Star man

Few chefs at this level are totally self-trained. It’s practically unheard of for one to get a Michelin star. Rosie McGlade meets the extraordinary James Close  

 The possessor of the only Michelin star between Thirsk and Edinburgh, you might imagine Raby Hunt chef James Close has a certain way to him; a dash of feigned gravitas, perhaps; a sprinkling of culinary chiefdom. But James explains his meteoric rise thus: “Four years ago my parents bought a traditional pub near Darlington, and we started doing bistro bar food; chicken liver pate, fish and chips, my mum did a chicken pie. And then I went a bit mental.”

In other words, he was a completely untrained chef with what sounds like a healthy interest in food, but not necessarily more than that, got into his own kitchen, and just took off.  For someone now specialising in £75-a-head tasting menus, where you get up to 12 ravishing-sounding sample dishes, we’re talking pretty posh here, it’s a refreshing way of telling his story.

James has a nice story, generally, and certainly an inspiring one. He grew up in the middle of Hamsterley Forest near Bishop Auckland surrounded by dense trees and not a single neighbour for miles, a perfect childhood where he and his elder brother and sister were free to roam to their hearts’ content. He would sometimes help his mother  as she served guests in their country house B&B, and when he was about 12, borrowed one of her recipes and sold toffees to walkers and cyclists visiting the forest. He loved going out for meals, and had a thing for places like the Hard Rock Cafe.

But the thought of becoming a chef never crossed his mind.

“My real passion was golf,” he admits. It took him until he was 27, and an assistant pro at a golf course in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, to realise he might not have what it took to make it a permanent living.

He’s now just turned 34. En route to gaining his star, James worked in a menswear department in Darlington, then did a year in the Hedlam Hall kitchens outside of nearby Gainford, where, he says, he was taken on mostly to do vegetables and that was pretty much what he did. They were a great staff, but after a year, he packed a tent and headed to France and Switzerland for six months with a friend, where, almost by surprise, he found himself making notes about all the food he came across. He came back to England, got a job in a pub near Barnard Castle for eight months, where the Terry Laybourne-trained chef brought his skills on somewhat, and then about four years ago got the news from mother Helene that they’d bought a pub in Summerhouses, and did he fancy working in the kitchen?

“I suppose I shouldn’t say I went a bit mental!” he smiles. “I just got very obsessed, not simply about food, but fine dining, to the degree that it has become all consuming. Tonight, on my day off, it’s still all I’m thinking about. I cooked, did lots of research, and hoped if I put my full mind to it I would get better.

“The food I was making six months down the line was completely different; a year later, it was different again, and it has continued that way until now.”

Purely by trial and error, and reading? James has a couple of secrets, he says, that for now he’ll keep to himself. A gourmet Rumpelstiltskin who sneaks out to help every night? No, nothing like that.

Since getting his star last September, when there was just himself and sous chef Ryan, 24, (although James dislikes French kitchen titles), he’s taken on two new kitchen staff, both very young, and with no training whatsoever.

The Michelin star was a shock, though a welcome one. “I didn’t expect it so soon,” he admits. “But I certainly wouldn’t say it’s been easy. I do 90 hours a week, starting at 8am and finishing at 2am. You put your body under and an incredible amount of pressure.”

So is it fun in his kitchen, or lots of sweating and swearing? “Both,” he grins. “A lot of the time it is fun, but stress levels are high; I like things to be perfect. I always say to any chef who comes for work here that if food is not their life, then they are wasting the good times in their life away from the kitchen working here. You have to give all that up to be here, so it has to be totally fulfilling.”

What they do isn’t cheap, but he assures us it’s worth it, just as dedicating his life to his work has become worth it for him. Could anyone do what he’s done? “If you have the passion, then yes,” he answers. There’s certainly no doubting the passion James has.

Raby Hunt, Summerhouses, 
tel 01325 374 237,  
Restaurant open Wednesday lunchtime-Saturday night

Sign up to our news
You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us.