying?’”
Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal
Just like creating a stunning dish, getting live TV right is all about preparation, so rehearsals are vital.
“You can only look spontaneous when you know exactly what’s going to happen and you can only layer on the entertainment when you know what you’re actually meant to be doing,” says Amanda. “It’s like a dance – you can only make a dance really entertaining when you know the steps.”
Initial run-throughs take place on the Friday before the show, with a full rehearsal involving James Martin and the 50-strong team on Saturday morning from 6am. As well as giving the host a chance to practice every recipe it allows those behind the scenes to prepare every minute detail of the show.
“During rehearsal our script associate has written down every single stage of the recipe, of what needs to happen,” says Amanda. “She’s in the gallery throughout the live show saying ‘Picks up a lemon. Next…’ We’re talking to James all the time [through an earpiece] so he knows what’s going on and also so the cameramen can cover it.
“Then you can be entertaining because you know what’s going on – the comedy can come on top of that.”