Master Class With James Martin

Before I can tell you why I was so disappointed and let down by my experience at the Master Class With James Martin I am going to go back to 2008 and tell you about my experiences to date.

In 2008 the Good Food and Wine Show offered a hands on workshop with Anthony Worrall Thompson which I participated in. If my memory serves me correctly, the cost of the ticket was R350. (It may have been R380 but the R30 makes no difference to my memory). The R350 included entry to the show as well as entry to all Chefs In Action Theatre shows I wished to attend on that day. The hands on workshop was behind a glass screening wall which meant that the general public could watch, but not hear or participate in the workshop. Anthony was placed at a workbench in front of us, and we could clearly see what he was doing as there were cameras focussed on him at all times. Furthermore, as the general noise from the show could not be heard, we could clearly hear what he had to say. We made a three course meal and got to take it home with us.

Unfortunately, Anthony was not at his best that day, he was hungover, had not slept enough and cut the workshop short as he had a flight to catch, and I complained. The organizer offered me a free workshop for the following year which I took up. In 2009 I attended the hands on workshop with Brian Turner and I believe that the tickets were the same price. Once again, the ticket included entrance to the show as well as the Chefs in Action Theatre shows for the day. The class was again behind a glass screen – with Brian in front of us. We could hear every word and he was fantastic. We cooked a three course menu and took our food home with us. Brian was so good that I decided not to miss another opportunity to do a hands on workshop. Unfortunately I could not attend the one with Gordon Ramsay last year as I was in Johannesburg.

I have been a proud owner of James Martin’s recipe book The Collection for a number of years now and so when I saw that he would be at this year’s show, giving a master class I sent an e-mail to Kate to make an enquiry. The e-mail correspondence took quite some time but eventually Kate replied and I booked on the 1st of April. I did not hear back from Kate but realized my booking had been accepted when I got an SMS notification from Nedbank that my credit card had been debited.  It was only after I had made the booking that I asked whether the R1500 included an entrance ticket? It did not. So, over and above the R1500 I would have to pay to get into the show. I could attend the Chefs In Action Theatre shows on the day – and pay for them if I wanted to see them. The cost of the ticket to see James Martin in the Chefs in Action Theatre was R150 or R300 for a VIP experience.

I arrived at the show well in time to spend some money and then made my way 15 minutes early to the area where the BBC Lifestyle Hands On Workshops were taking place. The area was open to the public and when I got there over 100 people were sitting on the chairs and the floor waiting to see James in action – this was a cooking demonstration they got to watch and listen to free of charge! There was no clear indication of where the 12 people who had paid R1500 were to go and so I fought my way onto the stage and then to the area that looked like people were waiting. The ‘head chef’ from Capsicum Culinary Studio who was in charge of getting the people onto the stage was most rude. There were no official tickets for the James Martin Master Class as the organizers had not printed them. He had to check our names off a list and he was not at all pleasant about it.

james martin and the audience watching him

James’ workbench faced the audience and we were placed on the sides of the area – with no clear view of James at all. I was shown to a workbench and then rudely asked to move! The attitude of the ‘head chef’ was so bad that I would not move. I could not see James from where I was standing and moving further back would only make it worse. In fact, the lady who was at the bench where they wanted me to be had most of her ingredients missing and fell way behind.

james martin doing sugar work

This was advertised as a master class – but it was nothing more than a cooking demonstration with a few people following along. The audience were noisy and commenting the entire time. James was cooking for them and there were no cameras focussed on what he was doing so that we could see what to do. The ambient noise intruded so badly, and the microphone system James was using was so poor that we could not hear him give instructions. The sous chefs had no clue as to what was going on.  The ingredients were not all there, they were not clearly marked and as the sous chefs did not know what to do in the recipes, errors were made using their instructions! There were not enough bowls, pans, whisks, spoons etc and each time we realized we did not have what we needed off a sous chef ran to the back to get it. It was a shambles.

We started with the batter – and not being able to hear James I put all my flour in the bowl – I was told off like a school girl by James! As an accomplished and published chef, this has never happened to me before. I managed to make a great batter, even though I poured all my tonic water into it at once. Thankfully I did this, as the lady behind me had no batter and I gave her the rest of mine to use.

After the batter we made the sponge – and mine was no problem. My workbench partner, Heleen, did not have the same experience. She did not fold in her flour, as she could not hear what James was saying, and so knocked back all the air. We had to mix our batters together into the sponge tin and then that was placed in the oven. The oven for the lady behind us had not been turned on, and so our oven door was opened  for her tin to go in. I asked the sous chef to set the timer but he was not interested. I then had to closely watch the sponge which meant I was not really paying attention to anything else. James showed the audience how to flip the sponge out of the tin, but our sous chef decided he knew better. Heleen had dusted kitchen towel with icing sugar instead of using parchment paper. The sous chef then took the sponge out of the tin instead of flipping it. He was not going to listen to me! This resulted in the sponge breaking and our swiss roll failing!

Our sous chef also decided that instead of each of us making a ganache he would make one – which was not too bad, but it did not come off the heat soon enough. He told Heleen to do the same thing with the white chocolate – which was the wrong instruction. White chocolate mousse is not made by melting cream and white chocolate together! We then had to get more ingredients to make the mousse but as our white chocolate had not been melted in time and then allowed to cool, we had to be extra careful to make sure the mousse did not split. Our assembly of the swiss roll was not going to work from the start as there was a huge crack down the middle and Heleen would not cut it in half. The still warm ganache was placed on the sponge – which soaked it up. Then the mousse, and the strawberries and then disaster stuck. The whole thing fell apart as soon as Heleen attempted to roll it. Heleen had to parade this disaster to the audience!

It was then time to make the mayonnaise – now, I know how to do this and it was simple and easy. So was making the tartar sauce to go with the fish. The fish needed to be floured – and so I floured and battered mine and got it into the oil – no utensils were provided and I had to wait for a slotted spoon. The batter was awesome – the fish however was not!

And, after a two course meal James did some sugar work – which the non paying audience got to see, but I did not. I was most disappointed by this, as I had asked him on Friday night to please include this in the master class!

We could not take our food home with us and I left there feeling so let down and flat. I could have paid R300 for the VIP show and had a far better experience, watching James cook without an audience of talking people, without the public announcements and without feeling like an inadequate home cook which I am not.

Frankly, I would say that the organization was diabolical and I feel that I should be refunded for what was a very bad experience. This was not a master class, it was not a R1500 personal experience and it was totally wrong that our extremely expensive experience was marred by poor organization and lack of knowledge by the sous chefs as to what was cooking. I spent 5 minutes watching Atul Kochhar on the Friday night and no wonder he was so openly frustrated – it could not have been easy trying to get 12 people to follow your instructions if they could not hear you or see what you were doing.

atul kochhar

I have no idea what James thought of the whole experience but I personally found it to be a shame that such an amazing chef thought he was giving a cooking class. I also wonder how the people who paid to see him in the chefs in action theatre would feel knowing that their VIP experience could be had for nothing as they could have watched our master class and come onto the stage afterwards to have their photograph taken and a book signed! This master class was not even worth the R300 VIP experience.

james martin

Disclosure: in no way do I feel that James Martin, or the BBC is responsible for the shambles of the hands on workshop – he is a great person who did his best under extremely trying conditions. The situation was out of his control and it was completely due to the way in which it was organized.

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