It’s a hell of an admission for a Michelin star chef to make: but James Close likes McDonald’s Big Mac’s!
Every now and then (well, about once a month if we’re being honest), the 35-year-old who brought Michelin star success back to the North East in 2012, hungers after the legendary burger food snobs love to slate.
“Yes, I go to McDonald’s,” the self-effacing cook owns up. “Every four weeks, or so, I crave a Big Mac. You cook fine dining food all week and sometimes all you want at the end of the day is a burger.”
He’s not adverse to the odd KFC either.
The surprise confession sums up James’ attitude to food. He may just have garnered a Michelin star for the third year in a row for The Raby Hunt Restaurant and seen the acclaimed eatery enter the hallowed upper ranks of both the prestigious Good Food Guide and Sunday Times dining out lists in recent weeks, but he has a refreshingly relaxed approach to gastronomy.
Despite his Michelin star status, James insists The Raby Hunt Restaurant in the wonderfully named Summerhouse near Darlington, isn’t a fine dining destination. In fact, he dislikes the term.
“We don’t see ourselves as fine dining. We serve good food but it’s more relaxed than that. We are not formal. You’re welcome to come and eat with us wearing jeans and trainers; we aren’t bothered.
“We don’t do over the top food and we aren’t an over the top place. We don’t have a sommelier and our philosophy is that the customer is always right. It’s their occasion.”
The Raby Hunt specialises in seasonal tasting menus, which are driven by simplicity. “With limited yet distinct flavours on every plate,” James explains.
There are two choices: a five course at £55 per head or a nine course at £80.
But neither James nor his team are going to launch an expletive ridden tirade should a diner decide they only want two or three courses.
It’s all part of his belief that the customer is the one in charge.
“We believe our diners want a bit more, but at the same time we aren’t going to argue with people who may only want three courses. Most people want the full tasting menu, but we know it’s not for everyone.
“Some people don’t like having the element of choice removed. But for those who do order the tasting menus it’s the chance to enjoy some of the finest seasonal ingredients on offer.
“We believe that doing it this way serves up the ‘wow’ factor and you get to experience more of the flavours.”
Agree or not, there is no argument that The Raby Hunt is definitely the flavour not just of the month but 2014.
It’s been a phenomenal year so far for James and his team – with the promise of more to come as we head into 2015.
In early September they heard they had been named as one of the Good Food Guide’s Top 50 British restaurants – the only establishment in the region to appear on the influential list.
The Raby Hunt went straight in at number 47 with a score of six out of 10, putting it alongside esteemed restaurants like Hibiscus, Le Gavroche and Restaurant Gordon Ramsey in London, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck at Bray in Berkshire and Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
Later that same month The Raby Hunt retained its coveted Michelin star for the third year in a row – again making it the only North East restaurant to hold the dining honour.
Then in October the eatery became the first in the North East to be included in the respected Sunday Times 100 Top Restaurants list, going straight in as a new entry at number 26 – ahead of the Fat Duck at 29, London’s Pied a Terre at 28 and The Latymer at Pennyhill Park in Surrey, at 27.
Not bad for a self-taught chef who had originally wanted to be a golf professional.
But having worked in a hotel kitchen for a couple of years where he “basically just did the veg,” James caught the cooking bug.
While there are many good chefs out there, James is in a league of his own. His talent in the kitchen is borne from natural instinct and a deep desire to be the best.
Good isn’t good enough.
James is so driven that he spends his days off and holidays swotting up on food. He and his partner Charlotte Walton, 27, (the couple have an 18 month old daughter, Harriett, together), spend a lot of time eating out and seeing what the competition has to offer.
Every year James closes The Raby Hunt for a couple of weeks and he and his team head-off to work in the Michelin star kitchens of Europe’s finest restaurants.
Here they will pick-up new ideas, see what the latest food trends are, learn a host of modern and classic cooking techniques and perfect those they already have, and also have the honour of tasting what is being served up by some of the world’s finest chefs.
Despite having a Michelin star to his name, James is still too modest to put himself in the same league or to imagine that fellow chefs may actually wish to learn from him.
Indeed, he seems to almost be mystified by the number of dining honours being heaped on The Raby Hunt. The only surprise to those who know and love his food is that a second Michelin star hasn’t yet come his way.
Getting the star in 2012 came as a genuine shock to James, however. It also came at something of a cross-roads’ in this life. “I had to deal with getting the Michelin star, all the publicity that came with that and having a baby all at the same time.”
It says much that James was able to hold everything together and not only go on to cement his star status but earn other dining plaudits.
The Good Food Guide recognition has been especially pleasing.
“We have been in the Good Food Guide before, but we have never been in the top 50. To be the first North East restaurant to go into the top 50 is fantastic and it has opened our eyes to the fact that people are starting to notice us.
“It’s amazing to think that we are now recognised as one of the best restaurants in the UK, even more so when the scoring is so tough.
“The Good Food Guide marks everything out of 10, so to get in you have to be a very high-quality restaurant. To even get a score of one is good.
“We started off with three and now we have gone into the top 50 with a score of six. Only a handful of restaurants have seven, 10 a score of eight, four nine and three, including the top placed L’Enclume in Cumbria, the full 10.
“To get a score of six is incredible, and it gives us something to build on now.”
But as James points out: “If you remember that the judging for these sort of awards takes place over many months and that when they are published they are usually a year behind, then you can take it that we are already a year better.
“I go around all the restaurants in the UK and Europe and I’m constantly learning and taking on board what’s being done. That’s the only way you learn yourself. I know I am lucky to be able to do it, but I have zero in my bank account!”
His constant search for perfection means The Raby Hunt’s food is both a work in progress – not that diners would ever notice – and ambitious. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is a Vallum Farm Salad.
Using produce grown by North East veg hero Ken Holland at the Tyne Valley food hub in Northumberland, the salad which changes with each season, is a 30-ingredient dish comprising of different layers from multi-coloured beetroot to crispy deep-fried kale leaves.
Another signature dish includes Lindisfarne Oysters cooked at precisely 62C.
Unlike many chefs, James is not anti-food awards. While he admits he gets nervous in the run-up to the Michelin star announcements, he recognises their worth, especially when it comes to raising food standards.
He is desperate for the North East to be seen as a good food destination and would welcome Michelin competition.
“I don’t just want to be the only one,” he says. “I would welcome the pressure of somebody else getting a Michelin star. It would be great for the region. As far as I am concerned, let’s get the standard of the food up and get things moving in the North East.
“There are a lot of chefs in the North East who say they want a star, but they have never come here to The Raby Hunt to eat. But if you want to get better then you have to go off and eat at these places and work with the two and three star Michelin chefs and see how it’s done.”
He says getting two stars “doesn’t enter my head,” but then neither did he expect to garner his current accolades so quickly. “I had thought perhaps you have to work for 20 years to get that sort of attention.”
As you can imagine, James isn’t standing still. There are plans to expand The Raby Hunt. He wants to add another two bedrooms to the two the restaurant currently boasts.
He is also thinking of creating a new bar area and opening up the kitchen with a glass wall so diners can see what’s going on.
And, of course, the food is constantly evolving.
But he says: “I wouldn’t want to get too big. I’m still learning, I’m always learning.”
One wonders whether James Close will ever be satisfied; if he will ever think he has ‘made it’; if he will ever feel he can relax?
The Raby Hunt Restaurant, Summerhouse, County Durham, DL2 3UD, 01325 374 237, www.rabyhuntrestaurant.co.uk