There’s a quiet revolution going on in the tiny hamlet of Summerhouse near Darlington. In the past couple of years run-down properties have been gussied up, farm buildings converted and verges clipped to precision.
The reason? The outwardly unassuming Raby Hunt restaurant. Now to become a place of pilgrimage for the most ardent food-lover following chef James Close’s accolade of a second Michelin star.
The award is big stuff in the food world. One star is great for any chef – currently there is only a handful in the region with one – Kenny Atkinson at House of Tides and Andrew Pern at The Star, Harome the best-known.
Two Michelin stars is a case of blowing it out of the water. Not least because James Close, 37, is self-taught and less than a decade ago his career path was that of a professional golfer.
So he has drive on every level. Going from unknown to one of just 21 chefs in the country who hold the coveted two Michelin stars – and one of 400 or so in the world.
We meet up two days after the big win. James is buzzing. In the Raby Hunt the phone doesn’t stop ringing and James’s phone is in meltdown, alive with tweets and messages.
The man himself is pretty much running on caffeine: unslept for 48 hours following two days of extremes: from knife-edge nerves to the unadulterated adoration of his peers to more than a little celebratory partying which ended up in raucous style at Nobu before falling in to bed at The Savoy.
Understandable then that it’s an almighty effort to click back into kitchen mode to prepare for a weekend service that is going be more scrutinised by its audience than ever before.
Diners who turn up are doing so to see and taste the reality of what has been a Cinderella story that ended up in the ultimate spotlight for James.
For chefs of a certain standard, the Michelin ‘reveal’ every autumn is something that drums in the mind from late summer.
Until this year it was a case of the new stars being revealed in a press release by Michelin. But following on from leaks in the past, this changed for 2016, says Rebecca Burr, editor of the UK Michelin Guide.
“These launch events have been taking place in Spain and Germany and the States where they are very popular. Doing them in the UK was a continuation of that, moving them on.
For many years it was a secret – that’s always been part of our success and we strive to maintain that. We want the chefs to be the people who hear first – rather than through a leak from the booksellers.”
So this year the Michelin awards turned glossy. A grand stage, spotlights and invited audience made up of the ‘who’s who’ of British food.
James was asked to attend the event but given no clue as to why. He and his family arrived a couple of hours before the ceremony and were ushered to a back entrance. From there phones were banned and he and his family were squirreled away to a booze-free green room on the top floor along with about 100 other people.
To call it an edgy couple of hours is an understatement:
“From getting the call from Rebecca a week earlier I was a nervous wreck, didn’t sleep. ‘It was like waiting at judges houses on X-Factor’, James laughs.
“Once at the event we sit there as it is being live streamed into our room – so I am watching chefs like Tom Kerridge come in, the Roux brothers, Simon Rogan.
“Eventually we were the only people left in the room – with just water and coffee! Figured that it looked like I was going to go on stage at the end to get two stars. That audience was filled with the biggest hitters in the UK in terms of chefs – 50% had never
even heard of me.”
Other starred chefs are known for their TV appearances on shows like Saturday Kitchen or Great British Menu. The diffident and spotlight-averse James doesn’t play that game so his accolade was all the more surprising.
At the end of the ceremony, the year’s only new two star chef was announced as James stood stage-side flanked by his parents and business partners, Helene and Russell.
Says Russell; “The moment when they played that live feed by the side of the stage, saying there is only one new two star award this year – and it was James, was amazing.
I’ve watched it back and when Raby Hunt is announced there is a loud ‘wow’ and then rapturous applause.
“They didn’t know who he was – he’s not a ‘disciple’ of other chefs and people have found it amazing that a man who works in the middle of nowhere can achieve this.”
Adds James; “I stood at the side of the stage, I was just in a daze when they pushed me on there – like a rabbit in headlights. It was all a bit mad, a bit rock n’ roll, I was in shock, it was crazy.
“Afterwards I am in the white chef’s jacket with name and two stars embroidered on it at the Veuve Clicquot party. People like Michel Roux are coming to talk to me – I’ve never done Great British Menu or anything like that so people want to know who I am!”
