James Close, chef patron, The Raby Hunt

The  Staff Canteen

Until the 2016 Michelin Guide was released, The Raby Hunt in Darlington was the only restaurant with a star in the North East of England now thanks to the Michelin Guide 2017 it is the only one with two stars!

An achievement in itself but even more so when you consider chef owner James Close had only been a chef for three years when it was awarded! He decided to have a career change from professional golfer to chef and he is completely self-taught.

The Staff Canteen spoke to James about getting that first star, how hard it is to compete in the industry as a self-taught chef and why he prefers modern techniques to the classics.

What made you decide to give up golf and become a chef?

razor clam by James Close, Raby Hunt
razor clam by James Close, Raby Hunt

I got to the stage in my golf career where I wasn’t going to make it to the top level. When I wanted to be a golfer I wanted to be the best, I wanted to get on the European tour, make loads of money – then realising I could probably be a professional but not at that level, I suppose I fell out of love with it.

I fell back onto something else I was interested in which was food. I got a job in a little restaurant seven years ago, I worked there for six months and then my mum and dad, who had always been in the food industry, decided to buy me The Raby Hunt. When we started all I wanted to do was bistro style food, then we slowly started to turn it into what it is now.

You don’t serve bistro food now, how did you discover your style?

After about two years I really got into fine dining, I started going to some of the best restaurants in the world Mugaritz, El Celler de Can Roca, Fat Duck – I realised I needed to work out my own style of food. I started with refinement and after about eight months of serving more refined dishes we got a Michelin star in the 2013 guide and it was out of the blue.

Do customers understand your concept or is that difficult?

It’s a weird area to have a Michelin star, we are close to Darlington and there has never been anywhere round here which does what we do. After the star a lot of local diners stopped coming, they wanted to eat the food we were doing before but Michelin obviously encourages people to come from all over the country. We now have great local clientele too but having the star means we don’t have to rely on them, there are always other diners travelling to us.

Rising Stars -                                                                    1) Timberyard, Edingburgh - The family - good style, great place even better food    2) Sam Nutter - Bror, Copenhagen - Great guy, met him on a trip to Noma, love his ethos on food and its nice to see a guy from the north east making waves in the industry.                                                                             3) Inver restaurant - again another chef not sticking to the norm, not feeding the masses and following her own ideas.               4) Micheal O'Hare - Man behind the curtain, Leeds - have had the pleasure of knowing Micheal for a while now - its been an interesting time too. Mind blowing food and another chef not pleasing the masses. 5) Tommy Banks - The Black Swan, Oldstead - great guy, loads of passion and like myself has achieved plaudits the hard way, learning from scratch in his own kitchen - hes going places.                                                                                                                             Guilty Pleasures - Basically anything that is wrapped in a greaseproof paper! Meat Liqour Blue Cheese Buffalo Hot Wings - I recon I could eat 200 of these in one sitting.                                                                                                                                                                         Favorite cookbook - Honestly I have 1000's - being self taught - that's how I learn, I must buy a book every week. I would say Manresa & Pure - DeLibje                                                                                                                Top 5 Restaurants                                                   1) Hedone - London - Love the food and Mikeal is a genius                                                       2) De Librje (see above)                                             3) In Du Wulf                                                                   4) Duck and Waffle - open 24 hours! they must be bonkers!                                                           5) De Jonkman Bruge

 Are you glad you made the decision to swap careers?

No, not really! What would you rather do? Be in a kitchen or making millions on a golf course! The golf was a very relaxed life style although it was competitive, what we do here you can’t go out drinking all the time, you have to stop smoking because you need a good pallet – your life revolves around the kitchen.

You are completely self-taught, when you decided you wanted to move into more refined cooking how did you go about that without any training?

Everybody who eats here asks me the same question! I really researched all techniques, if I wanted to do a sauce I would go on the internet and find out how to do it but you also obviously have to have a pallet. So I learned a few techniques then worked out the best way to do them to get the best flavour – so then you are going on your own.

Lidisfarne Oyster by James Close, Raby Hunt
Lidisfarne Oyster by James Close, Raby Hunt

I don’t really know how I did it, I just worked it out and then worked at it every day so I got better and better. I was just really creative, I came up with ideas on my days off and I would sit and read. I’d wake up at 2am with an idea and I’d be having a go at it the next morning!

Has it been a massive learning curve?

Three years ago I really had the bug, I was cooking every day and really concentrating on everything with the hope of getting a Michelin star. Then you get the star and you get busier which effects how creative you can be as you always have a full restaurant. We do 28 covers but when we got the star we only had two chefs – so I went from cooking and learning to just doing service.

