“To be honest, when I decided to be a chef, I didn’t even know what Michelin stars were.” This may sound like an astonishing confession from a chef, a two-Michelin-star one at that, but then, James Close hasn’t exactly followed a conventional career path. A pro-golfer until his late 20s, he took up cooking after realising he wasn’t quite good enough with a club for it to be a career for life. His parents bought a run down pub, The Raby Hunt, close to Darlington, in the North East of England, and seven years later, Michelin were so impressed they decided to award the restaurant a second star, making it the only two-star in the region. He is completely self-taught. “I’d had a failed golf career and I’d failed at university ... I was struggling to find anything in the world that I really wanted to do. The only thing was food,” says Close.
With no formal training whatsoever, despite having been brought up in a hospitality environment – his parents were in the bed and breakfast business – the plan was initially, to pack Close off to France for a few years to learn his craft. But, approaching 30, he had the fear and wanted to crack on. He started, not unlike Heston Blumenthal had at The Fat Duck, by serving British pub food, with his mum helping him out in the kitchen. But Close, who had begun to take himself off on eating trips to some of the best restaurants in the world, including El Celler de Can Roca and Frantzén / Lindeberg, as it was known then, had loftier ambitions. If he couldn’t be the next Nick Faldo, he could certainly be the best chef he could be, he reasoned. The next few years were spent on an almost constant crusade to learn and practice, as much as he could.
Razor clam, almond and celeriac
“I’d finish work and I’d stay upstairs in the room above the restaurant. I used to call it the box room – tiny room,” he says. “I spent the first five years, just finishing work, going upstairs, no life at all outside the restaurant. I’d start the Internet up and start researching sous vide, cooking temperatures, everything like that. It was 24-hours a day, seven days a week, giving it everything you’ve got to try and learn quickly.”
Having briefly flirted with New Nordic – “A mistake,” he says – Close’s own style began to develop, influenced in part by the lack of ingredients and food culture in his part of the UK, and frequent, eye-opening trips down to London. He calls his cuisine ‘World Food’ and sees it as an accurate representation of what modern British food is today.
Multicultural food – that is modern British culture
“I felt like in some ways I needed to stop looking at what everybody else was doing ... try and ignite the creativity inside and see what we could do differently,” he says. “London’s amazing for multicultural food and I started thinking – that is modern British culture. We’ll go and have an Indian, we’ll have a Chinese, we’ll have a Mexican. That inspired me to do what we do today, which is basically, no rules.” So there’s plenty of French technique of course, but there’s also yuzu, and Cornish crab tacos, wasabi, Cumbrian lamb, and pastrami sandwiches. “If I want to do a Mexican or French dish, I’ll do it. That for me is modern British food, to be inspired by all different cultures.”
Close tries to source from the UK as much as possible – all seafood, the aforementioned lamb, vegetables from a local farmer – but as befits an 'ingredients-obsessed’ chef who sees his cuisine as truly global, he’s not afraid to go further afield to source the very best products, like A5 Wagyu from Japan – deliciousness trumps a sense of place, in the end. “We would never get fish from any other waters,” says Close, “but meat is something we really struggled with. It’s got to be the best. You use local if it’s good enough, but if it’s not I’ll go and get it somewhere else, because that suits our style of food.”
Raw Wagyu fillet, nasturtium and basil
It may not be hugely fashionable to admit that, but Close doesn’t really care – he’s refreshingly open and unguarded, like his cooking, though he does check himself every now and then. He freely admits to me that he doesn’t have many friends in the industry, that most of his friends are from school, and that there are a few, shall we say more classically trained chefs, casting jealous glances at The Raby Hunt – which, he says, only spurs him on – though they are now finally becoming a little more accepting. “When we got that one star, we came out of the blue, nobody had ever heard of the restaurant,” he says. “There was a bit of jealousy kicking around. I can ignore that, I’m not that bothered. In Europe, where I go and eat all the time, a lot of the chefs sort of work together, there’s a lot more exchanging of information. This country’s just a bit behind.”
You can tell a Trip Advisor by how narked off they are with how much money they’ve had to spend.
He also has plenty of ire reserved for Trip Advisor, a site he describes as “pathetic.” When we speak he’s considering if and how to reply to an email from a customer threatening a bad Trip Advisor review because she felt the service wasn’t up to standard (he doesn’t reply in the end, as he’s never done). Another, who’s already left a bad review, was probably the worst customer they’ve ever had he says. “She doesn’t like spice and she doesn’t like anything with any heat in it. No wasabi, no chilli – well that’s the first five courses ****** then, isn’t it!” Close tells me incredulously. “She hasn’t done her research to see what style of food we do or where she’s going. So Trip Advisor’s flawed, because the people who write the reviews don’t really have much insight into the restaurant world. Most of the time it’s all about the money. You can tell a Trip Advisor by how narked off they are with how much money they’ve had to spend.”
Ultimately, Close says, his is the type of restaurant that isn't going to be affected by Trip Advisor, but he would like to see restaurants come together to force the site to remove them from their listings if they so desire – in court if necessary. “It needs to be a mix: it can’t just be a two star chef who’s pissed off because he’s had an email. It’s got to be a collection of all. I don’t see how it can stand up ... surely we’ve got a choice, is what I’m saying.”
Lemon, three ways
The Instagram Generation
Possibly the most amazing thing about the rise of The Raby Hunt is how they managed to achieve two stars with a kitchen that would not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as ‘fit for purpose.’ “We were working in probably the smallest kitchen ever to get two stars [in the UK],” says Close. “We didn’t have any equipment, we had a fridge that had stopped working – we took the door of it and used it as a plate shelf.” They were running on a skeleton staff too, with just three chefs and two front of house. Now they’re looking to employ eight or nine in the kitchen. Close would like to be able to delegate more – he’s never missed a service – but echoing what many other top chefs around the world are saying right now, getting new chefs to stay more than a few months is increasingly difficult when they expect to have it all right away.
“I’m probably not a very good example, because I have done it instantly in some ways ... but the problem with the industry at the moment is one, you can’t get chefs, and two, they don’t stay very long, because with the Instagram and the X Factor generation, people want to jump around,” he says. “After eight months they think they’ve learned everything and they want to go somewhere else.” Close tries to keep his chefs inspired by sending them on paid placements to top restaurants in Europe like De Librije in Zwolle, Netherlands, undertaken outside of holiday time, or he takes them on eating trips (he recently took his sommelier and front of house manager to Mirazur) – all expenses paid. “Chefs need to eat out more than they do,” he says.
Lemon and thyme doughnut; The Raby Hunt dining room
They’ve invested significantly in the kitchen since winning two stars (though still “on a budget,” Close says) and are now a lot more relaxed about pushing out the sole 12-15 course tasting menu – the new plate shelf has helped presumably. Winning a second star, making the Raby Hunt one of 22 restaurants to hold the honour in the UK, has changed everything says Close. “We put ourselves on the map of gastronomy in the UK – we went from a restaurant that was one of many to one of few. We’re 50% busier than we were. All the chefs want to come and eat here. Bang, now we can invest,” he says. “I never thought about getting one star, or two stars, and I certainly don’t think about getting three stars” – inevitably, I’d asked – “all we think about doing is being better than we were yesterday – front of house, the dishes we do, the way we speak to people ... we’ve done that from day one. I just want to be the best I can be. Everybody’s got their limits to how good they can be, I know that from being in sport.”