Celebrity, other than in the kitchen, has never been what James is about. The self-taught chef honed his skills travelling the world’s best restaurants, tasting and experiencing the best food.
James had been destined for a career as a golf pro but was lured by the world of food in his mid-20s. His family knew the hospitality industry and 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.”
That passion turns itself to intricately crafted dishes which read simply but defy expectation on the palate, such as cod skin aioli, artichoke and offal, sea bream with with smoked cod roe and >> spinach of which acclaimed food writer Jay Rayner concluded: “It’s about as perfect a piece of fish cookery as you could hope for. There are swirls of a light cod’s roe cream, and a dusting of powder made from more cod’s roe that has been dried. And then a couple of wilted spinach leaves. And that’s it. It’s simple and excruciatingly effective. It is self-confidence expressed in three ingredients.
Another ‘signature’ of sorts at Raby Hunt is the chocolate ganache skull. Elaborate in the detail, it is revealed at the end of a meal.
James was inspired by the old smoky club rooms in baronial Scottish wood-panelled hotels.
“The idea is of a glass whisky in hand; you take a sip then drag on a great cigar.
We infuse chocolate with tobacco leaves and with The Peat Master whisky.
“You’re presented with a straw-filled box with the skull and small chocolate slab inside. The first taste is the peaty whisky sensation followed by the tobacco which is more of a sensation in the throat than a flavour so they are tasted separately.”
It is this approach which, Rebecca Burr believes, will put the unassuming 30-seat Raby Hunt on the outskirts of Darlington on the global food map now.
“James is on a world stage now and lots of people travel with that – people go on a culinary journey and tick off the restaurants.
“We felt that the time was right for his second star and that as a business they could cope with it. His whole family is behind him, he’s a hard-working guy with a great team and we feel confident that he will do himself proud.
She adds: “Our inspectors travel around the country and they see an awful lot of chefs – every so often we have this ‘here’s a talent’ moment – someone who could be a name of the future. It rarely comes up – James was one of those people.
“It was interesting to look on – James got his first star quickly and within another four years he has a second star. There is no set pattern and he was quick to go from one to two stars.
“We could see he was going to be a talent – he is self-taught and has an inherent respect for ingredients and flavour combinations. There are a lot of processes behind the scenes before anything hits the menu and he continues to refine.
“It is done his way and that’s what the stars reflect. Only 21 chefs in this country have two stars – of 400 in the world. For that second star we look for a bit more technical skill, personality and consistency with the food. One star you can replicate but not innovate.
“We look for an extra degree of finesse and care and I think James has the mindset to strive for that.”
The shift from one to two Michelin stars runs parallel with a decision James took last year to redefine the way his kitchen runs.
He stopped weekly lunch service to gives chefs more time off and made the restaurant a single menu destination. A bold move which paid off.
It meant more time for development and research. And for utter attention to detail in his menu.
“Hard work”, says James.
“You don’t have to be on the telly. Hard work and belief in yourself. One of the things I always wanted to achieve was two stars and I was told that when you get it, it is the best thing in the world. It feels amazing.
“For me, from now I just want to create dishes – to expand the kitchen at Raby Hunt and make it into a two star kitchen. And do it quick while we are in the limelight, from there, let’s see what happens.
“People are saying it’s amazing, he came from nowhere. True, I have not gone down that route of celebrity but what I have done is put this area on the map so it will hopefully have a knock-on effect for local hotels and B&Bs: the most unlikely place for foodies to go is the North East – it will be good to show off to people from outside of the area.
“In London I got off the train and in the taxi passed so many great hotels with good restaurants – yet it is me who got the only two star this year. In the ‘North’ it is Simon Rogan at L’Enclume, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles – and now little Raby Hunt in Summerhouse.
Someone who has been watching James’s culinary journey with more than a little interest is Terry Laybourne.
Terry brought the first Michelin star to the North East in 1992 at 21 Queen Street in Newcastle. Since then he has led the charge in terms of dining in the city and wider region. He calls James’s achievement ‘monumental’.
