James Close at The Raby Hunt (© Frasershot Studios).
“Some ideas make no sense, even when they succeed”, writes Jay Rayner, a culinary writer for The Guardian, in a review in 2015. He concludes: “Close is an impressive young chef with some very good ideas, who is still finding his voice. It’s already one to which we should listen”.
These words roll around in my head as I am approaching the restaurant. On the meadow next to it, cows graze, and the horses are curiously looking out of the fence. The beautiful stone building from the end of the 19th century has been renovated ground up, and it is hard to believe that The Raby Hunt previously housed a pub. James and his parents took it over in 2010, and at that time traditional English pub food was served here.
James belongs to a small crowd of self-taught restaurateurs who changed profession and learned to cook at a very high gastronomic level. Another autodidact is the Swedish restaurateur Mikael Jönsson, who runs Hedone in Chiswick, London. Both restaurant owners have a geeky stubbornness in common. They are perfectionists, both equally unlikely to leave their restaurant kitchen.
James grew up in the small town of Bishop Auckland, a few miles away from Darlington. He dreamed of a life as a golf pro, but didn't have what it took to get out on the tour. Instead, he started working in a golf shop, giving lessons.
“I didn't want to work there all my life but didn't know what to do instead”
This was around eight years ago. The UK economy was wobbling, and the pub in Darlington was up for sale for a reasonable asking price. James's mother had experience in running a restaurant kitchen with the idea that James would go out in the world and learn the profession; however, he quickly realized he would rather go straight into the kitchen at The Raby Hunt. As his passion for cooking became more intense, he began to frequently travel and eat at some of the very best restaurants around the globe. One of the most memorable restaurant visits was at El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona.
I was obsessed with eating at top restaurants. I had dedicated my entire life to a golfing career and failed. Now I got a chance to do something new. People think I got money from my parents, but I didn’t. I made my own money. When I was off, I traveled. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and write down ideas. I did research and tried dishes in the middle of the night. I never write down recipes but remember everything by heart, says James, who had to learn to cook from scratch.
Ingredients are incredibly important in James cooking today, and he quickly developed his creative side. “Certainly, I have become much better and more skilled, yet I am far from being where I want to be. The world is so big. I feel no fear, always seeking to further develop my skills”.
“The first star came as a shock. The second one, on the other hand, felt more awaited”
It turned out that James was a fast learner, and two years later the first big accolade came. The restaurant received a star in the Michelin Guide. And five years ago something extraordinary happened that would affect both the restaurant and James's personal life. The pastry chef Maria Guseva from Moscow stepped in through the door.
It was the only restaurant with a star in the area, Maria says. And it was already one of the best restaurants I ever visited. The flavors were pure and everything was delicious. I remember complaining about the caviar; it was not of the highest quality at that time.
Maria then started working in the kitchen at The Raby Hunt, and soon she and James became a couple. They live, travel and cook together. Maria has also worked in Japan and recently came home from an internship at the three-star El Celler de Can Roca, where she worked alongside the dessert genius Jordi Roca.
Outside the door of The Raby Hunt stands a statue in the form of a hunting dog. The house was previously part of the castle Raby Estate, which is one of the area's most visited attractions. People used to gather at The Raby Hunt after the hunt for a drink. The restaurant has been renovated in stages, most recently in the summer of 2017 after it received its second star.
We felt confident to invest in the Raby Hunt. Two-star restaurants are unusual in England, there are only eighteen, and this has made us a destination restaurant. We have many English guests who travel around and visit two-star places, but also some international foodies, says James.
“There are few English places on the list, and they are all in London. Guide Michelin is extremely important to us in the countryside”
The kitchen at The Raby Hunt has been upgraded, and at the chef’s table guests sit at a bar counter and enjoying James and his chef's craftsmanship. The skull, which has become a bit of James and Maria's signature, is available as a work of art, and the tables have white cloths that should be in a restaurant for haute cuisine.
The 15-course menu starts with a small pommes soufflée with oyster emulsion. Then comes something that in theory should an erratic introduction. First a scallop with lime and jalapeño, then crab and piglet tacos, followed by nigiri with wagyu and sea urchin. The influences transcending from Mexico to Peru and Japan.
Actually, there is a common theme when we go from one country to another, but I understand what you mean, James says. I cook what I like, and it doesn't always have to be so strictly composed.
The menu continues with a freshly prepared temp-freaked lobster with sudachi and a hint of sanchope pepper. It is crispy and extremely well-prepared. A small spicy touch is something that often comes back to James. Then a signature dish is served where the shell of the artichoke is roasted and dried and then filled with a rag on chicken heart, liver and intestines. Everything is topped with grated, cold foie gras frozen with nitroglycerin. This small bite is served with hazelnuts and cherry puree. Hot, cold, crunchy, umami and a little sweet. All in one bite.
The dinner goes on with one flavor sensation after the other. Here, Jay Rayner's words begin to take shape. Some things should not work, but James Close makes it work. The difference to many other restaurants is that each dish stands so strong in itself that when the evening is over, one already longs to start over.
James would like to have a few words with you before he goes home for tonight, says the head waiter. I go out into the hall. James handshake is hot and some small drops of sweat are on his forehead. For James, one evening in the kitchen is not just about creating fantastic food; it is about working focused and dedicated and giving 110 percent. A mentality that characterizes a professional athlete. When we meet the next day, he says:
“In my head it's exactly like that. I am manic as a Formula 1 driver or a golf pro. I give my everything and want to get better every day. Now we are preparing for tonight. It is like a football team on training for an important game. The difference is that we have a new game every night”.