Lancashire chef Oli Martin talks Michelin stars, BBC MasterChef, ‘magic’ ingredients, and his new Preston restaurant
Oli Martin got his first restaurant job by accident.
“My mate applied for a part-time role at Chicory in Lytham when we were about 14 and I went along, so they asked me if I was applying too,” says the man who has gone on to enjoy an almost-two decade career in the industry. “I said yes and ended up getting the job over him. He never forgave me for that!”
The owner of an impressive CV, Oli has packed a lot into his 33 years. He’s worked a summer season in France as an 18-year-old and fell in love with the ‘buzz’ of the catering industry in Australia. He’s cooked at the nationally-renowned Michelin-star Northcote and discovered a passion for food heritage in Asia.
He’s appeared on the BBC’s MasterChef: The Professionals not once but twice and recently launched his own catering company as well as taking the reins at one of Preston’s most exciting new restaurants. But the original pilot flame of passion was ignited in that kitchen in Lytham all those years ago.
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“From the start, I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the kitchen,” Oli says, who was offered an apprenticeship at Chicory after leaving school. “It was just so different and I fell in love with it - I’m hands-on and all-guns-blazing, so the fast-paced nature of a professional kitchen suited me as someone with quite a short attention span!
“And I’ve always been creative, so I relished that each day was so different,” he adds. “I love that you can create a whole new dish just by reworking a single ingredient. From the start, I had that drive to improve and find an identity, which you really need because it’s manic, hectic, tough, and long hours.”
Showcasing an innate talent in the kitchen, the owner of Chicory, Steven Shepherd, soon organised for Oli to spend a summer working at a restaurant in France, an experience which he says ‘opened up a whole new world’. Oli struck a chord on the continent and was encouraged by his head chef in France to get experience in a Michelin-star kitchen.
Which is how he ended up at Northcote.
“Northcote really opened my eyes: I was this young, cocky, naive chef always trying to show off, but they put me in my place,” says Oli, who spent a year at the famed establishment. “Seeing younger and better chefs than me was a real learning curve and I gained an appreciation of fine dining.
“After that, I went over to Gilpin Lodge in the Lake District for three-and-a-half years, which is a great restaurant - it has four Rosettes and a Michelin star now,” he adds. “I’d always wanted to work in the Lakes and the head chef really took me under his wing, which gave me a chance to improve my skills in all areas of the kitchen.”
In his mid-20s by now, Oli wanted a change-of-pace. He headed to Asia and Australia, spending much of his time working in catering despite having initially taken the work simply to get his foot in the door. “I’d previously thought only fine dining was for me,” he says. “But it was a constant buzz.”
“One day we’d be loading the kitchen onto a boat and sailing to an island for a wedding, then we’d be in a penthouse overlooking the harbour or in the outback heading for some massive mansion,” he continues. “I also gained a better appreciation of the heritage of food and recipes passed down from generation to generation.
“I realised we’d lost that in the UK, so I started looking into the history of British food and rediscovering ingredients, which is where my love of foraging came from.”
Back in the UK and armed with a more concrete culinary ethos, Oli landed the position as head chef at the four-AA Rosette Hipping Hall restaurant in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and, during his eight-year tenure, turned the establishment into one of the finest eateries in Britain. He also made his TV debut, too.
Encouraged to apply for MasterChef by Hipping Hall’s owner, Oli soon found himself on a train to London. “It was a fantastic experience,” he says, despite the fact that filming took place at the peak of summer while his partner was seven months’ pregnant. “It was next-level pressure but, suddenly, Hipping Hall was constantly full, which was incredible.”
Then the pandemic hit.
“Initially, the break from work was nice and we had such good weather, but then it got to May and I just thought ‘‘what are we going to do?’,” says Oli. “It was a tough time which hit our industry particularly hard and, during the second lockdown, I decided it was time to move on and do my own thing.
“I wanted more time at home,” adds Oli, who founded his own catering company, Foray Catering, last year. “I’ve got a three-year-old daughter and I’d been setting off at 7am and coming home at 1am so, as she got older, I felt I was missing out.”
In late summer last year, another opportunity arose, too. Oli was approached by restaurant entrepreneur Mark O’Rourke, the owner of two Fino Tapas restaurants in Preston and Lytham, to head-up a new restaurant called 263 in Preston. Intrigued, Oli met with Mark and found they had very similar outlooks and visions for the prospective restaurant.
“I still took some convincing, but I went to see the 263 site before making my decision and thought it had bags of potential,” says Oli. “The catering company was just around the corner too, so it was fate. I went for it and I’m really enjoying it - don’t get me wrong, they’re both big challenges, but I’m lucky to be surrounded by such good chefs who I know I can trust.
“Chefs like working under pressure anyway!” says Oli with a laugh. “I’ve found a balance.”
In his role as executive chef at 263, located in Preston’s five-star Winckley Square Hotel and skippered by head chef Rikki Hughes, who previously worked at Tom Kerridge’s two-Michelin Star restaurant The Hand and Flowers, Oli has been able to step away from the stove and focus more on dishes, style, and his love for Lancastrian culinary heritage.
“It’s been great to be able to put my own stamp on these new projects,” says Oli, who also helped redesign the 32-cover restaurant, which now boasts new décor, tables, seating, bar, and artwork. “I’ve really established my own food ethos by embracing seasonality and locality and I feel that’s given us a real edge.
“There’s magic in working with seasonal ingredients because it forces you to be creative and everything tastes better for it,” he adds. “There’s nothing else like us in Preston: we’re not trying to be pretentious with ‘this cod was hand-caught by Mark off the North East coast…’ We just want to serve good food in an informal setting where people can have fun.”
Experience under his belt and a new challenge on his chopping board, I ask Oli what he wants his food to be known for. “For being good!” he replies, a smile breaking out across his face.
It really is that simple.