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Living North’s Christmas Fairs

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Living North’s Christmas Fairs
James Close
Eat and Drink
October 2016
Reading time 10 minutes

In six and a half years, the self-taught chef has bagged a Michelin Star, three AA Rosettes and just been named Chef of the Year by the Good Food Guide

We chatted to him about craving Meat Liquor chicken wings and taking inspiration from Conor McGregor.

Firstly, congratulations. How have you been celebrating?
To be honest with you, I haven’t really had time to celebrate – I just went back home and had a sleep. These days everything’s done on social media – it’s not like the old days where you’d wait for the newspaper to get in touch; it’s very instant. I think it went out at midnight on Wednesday, and straight away my phone was just going absolutely crazy. What you have to do is you’ve got to try and like everything and say thanks to everyone, otherwise they get a bit huffy. So I spent all day yesterday just doing that. It was good though, really good – a great day.

What’s the initial feeling with these kind of awards? You hear some chefs saying Michelin stars are more a relief than a joy.
It’s great to be acknowledged amongst your fellow chefs; that’s quite big for me. I’m a self-taught chef, I’ve only been doing this six and a half years. I haven’t done it the normal way, I’ve got no training, I’ve had to learn it all myself. Even doing it that way, to be getting acknowledged as Chef of the Year, you think you’re doing something right.

In the past you said you didn’t like the term ‘fine dining’ for what you do – why is that?
To be honest with you, I don’t mind the word ‘fine dining’; it just isn’t us. There are restaurants in the centre of Mayfair which have very classical roots and you’d say they’re fine dining; I would say the Raby Hunt is me, so I don’t like to put any name on it. It’s just what we like to do, the food we like to do, the service we like to do. So I wouldn’t really put it under any bracket. Basically, we’re James Close’s menu, and that’s the way it is.

Is ‘simplicity’ still your watchword?
I’ve kind of grown out of that a little bit. As you develop as a chef, you stop trying to use these words. Three or four years ago I started using that word, and yeah, it does mean a lot to me still, but the more I do this… I don’t like to be under one bracket. It does sum up what we do; we don’t want eight or nine flavours on a plate, we look for three to four flavours. It’s not really simple, but it is simple. That probably doesn’t make any sense. When you put a dish in front of somebody, they think it looks very easy going, and it’s very simple and it goes together and it works. But behind that, in the kitchen, the process to get there isn’t simple. That’s they key: for the food to appear simple in front of the customer, so they don’t have to be confused about the flavours and stuff, but behind closed doors we’re coming up with different techniques that I wouldn’t really class as simple.

Are there any new techniques you’ve been trying recently that you’re excited about?
The Japanese style really does interest me; at the moment we’ve got a garden around the restaurant and it does look a little bit like a Zen-style garden. All those techniques: how they deal with the raw fish, how to marinate them, how to salt them, how to serve them raw. It’s just endless, but you need to know them because you can’t just produce a raw fish dish without the knowledge. We’ve got a raw scallop dish or a raw mackerel dish: it may appear when it comes out like it’s an easy dish to do, but we’ve probably filleted that fish 20 minutes before we served it so the fish doesn’t start to go off. A lot of those techniques I’ll keep to myself because you’ve thought about it so much and learnt processes that you try to keep them to yourself a little bit. But you’ve also got to share because the North East is a little bit behind; we need to progress on the food scene and I feel like now we have to take up that mantle. If a young chef rings me up and says, ‘Can I work with you for two days?’, they’re straight in. We’re not going to hide away and not let anyone in.

Are there any young chefs we should look out for?
I like commercial street food like the guys from Riley’s Fish Shack and Shaun Hurrell from Barrio Comida, they’re what really excite me in the North East. Not the fine dining, top end stuff – I think that’s all a bit similar. But all the tacos, the lobster cooked on the barbecue, that’s absolutely amazing. That’s what I would want to eat, it really is. Anna Hedworth at Cook House, she’s gone in the Good Food Guide too this year – people like that excite me.

Do you think you have to be a masochist to be a good chef?
I wouldn't really put that word on it: I enjoy what I’m doing, and if you want to get to the stage of having a Michelin star, whatever the awards are, you probably have to be here every day, you have to do that extra graft. I was reading about the UFC fighter Conor McGregor the other day, and one of his quotes was that – I mean this is nothing to do with me, I don’t want to build myself up to be something I’m not – we’re all born the same, but if you want something you’ve got to be quite obsessed by it to get to the top. If you look at all sportspeople, because I’m massively into my sports, they’ve all very similar traits. They’re dedicated to what they do, they’ll probably go home and analyse everything all the time, think how they can get better. If I didn’t have that trait, I wouldn’t be where I am today. 

Did you get into the Olympics?
Massively. I don’t feel as though I’m a chef; I’m more a sportsperson, I have that drive. The Olympics, I probably cried about 100 times watching that. I’m into all that: big Lewis Hamilton fan, all the golfers. I take that and bring it into what we do here, try and show that mentality of never giving up. You’ll have bad days, but there’s always a good day round the corner. 

I got really into the water polo. 
I’m probably more into people like Mo Farah, because I know how hard it is to win it four years ago, two medals, and win it again this year, two medals. Or the Brownlee brothers. Continuously pushing yourself, winning it again and again: those are the guys I look for.

There are a few parallels there with you keeping your star.
Yeah, I wouldn’t go too far into it because I’m a chef at the end of the day, but behind the scenes… people understand the effort that goes into it. It’s not like we just do it on competition day. A golfer has Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday to go out there. On his practice days he’s training, but there’s not much pressure. Every day that we’re open for lunch and dinner, an inspector could walk in. That could be 365 days a year. The golfers might take two months off over Christmas; we can't do that. We had a quiet day about a year ago and I was sat in the back on my phone – in fact I was putting a bet on the sport – and Jay Rayner walked in. I quickly put my phone in my pocket, swore to myself, and ran back in the kitchen. That just shows that even on your quietest day, someone like that could walk in.

Do you have any guilty pleasures? You’ve mentioned your passion for Big Macs in the past.
It’s only a Big Mac if it’s on my way home – Meat Liquor’s one of my favourites, the blue cheese chicken wings. I make my chefs make that sometimes after service on a Saturday night. They all look at me like, ‘Why does he eat that stuff?’ But it’s unbelievable. 

The Raby Hunt
Summerhouse, near Darlington DL2 3UD
01325 374237
www.rabyhuntrestaurant.co.uk

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