When a Michelin star arrives at your restaurant it brings customers of a different kind.
Yes, your loyal diners return full of smug satisfaction that they were there first but suddenly there’s the presence too of food bloggers with their cameras, critics with their notebooks – and the chefs.
“Nine chefs were in one night last week”, James Close tells us. Among them has been recent visitor Kenny Atkinson who you could almost call a neighbour down the road at Rockliffe Hall,
They’re all making their way to The Raby Hunt in the tiny hamlet of Summerhouse on the outskirts of Darlington to see what all the fuss is about from this kitchen. One which is certainly causing a stir in the region’s food world with James, the new wonder kid of North east food, having just bagged the only sought-after Michelin star between Edinburgh and Thirsk.
He’s still a bit shell-shocked about it all and not quite in the zone when it comes to having to sign menus and do a little walkabout at the end of service. The spotlight is not really his thing. Yet.
But it is something he’s having to get used to. He’s already had some great moments – champagne from Terry Laybourne when he dined Cafe 21 recently.
And almost a guard of honour at Noma, Copenhagen, officially the best restaurant in the world. How did he manage that one?
“It was a bit surreal – I know one of the chefs there who is a guy from County Durham. We were booked in and I tweeted that I was really looking forward to my meal. When I arrived the team was lined up to greet me – there was Rene Redzepi, the most famous chef in the world waiting to shake my hand. Fiona Bruce was sat in the restaurant with the guy from her antiques show as well. Bizarre but a very special moment – the place is incredible. The chefs come and bring your food to your table and you really feel that the customer is the most important thing. “
What’s remarkable about 32-year-old James is the fact that he has only been cooking seriously for the three years since he set up The Raby Hunt with his parents Russell and Helene.
In his younger days he worked as a golf pro at Thirsk and Northallerton. He was passionate about the sport and good at it, “but not good enough to get on the European Tour”, he says.
When he turned his attention to food – after doing a bit of labouring and even working in the menswear department at House of Fraser – the passion and ability clicked.
“In golf I wanted to be the best and be seen to be the best. Cooking is the same – I want to keep doing it and as far as I’m concerned there is so much further to go.”
He spent a short time ‘chopping carrots’ in a nearby hotel restaurant and in the kitchens of The Bridge near Barnard Castle. He’s also done one college catering course.
We’ve created somewhere with a bit of a wow factor without really shouting about it. Now we’re going to make the most of it.
But the real learning was at the tables of the best restaurants in the world when he embarked on what you might call a three-year food odyssey travelling to Michelin-starred restaurants and spending time in their kitchens.
During that time he honed his instinct about food – something which his dad Russell believes was always apparent.
“When he was young we would travel to France and it was James who would be absorbed by restaurant menus, would want to tell us where to eat, what to eat. He loved the markets, the produce.”
James’s food journey took him to Heston’s Fat Duck and then to Europe where he was totally inspired by the three Roca brothers at El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona – judged the second best restaurant in the world after Noma.
He describes his own food as ‘modern British’. ‘A menu inspired by simplicity’ is what it says on his own menus. But there’s simplicity and simplicity.
“I want the food to burst with flavour”, says James.
“I am big into texture, flavour and balance when it comes to food – I don’t like to over-complicate things but I need to get the most from food.
“It goes without saying that we are keen on local ingredients. We get fish and game locally but I will use regional French specialities when I need them.
“I love vegetables. If I am serving wild hare then I might cook variations of beetroot with it – perhaps a smoked or pickled beetroot. “
In the restaurant’s tiny kitchen (the fridge is housed in a lock-up in the car park) there are the gadgets that James loves – and a barbecue which he cooks on most nights.
“It sits under an extractor and during service I have the barbecue going for cooking different dishes. I like using different techniques, smoking food and that kind of thing. I want to learn all I can.”
The tasting menu features 48-hour braised ox cheek with peas, ceps and green peppercorn jus. The ox cheek is something of a come-again favourite for regulars and as much as James likes to change the menu often, for now it is a stayer!
Mallard is slow-cooked then rested on a plate on the barbecue to get a hint of smokiness. Poached and roasted figs and turnips accompany the dish alongside duck liver parfait.
Suckling pig is there as well. James ate the dish at the Roca brothers’ restaurant and was wowed by it.
“I went home and tried to work out how they had done it and created it for myself. Then I saw Simon Rogan cook it on Great British Menu – my supplier tells me now that everyone is asking for suckling pig – it’s the new big thing!
“I cook the belly, loin and shoulder. It is soaked in a brine solution for 24 hours then cooked sous vide for 12 hours. We serve it with smoked potato, beetroot and kohlrabi.”
The tasting menu is bringing the foodies to The Raby Hunt and there are always crowds for the lunch and early supper menus.
The restaurant, which was a former pub, is a lovely stone building – only 30 or so covers – with two rooms.
A chalkboard marks special events – New Year’s Eve predictably a sellout already. There’s also a sweet little champagne bar in one of the side rooms.
It is an unassuming spot, intimate and unshowy, hiding its culinary light in some ways.
Humble, like James really. Dad Russell says, “James always said to me that if the food is good enough people will come. We want people to come here, be excited by the food and come again. Quite simple really.
“We were able to make the idea a possibility and James has been proved right. We’re here to support him and we gave him the opportunity to explore his passion – the Michelin star has rubber stamped that.
“We’ve created somewhere with a bit of a wow factor without really shouting about it. Now we’re going to make the most of it!”
James would rather the food than he did the talking.
“Now we get people dining who want me come out and talk to them after service. I am not so comfortable with that – instead I go and sit in the bar with a glass of wine and we do the talking there – that’s more me. It is all about the food.
“Flocks of new people are coming in so the pressure is that of new people walking through the door for the first time with an expectation.
“When I knew there were nine chefs in here on different tables that one night it was moving to think that they had come here – it was humbling.”
in the mix
A childhood food memory: Lemon tart made by my mum.
A favourite family dish: National Trust pie- again, a pie my mum made full of lovely stuff!
A meal that inspired you: Elk salad at El Celler de Can Roca, the Michelin restaurant in Girona. The passion for cooking and techniques are amazing. Caramelised olives are brought to the table on bonsai trees. Really clever and delicious.
A wine that inspires you: Barolo.
A restaurant/wine list you return to time and again: The Balmoral in Edinburgh, number one restaurant. My girlfriend and I go there often.
An inspirational chef: Juan Roca at El Celler.
The last wine you drank and food you ate: Sunday lunch and a glass of pinot noir.
Your last food and wine would be: The Chocolate Bar that we serve here as a dessert. It is a posh Mars Bar – I don’t often eat things I cook but I don’t do the desserts so I’d go for this. I would have it with the biodynamic Gerwurtraminer on our wine list.
Favourite food and wine city: Edinburgh at the moment.
Favourite ingredient: Vegetables – bit of a cheat saying that but porcini mushrooms, or beetroot. I am fascinated by vegetables andI love the variations and textures of them.
The wine or dish you would pass on to your children: Ox cheek cooked in beer – we cook it for days, it takes time to get right but is worth it.