Cutting it close... with head chef James | Living North

We Chat with James Close of the Raby Hunt

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James Close
Head Chef of the two-Michelin-star Raby Hunt in Summerhouse, twice winners of the Living North Restaurant of the Year award, James Close is one of the most exciting chefs in the UK right now.

You’re a self-taught chef, who is getting to the very highest echelons of the industry – in what ways has it been a blessing and in what ways has it been a curse?
In terms of blessings, I’m not restricted, so I don’t have any limitations on what dishes I need to do. No-one’s in my ear going: “You can’t do it that way, James, because you haven’t been taught that way.” So it’s very easy for me to go in my own direction. The style of food we do now uses global ingredients – we use the best of what the world has to offer; so we can do a taco, we can do a Japanese tempura, it’s quite different to anywhere else in the UK. There are downsides; because I haven’t been taught how to do anything, I have to work it out, which takes a lot more time, and you question everything a lot more because you know you haven’t got the recipes the way most chefs would do – there’s no database.

You’re obviously very proud of your North East roots – do you consider your restaurant to be flying the culinary flag for the region?
If you look at the food in the North East when we started nine years ago, after we got a star – and I don’t want to be big headed here – it seemed to push everybody else on a bit. I think they realised that the North East can be represented at a higher level. Then when we got two stars we did it even more, and now the whole country seems to be looking at what we’re doing at the minute. Also, most people in my kitchen now are from the North East, which is very good, and we’re attracting everybody from around the country, Europe and the world to come and eat with us. I don’t want to put myself on that pedestal of flying the flag, but I guess that’s what comes with getting two Michelin stars.

What do you think the North East does better than anywhere else?
We’ve got some really good produce, like the oysters from Lindisfarne for example. The UK’s not like France, where they have regions with their own specialised ingredients, so it’s quite hard to say what’s amazing about the North East specifically. The food thing’s just starting to grow around here, so maybe in 20 years – hopefully when I’ve retired! – there’ll be some amazing things going on.

Do you think the Raby Hunt will get three Michelin stars one day?
I never think about three stars, because it’s something that doesn’t really happen. Nobody thought I’d get one star, and certainly nobody ever thought I’d get two. To get three is probably very unlikely and it’s not something that I’m working towards. What I am working towards is just getting better – every day that we step in here, we have to be better than we were the day before, we have to be using better techniques, we have to get better ingredients. That’s the mentality I’ve always had. The dishes need to get better, something every week has to be better than it was the week before, otherwise there’s no point in putting in all the hours that we do. I don’t look at being one of the best restaurants in the world, because that’s just all about PR. So what I would like to see is just that, as a restaurant, we continue to get better.

You have a background in sport, as a professional golfer. What do you think that mentality has brought to your cooking?
Everybody’s make-up is different, you can see it from chefs that work here. Some people are quite happy just doing what they do, but some people always want to keep getting better, and I think those people at the top of sport have that mentality. I’d rather talk to a three-star chef than talk to a one-star chef about food, because there’s a lot you can learn from the best. So sport and food are based on the same concept of just trying to get better and honing your skills – but to never stop learning and always ask questions.

When you last spoke with Living North, you told us that your kitchen was pretty rudimentary – have you improved the facilities now, and what’s your favourite bit of kitchen tech?
It all changed about a year and a half ago. It’s a different world now! The kitchen’s probably about three times as big as it was, perhaps even bigger. We’ve got more chefs and we’ve got better equipment, so compared to when we got one star it’s very different. In terms of my favourite tech, I would say the Konro grill, the Japanese grills we’ve got – or the couple of new rice cookers we’ve got for our sushi dish, and the liquid nitrogen is pretty cool.

When you cook for yourself, do you still whip up amazing meals or is it more of a microwave ready-meal affair?
I was just having this conversation with the staff! I used to cook before I did this; I used to cook at home all the time, and just come up with new ideas. But now it’s reached the stage where I struggle to cook at home because it’s never good enough! I’m a bit obsessive, so before the holidays I got told that I had to do a Christmas starter, and if I’m doing a starter, that means for the next five days that’s all I’m thinking about – I just can’t deal with imperfections. So I don’t really enjoy cooking at home like I used to. I’ll just cook something very simple, like roast chicken. But now and again I do get carried away!

What was your Christmas starter in the end?
I ended up doing a tuna sushi starter, with lots of different cuts of bluefin tuna, because we’d got some at work, so it was the Otoro, the Chutoro and the Akami, which is the lean tuna, the medium-fatty tuna, and the fatty tuna. I did a sushi of each.

What’s your number one tip to give to home cooks reading this?
Just keep it very simple – it’s all about using great ingredients – and practise! A lot of chefs want to overcomplicate stuff. Watching Master Chef at the minute, you see all these young chefs doing a bit too much. We get that in here as well when we do a cook-off in the kitchen, and the chefs seem to want to put loads of stuff on the plate. Just keep it simple with your ingredients and seasoning.

What’s your favourite flavour combination?
I’d say at the minute it’s our tuna dish; we serve it with white truffle from Alba, so we do a sort of sushi, with rice, which we’ve had to perfect over about six months. The umami from the tuna goes amazingly well with the delicate white truffle.

The Raby Hunt, Summerhouse, Darlington 
www.rabyhuntrestaurant.co.uk

Published in: June 2019

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