That’s why you changed the restaurant and created ‘The Development Menu’ for the last Sunday of every month?

I really want to get the chefs involved in creativity. I want to push us forward and try to become better chefs. We want the dishes to be 100 percent new for the Development Menu and we already know that some of the things we create will probably be rubbish but that’s the whole idea! It’s breaking the mould to say we are going to be open nights only, it’s to help our chefs but also to allow us to enjoy our job and ultimately give customers a better experience. Doing this job is very stressful, doing every lunch and every dinner it’s a lot of pressure and chefs get worn out. This allows them more time and we get better dishes because they have the time – if they enjoy their job more it benefits the customers.

You’ve mentioned restaurants you like to eat at but are there any chefs who you take inspiration from?

Yes, Mikael Johnsson at Hedone. He’s a chef in the UK who inspires me and there aren’t many here because everyone seems to go down the same route. It’s all very classical, there are a lot of pubs kicking about but that style of food doesn’t really suit what I do. That’s why I go and eat in places where the chefs are self-taught and see their style and uniqueness. Someone like Jonnie Boer at De Librije – I went and worked there for a few weeks last year.

James Close, Raby Hunt
James Close, Raby Hunt

What’s it like going and working in someone else’s kitchen?

I didn’t tell anyone I had a Michelin star, when I set up the stage I said where I worked but he didn’t look to see who I was – when I got there I just said I was a chef de partie! It meant I could ask any questions I wanted and they wouldn’t look at me and wonder why I was asking if I had a Michelin star. It was really interesting just to see really modern techniques.

You’re not into classic cooking then?

I don’t really go down the lines of the classics, obviously you need to know a certain amount of classic technique but I’m more into modern dishes so, I like to use things like liquid nitrogen not just for show but for actually cooking. We’ll use it to do our Granitas or to make a scallop crumb. Obviously I haven’t been taught classical and to learn that would take five, six, seven years which is why I use modern equipment and I don’t do classic stuff.

So what is your style?

You can’t really describe it or put it in a bracket, because I’m self-taught all my dishes are me. The dishes are more like signature dishes so instead of having a menu which changes every day, we have a data base of 12 to 16 dishes we’ve done and we change them depending on the season. Every dish we come up with has to go through refinement, before it gets on the menu it has to be the best it can taste and presented the best it can be. We don’t ever do anything which goes on the menu straight away. If I came up with a dish it would still go through about two months of refinement to get it to its maximum.

You’re a perfectionist then?

Raw Beef by James Close, Raby Hunt
Raw Beef by James Close, Raby Hunt

Yes!

Do you have a dish which you are particularly proud of?

There are probably three or four I could choose but I’d probably say the razor clam. It’s been on the menu since just before we got the star – I know I said I don’t come up with the dishes the night before and put them on the menu but with that one I did!

I had just come back from Noma and I was thinking about the way they took razor clams and froze them. When they defrost they become very tender and it used a technique which I like. Although it’s not a modern technique as people used to do it with squid and things like that, but seeing it done at Noma was really interesting.

You said the Michelin star was unexpected, so what was it like when you achieved it?

It was a really weird day. I’d obviously taken an interest in Michelin restaurants and I started to learn what Michelin probably look for, in some ways although I never admitted it I probably always wanted to get one but I never expected it to come as early as it did. The year we got it Michelin was leaked online so I got told by a food blogger via email – I thought it was a wind up! It went crazy when we got it because I was a chef, who had only been a chef for three years and I hadn’t had any training.

Have you found it difficult to maintain the Michelin star?

It’s all down to them (Michelin), you can spend your whole life trying to figure out what they are looking for so the best thing to do is just concentrate on what you are doing.

Artichoke Skin by James Close, Raby Hunt
Artichoke Skin by James Close, Raby Hunt

All we do is try and get better and better every day. Looking back the food we do now is probably three times as good as when we got the star, obviously that’s only in my eyes. But if you stay ahead and keep getting better you shouldn’t have to worry about losing your star.

Kenny Atkinson joined you on the list of Michelin-starred North East restaurants this year, is it good that northern chefs are being recognised?

For a few years I was the only one in the North East, hopefully that helped to bring the standard up. Doing what we did I think surprised even the big name chefs - the food in the North East used to be awful. Now you can go out to eat and the food is really good. You’ve got Richard Allen at Rockcliffe Hall and obviously Kenny at House of Tides, there are definitely a few who will be looking for stars next year. This year’s guide was a really good guide.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd December 2015

James Close, chef patron, The Raby Hunt