7 Questions with… James May: The Grand Tour star talks cooking for Amazon, Spam and reuniting with Clarkson and Hammond
Move over Gordon Ramsay! The Grand Tour presenter reveals why he’s taken a break from cars to become a celebrity chef for a new Amazon Prime Video series.
“I like the way you refer to me as TV cook. That’s very amusing.”
James May doesn’t appear to be taking his new presenting job on Amazon Prime Video entirely seriously.
The Grand Tour presenter’s latest TV series finds him dabbling in the world of food, serving up pies, puddings and Spam ramen (yes, really) as he fills a gap in the cookery programming world for “people who can’t do it”.
James May: Oh Cook! is a food series for people who want recipes that they can actually make with ingredients they probably already have in their cupboards.
The dishes probably won’t keep Gordon and Jamie up all night worrying about their new rival, but it’s a refreshing change to the cookery show format to watch May glugging down large glasses of wine and burning the food as he goes.
BT TV caught up with May to find out why he wanted to take on the challenge and also get an update on the latest Grand Tour specials…
1. What's harder, making a cookery show or a motoring show?
The kitchen is on the whole less hazardous I suppose. But I think people expect me to know what I’m talking about when I’m driving a car. I don’t think people expect me to be an authority on cooking.
In some ways the kitchen is quite high pressure, because it all happens in real time. You can’t uncook something. When you put the egg into poach, you can’t just decide to take it out and do it differently. You have to start the whole process again, which we didn’t want to do.
It’s quite fractious, which is how kitchens are, even when you’re not filming in them. I’m sure most domestic fights start in the kitchen or around the remote control.
2. What will Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver think about your efforts?
I don’t think they’ll be threatened by it. They’ll probably just think I’m an upstart. I’ve got mates who are teachers and they have been for 30 years. They get very annoyed when people like me say, "Oh, I’d like to try teaching one day". They’d say, "We’ve trained and have always wanted to be teachers, we’re professionals. Just because you’ve been on TV and want to talk about history doesn’t make you a teacher."
I wonder if professional chefs will have the same reaction. "James thinks just because he made cheesy pasta and a pie once in his life, he can have a TV show about it." And that’s fair enough as well.
But I think when you watch the show you realise I’m not pretending to be an expert chef and I’m not pretending I’m after Gordon Ramsay’s job, that’s an absurd idea. I’m simply having a go. I’m filling in the uncharted, unmentionable area of cooking programming, for people who can’t do it.
3. You cook a Spam ramen dish. Are you hoping to bring Spam back into fashion?
I have an uneasy relationship with Spam. I know many of my followers think I eat Spam all the time and that I’m obsessed with post-war food, which isn’t true. I don’t eat it that often if I’m honest. I find it quite hard to digest. But I also don’t believe the stick it gets.
It is a remarkable food in many ways. I ate a tinned ham we found in the frozen north back in the Top Gear days, which had been in this house since the 1970s. I opened the tin, fired up the pan and I ate it and it was absolutely fine. That either means it’s something very sinister or something very brilliant and I like to think it’s something brilliant.
Surprising James May facts
- He owns half a pub - The Royal Oak in Swallowcliffe.
- He holds a private pilot's license and wanted to be a fighter pilot.
- He was fired from Autocar for hiding a coded rude message in the magazine.
I think it’s best not to intellectualise Spam. It’s done best either straight out of the tin because your camping stove is broken, or turn it into fritters, or slice it up with Branston Pickle in a sandwich.Everything else is just being a bit of a d**k really.
Half the battle with Spam is making it look nice. A raw slice of Spam is not one of the most attractive foods ever created. It’s not the apple. It looks a bit birthy.
4. What did Jeremy and Richard think about the show and will there be a crossover with Jeremy’s farming series?
To be honest, I didn’t tell them. I didn’t tell anyone but a few close mates. I remember a few weeks ago Clarkson saying to me, "Are you doing this cooking show then?". I said, "No, I’ve already done it".
He was amazed that I’d sneaked off and done a cooking show without telling him. I don’t know why he thought I’d tell him in particular.
As far as I can work out on his show, he’s just growing potatoes. I’ve talked to him about it; well, I don’t get much choice, he goes on about it all the time. He’s basically Jethro Tull.
If it’s an eight-part show about growing potatoes, I’m going to struggle with it to be honest.
What spin-off do I think Hammond should do? He has got a popular science series coming out on Amazon. But the next thing Hammond should do… I’ll you what he should do, because he doesn’t like swimming and water. He should do a marine biology show.
But not in the Maldives or Bahamas, it should be somewhere like the Humber Estuary. Somewhere grey and cold. I’d watch that.
5. What was your biggest cooking disaster in the series?
I made a hash that goes in the bin. I felt we should show that because there was no getting away from it. It was terrible.
I like honesty in TV and if something goes wrong, we should say it went wrong and explain why. But everything else was edible – some it was actually quite nice. There weren’t any fires. There weren’t any significant injuries. Me and (home economist and co-star) Nikki didn’t fall out, we got on fabulously. It was me and Nikki against the TV crew. As much as I love the crew, they are intrusive and they get in the way when you’re trying to do something.
I am actually trying to cook on the show, I’m not faking it or presenting it, I’m doing it. So you don’t want someone sticking their massive camera lens in your saucepan. I can see why chefs get temperamental. I now sympathise.
6. Are you sick of people asking when The Grand Tour Madagascar special will be out?
I understand the delay. TV is a precious commodity at the moment. It’s a special and we don’t want to throw it away. It is difficult to answer people who know we’ve made it, who know it’s ready and just want us to put it on Amazon. I don’t know what to say other than watch my cooking show in the meantime. It is coming and it is, I think, pretty good.
7. You've been filming another Grand Tour special in Scotland. Was it nice to work together after lockdown?
It was nice to get back to doing what we do. And it was nice to see the crew again. I had seen Clarkson and Hammond for some very distant meetings, from the opposite sides of the garden, but I hadn’t seen the crew for a long while. Many, many months. The best part of a year in fact. And doing it in a bubble, we turned out to be quite good at it.
We did it in area of Scotland with not many people. We didn’t interact with the locals really. There were complicated systems set up for cleaning everything and it was a bit tiresome going through lots of procedures and being tested every day, but it didn’t get in the way of filming to be honest.
We filmed in the normal way we always do. It’s the peripheral stuff that’s a bit tiring. We couldn’t go to the pub, but there was no pub anyway.
James May: Oh Cook! launches on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, November 13.
The book Oh Cook! 60 Easy Recipes that Any Idiot Can Make is out now.
The Grand Tour returns later this year for a Madagascar special.