“The first thing I thought was ‘wow’: a big responsibility, because it is”, says Terry.
“It elevates him into an elite class really and in equal measure I am thrilled for him and almost sympathetic. If he is anything like me he will feel a huge weight on his shoulders, I was even a bit embarrassed – the upside is that this turns into a paranoia which drives you along and acts as fuel.”
Michelin editor Rebecca Burr says Raby Hunt will be a global destination, does Terry agree?
“That is a big responsibility”, he says.
“For the area it is great, there has never been anything of this nature before. It shines a light on the area and what happens is that it drives and elevates everything around it.
I am sure that the likes of Kenny Atkinson and Andrew Pern who are in that sphere will be pushing and looking sideways thinking ‘could have been us’.”
James is the opposite of the celebrity-seeking chef who makes appearances at food festivals and on TV shows. He’s naturally shy and wants the food to do the talking, not him. This makes him something of an outsider in his world.
“Whether James is traditionally-trained or not, he has satisfied their (Michelin) criteria”, says Terry Laybourne.
“There is the argument that someone who is not classically trained can be a free spirit. That they don’t have the baggage that perhaps I had: they are not hung up about what their peers and mentors think.
“I think someone who has learned how to eat and understands the end result and has an inquisitive mind has their own strength.
“I meet a lot of cooks with all the craft in the world who might know how to assemble a dish but don’t know how to hone it all.
“I take my hat off to James for going to places not for pleasure but to study and learn then to apply that in a way that challenges them. It demonstrates what you can achieve by dedication, hard work and taking risks.
“(In business terms) It must have been a knife edge at times – so I hope he is able to capitalise on it – It is a monumental achievement, I enjoyed it very much.”
The near future means the development of the Raby Hunt kitchen and James offering ‘stage’ placements to young chefs keen to learn from him, as unorthodox as his own training has been.
“The way I’ve learned is to look at the best restaurants, go away and forget everything else then try to create my own story with originality on the plate. Go for what I believe. The skills and the story show people where I have come from.
“Every time I have a bad day I think James C is showing the pain and strength to keep going every day. The second star will give me the freedom to start creating new dishes.
“Going forward: The Raby Hunt stays. We will build staff and delegate so everyone in the kitchen can do every job. We need to use what we’ve got to do better.
“This is it – this is me forever doing this side of food and maybe something more commercial at some point.”
The future is a mouth-watering, if challenging feast ahead. As the food critic Jay Rayner said of James in 2015, ‘Close is an impressive young chef with some very good ideas, who is still finding his voice. It’s already one to which we should listen’.”
Gourmet journey on the doorstep: The North’s Michelin heroes
At House of Tides in Newcastle they’re celebrating retaining Newcastle’s only Michelin star. Talented Stockton chef Danny Parker heads up the kitchen at Kenny Atkinson’s restaurant. The 60-cover Quayside eatery has gone from strength to strength since opening in 2014 with a clutch of awards.
The Star at Harome near Helmsley, is owned by Andrew Pern. It’s a hugely popular gastropub and retained its Michelin Star held from 2002 to 2011, and then regained in 2015.
The Black Swan at Oldstead retained a Michelin star having also this year been awarded a coveted four AA rosettes earlier this year. It’s a family affair with food grown close to the premises. Tommy Banks heads the kitchen while his brother James runs the front-of-house. Tommy is set to appear on this year’s Great British Menu North East heat.
Teessider Michael O’Hare retains a Michelin star at the Man Behind the Curtain in Leeds. He’s been in the TV spotlight with appearances on the BBC Two’s Great British Menu. The restaurant describes itself as “ultra modern food with its own identity, inspired by the arts, music and contemporary culture.”
In Yorkshire’s Nidderdale Valley, The Yorke Arms near Pateley Bridge is headed up by Frances Atkins. The 18th century coaching house and shooting lodge retains a Michelin star. It was one of the Coogan-Brydon destinations in The Trip.