James May’s first cookbook is not your average cookbook. The photos show every stain and spillage, and the dishes all look slightly messy.
The TV show it accompanies is different too, with the disasters as well as the triumphs making it to the screen. And that’s be-cause James can’t actually cook.
‘I shouldn’t be writing a cookery book or fronting a cookery show,’ he admits. ‘My relationship with foodie-ism is a bit like the Archbishop of Canterbury’s with Satan; that is, I renounce it.’
We’re far more used to seeing James behind the wheel of a fast car on Top Gear and The Grand Tour, so why the change of tack?
James May (pictured) stars in a brand new cooking show called ‘Oh Cook!’ in which he shows every mistake and disaster as he learns to improve his cooking
‘Many of the car shows I’ve presented have been criticised because we drive around in Ferraris while most of us drive mid-sized hatchbacks,’ explains James. ‘And likewise, millions enjoy Gordon Ramsay’s swearing and Nigella Lawson’s heaving bosom, but most of us eat supermarket ready meals.’
And thus was born Oh Cook!, which sets out to prove that even the most reluctant of us can rustle up a meal. The idea was that James would learn to cook on screen and put the successful bits into his book.
The result is a hilariously heartwarming show that strips back the TV trickery and shows James getting to grips with the basics, winning some culinary battles but losing almost as many.
‘I learnt to cook all 60 recipes in the book, though I did have the help of our home economist Nicky, who was vital,’ he says. ‘She was this guiding hand, and without her it would have been a farce. But we do show things as they really turned out.
‘So when the black pudding hash was a disaster it went into the bin, and it was good to show this because it happened, and it’ll happen to you if you’re a beginner. The biggest surprise was my Victoria sponge, which actually tasted like a Marks & Spencer one.
In the cook book that accompanies his show, May incudes recipes for classic dishes such as jam roly poly (pictured) and spotted dick
‘All the food on the show is genuine, and it’s the same with the book. I gave the photographer the recipes and he made everything I’d made. I said, “You can’t do it in a professional way because it won’t look like when I did it.” And he’s got it right because his stir-fried chilli beef, for example, looks a bit untidy – just like mine.’
Like the show, the book unravels the mysteries of cooking for beginners, revealing the secrets behind the perfect poached egg, smooth custard and a cracking Sunday roast. There are some nostalgic favourites too, with chapters such as Pub Grub and Spongey Things, which features jam roly poly and spotted dick.
Meanwhile Storecupboard Saviours includes recipes for his beloved Spam. ‘Many recipe books assume a great deal of experience and knowledge of basic techniques, whereas here we’re talking about simple things. Roast potatoes is a recipe in itself in my book,’ says James.
Has his budding cookery career surprised his Grand Tour colleagues Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond?
‘Jeremy read about it and said, “Have you got anywhere with your cooking show?” I said, “Oh yes, we finished that in March,” and I could see him worrying, thinking, “James is branching out, he’s getting ahead, he’s got a whole cooking show.” Not that cooking would interest him. He doesn’t like anything like that.’
So will James be cooking for Jeremy, who famously punched a Top Gear producer when there was no steak available for him after a day’s filming?
‘Everybody says to me at some point, “Are you going to make Jeremy a steak?” No, I’m never cooking for Jeremy – he might throw a punch at me. But then I’d kill him, obviously, because I’m not one to take that sort of thing,’ laughs James. ‘As a temperamental chef I won’t take any abuse from my customers.’
James May: Oh Cook! is on Amazon Prime from Friday. The book Oh Cook! 60 Easy Recipes That Any Idiot Can Make is out now.