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James Maxwell-Stewart still feels he has to defend British and more specifically English food from the atrocities of the past. “We’re suffering from this reputation from the 1950s to the 70s when no one gave a f*** about food or cooking,” says the Worcester-born chef. “It’s unfair. England has a lot of good ideas now … people have realised that.”
He doesn’t have to convince me, a Brit, but rather the good people of Oslo, home to his restaurant, Cru Vin & Kjøkken. He’s been running the show there for two and a half years, and for the past 18 months has been serving what he refers to as a “Full English” menu – dishes inspired by England and English produce, using Norwegian ingredients. Think gratinated leeks, langoustine benedict and kedgeree, elevated ploughman’s lunches and crumbles, and nods to much loved British confectionary such as Maltesers.
“Cru is a neighbourhood restaurant, almost an institution, so I didn’t do anything too revolutionary when I took over. You’ve got to be a bit careful at the start, you can’t go all in with Marmite,” he laughs. “We needed to stand out from the crowd and in Oslo at the moment there are a lot of Asian and New Nordic restaurants. We came to the idea: let’s play with my Englishness and use that to our advantage. Nobody in town was doing that.”
It’s an approach that has gained Cru a Michelin plate (awarded to restaurants for "good food, done simply") and led to Maxwell-Stewart joining the jury for the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 Scandinavia and Baltics regional final, where he, along with six other chef judges, will pick the semifinalist to go ahead to the Grand Finale in Milan in June 2018. What is he looking for in a young chef? “The danger of competition cooking is that everyone does the same, everyone’s so scared of not winning,” he says. “I like people with personality and individuality and if I see that in the cooking, I’m going to push for that person. I think that’s way more interesting than technique.”
"I like people with personality and individuality. I think that’s way more interesting than technique"
Starting off as a pot washer in his local pub aged 15, Maxwell-Stewart started cooking properly in Chamonix, as a way to fund his “ski bum career.” Having spent time with “a lot of Norwegian and Swedish people” there, he decided to relocate to Oslo, working at restaurants all over the city before a stint at the once Michelin-starred Annen Etage restaurant. What advice then, does he have for young chefs at the beginning of their culinary journeys? “Two things: work for talented people and learn a lot of skills, then once you get to a certain point in your cooking, it’s up to you to use those skills to do something on your own. It’s taken me 20 years to find my niche.”
Heston Blumenthal was a formative influence on Maxwell-Stewart – he completed, as did at least 50% of the people I’ve interviewed for Fine Dining Lovers seemingly, a stage at The Fat Duck in Bray. Blumenthal inspired him to project his own childhood memories onto the plate, for example the ‘Farmer’s Field,’ a 100% vegetarian and ever changing celebration of seasonal produce inspired by his rural upbringing, which currently, as previously mentioned, is a dish of gratinated leeks, and to be brave in the face of skepticism, something he has faced plenty of as a purveyor of English cuisine outside of the British Isles.
“What I learned from Heston is a ‘Don’t be afraid’ attitude – he deliberately did things to provoke and if people came and they thought it was going to be disgusting and they got the opposite, then you immediately got a bigger emotional effect,” he says.
There is, he says, an open mindedness,” a willingness to “give things a go," linking English and Norwegian food, as well, of course, as a fondness for meat, potatoes and sauce at the most basic level. Not that it's an automatic easy sell – the team are currently refining a dish of blood pudding pancakes, served with duck breast, mushrooms and a tarragon sauce that Maxwell-Stewart admits was difficult for customers to understand at first – but on the whole, the Norwegians have been receptive. “People probably thought I was going to be doing steak and kidney pie, and fish and chips,” he says, “but the reaction’s been good, people are getting it, even people who have never eaten English food, or don’t understand the nuances of it.”
Michelin were particularly keen on Cru’s wine offering when they visited last year he tells me – it functions as both a wine bar and a restaurant – so I’m curious as to Maxwell-Stewart’s verdict on British wine – certainly the sparkling has to be some of the best in the world right now, despite what Marco Pierre White might say, but what about the rest? “English sparkling is getting up there with Champagne, sometimes better, but the other wines are still a long way behind the French,’ he says. “The quantity and price versus quality isn’t good enough yet.”
"English sparkling is getting up there with Champagne, sometimes better"
He only serves English cheeses however, his current favourite being a “stunning” Stichelton from Neal’s Yard, a Stilton by another name that can’t be called Stilton because a, it’s unpasteurised and b, it isn’t produced in one of the three designated English counties. Again, the English cheeses are “up there with the French,” he says – the Stichelton is served with Port of course.
As our chat is drawing to a close, Maxwell-Stewart suddenly remembers something. It’s a dish he once had on the menu called Angel Delight, based on the notorious powdered dessert ubiquitous in British homes from the 70s onwards – I have fond memories of it, but I suspect my adult palette would squirm. Cru’s version consisted of a white chocolate espuma (foam) layered with blueberry jam and a grated granite of English sparkling wine.
How did it go down, I ask?
“Very well – its Champagne, blueberries and white chocolate,” he says. The Norwegians got the reference once it was explained to them – they endured something similar – and the English? “They think it’s hilarious,” he laughs.