Vallum Kitchen Garden is overflowing with abundance. Everywhere you look vegetables are growing and ripening in the August sunshine, giving a daily harvest that will be winging its way to not just the region’s best restaurants but some of the nation’s finest eateries too.
This is the heart of renowned vegetable grower Ken Holland’s empire. A true local food hero, Ken of North Country Growers fame has made his name supplying fresh organic vegetables and salads – in particular weird and wonderful heritage varieties – to the most discerning restaurants.
Among his loyal customers is a clutch of Michelin-rated chefs, including James Close of the Raby Hunt at Summerhouse near Darlington, the only North East restaurant to hold the coveted and much sought after culinary star.
Vallum Kitchen Garden is a relatively new venture for Ken (he has other vegetable growing outposts at Little Harle at Kirkwhelpington and Blagdon in Northumberland).
He and his green fingered team, which includes wife Tracy, have transformed what were fields at the Vallum Farm artisan producer hub in the Tyne Valley into a thriving and productive smallholding complete with poly tunnels and raised beds.
But something new and unexpected has sprouted from the earth this year in a quiet corner of the kitchen garden: probably the coolest ‘pop-up’ restaurant you’ll come across.
Called the Chef’s Pod, it’s a showcase for fine dining featuring, as you might expect, the plethora of fresh micro and other vegetables grown just a few feet away, although there is nothing refined about the building itself.
The brainchild of Ken, the pod is made from reclaimed wood, has wheels and a corrugated iron roof (salvaged from the doors of a fallen barn at Bellingham) and can best be described as a cross between a traditional Northumberland shepherd’s hut and a Gypsy caravan.
It boasts a tiny kitchen, a front wall that folds back to bring the outside inside and can seat a maximum of 12 at one long communal wooden table.
Inside it is decorated with storyboards telling the history of the recovered wood (beams have come from Swan Hunter, pitch pine from Newcastle’s High Level Bridge and there’s maple underground tube train flooring), while the outside walls are adorned with edible herbs and flowers planted in organ pipes from a church in Ashington.
It’s a bizarre, extraordinary and organic (as in spontaneous) creation that has captured both food lovers and chefs’ imaginations alike.
The rough-edged surroundings and the way the pod opens out to frame the kitchen garden like a living, breathing picture, only add to the atmosphere.
Boasting only a tiny albeit functional kitchen, however, you would think any self-respecting restaurant chef would run a mile before daring to set foot on the pod.
But nothing could be further from the truth. The likes of Terry Laybourne and former North East Chef of the Year David Kennedy (who has his own restaurant at Vallum) have both held sell-out dining events there in the past few weeks.
And recently it was the turn of James Close to bring his own brand of simply flavoured, locally sourced Michelin-ranked British food to Vallum.
The 33-year-old has just started taking delivery of Ken’s vegetables at the Raby Hunt, which will find out this October if it has managed to retain its Michelin award.
In return Ken invited the mainly self-taught chef (he has no formal training and has only been cooking for just over five years), to recreate his culinary magic at the pod featuring carefully selected ingredients from the garden (indeed, the aim is to ensure the inspiration for the menus behind each event is the locally sourced produce found in and around Vallum).
The lucky handful of diners sat down to a mouth-watering six course meal with canapï¿½s, including beautifully presented razor clams with brown shrimps, broad beans, peas, girolles and samphire; spring lamb with crispy kale unusually cooked on a barbecue manned by Ken himself; a delectable beer battered Lindisfarne oyster with ice plant and smoked eel with beetroot and cherry puree.
One minute the vegetables, salad leaves and herbs had been growing in Ken’s garden, and the next they were on the plate.
As Ken says: “You can’t get food any fresher than that.”
It is, as James states, a chef’s dream, being able to walk around and pick such fresh produce. That’s not to say that working on the pod isn’t challenging in other ways. If you’re used to a modern, hi-tech kitchen then the pod’s, which has fewer cooking facilities than a camper van, is an eye-opener.
But it’s one that the self-effacing James rose to admirably – and others are queuing up to follow in his esteemed footsteps. Andrew Fairlie, head chef at Gleneagles, Simon Rogan from the acclaimed L’Enclume in Cartmel (who Ken works closely with) and Claude Bosi of Hibiscus in London, are among the ‘names’ rumoured to be making their way to Vallum in the future.
The question is why, when they could be playing it safe in the familiar surroundings of their own restaurants? “Because,” James says, “there is nothing like this anywhere else and it is a challenge.”
He was also attracted by the “whole Scandinavian, natural feel it has to it and because I thought it would be a great thing to do. I didn’t do it as an advert for the Raby Hunt but because I wanted to be involved and work with Ken.
“Ken is unique himself. His vegetables are some of the best in Europe and he is using different techniques for growing.
“Ken is from the North East, I am from the North East and I think the Chef’s Pod is a great way to showcase the North East.”
As the region’s only current Michelin-starred chef, James is doing a great job himself of shouting loud and proud.
His entry into the Michelin club came as something of a surprise to the quietly spoken chef who much prefers to let his food do the talking. And no doubt it raised a few eyebrows among seasoned chefs too who have striven long and hard to attain the honour – and thus far failed.
James came to the vocation relatively late in life after starting out as a golf professional.
But what James, who worked in a hotel for a couple of years where he “basically just did the veg,” boasts in abundance is an unerring ability to successfully pair ingredients.
His is a talent borne from instinct and a deep desire to be the best he can. He has travelled widely in Europe learning all the modern and classical techniques and his summer holiday treat to himself this year will be dining in 10 different Michelin-starred restaurants in Belgium and Germany.
He has saved the money by living over the Grade II-listed Raby Hunt – owned by his parents Russell and Helene – during the week to save on petrol driving to and from the family home in Hamsterley.
He hopes to pick up new ideas, see what the latest foodie trends are and also have the honour of tasting what his fellow Michelin-starred chefs are creating in their kitchens.
James is modest about his success. “I just do my style of cooking and thankfully it seems to work. With me it is about simplicity and flavours. We’re not into foams and the like; we are into natural food and it’s all about taste.”
It is a complaint often aired that those who achieve Michelin status find themselves under intense pressure to maintain it – a feat not always achieved. Is James worried he’s done enough to retain his star?
“Yes, there is pressure to keep it, but I don’t think about it. I have never really gone in for awards; the pressure I have is to learn. That’s the burden I put myself under. I just want to keep getting better.”
That aside, how will he feel if his name isn’t on the Michelin list come October? “I don’t think negatively, I always try to think positively. But it is something you have to keep working at. It’s like sport, one year you can be in the Premiership and the next you have dropped.
“I always maintain that you can only be as good as your produce. If you can’t keep your eye on the ball then that’s where you fall down.
“We support local as much as we can; we always put local first.”
Hence his pleasure that Ken, who is discerning about who he supplies, favouring those who are as passionate about food as he is and will use the ingredients as they should be, has seen fit to link up with the Raby Hunt and invite James to be part of the ‘pod party.’
And his thoughts on his own Chef’s Pod experience? “I think the whole idea is great and it will just get better and better.”
Hopefully just like James Close.
For more information on the Chef’s Pod and upcoming events go to www.chefspod.wordpress.com
The Raby Hunt Restaurant, Summerhouse, County Durham, DL2 3UD, 01325 374237, www.rabyhuntrestaurant.co.uk