Nick Faldo is the somewhat surprising influence behind the success of James Close and his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, the Raby Hunt in Darlington. Neil Gerrard meets the self-taught chef to discover how he managed to become one of the best in the country
By the age of 28, James Close was at a dead end. It's odd to hear the man who is Chef of the Year in the latest Good Food Guide, as well being the only person to win two new Michelin stars in 2017, describe himself as a failure, but that's the way he saw himself for a time.
Close is now known for his clever yet simple ingredient-led cooking at the 26-cover Raby Hunt in Summerhouse, just outside Darlington, but less than a decade ago he wasn't even a chef. He was a professional golfer, scraping a living teaching amateurs as an assistant at the local course and hacking his way around provincial competitions.
This was before Close, now 37, discovered food, and discovered it in a fairly major way.
As the golf faltered, he decided to take a year out and travel around France, and while he did so he visited restaurants and markets, taking notes as he went. On his return, one of his father's friends pressured him into getting a job washing up at nearby Headlam Hall to see what it was like to work in a professional kitchen.
Gradually, he and his parents formed the idea of buying a local pub, and they acquired a former drovers' inn - a fairly traditional boozer and originally part of the Raby estate. Initially they offered pretty standard pub fare, like fish and chips, and even that didn't go down particularly well with the locals. "It was a proper real ale pub and we got stick at the beginning because we said we were going to do a restaurant.
"People were kicking up a fuss, but it wasn't working as an ale pub," Close explains.
However, despite the locals' doubts, the venture was a success, and for about a year and a half the pub was "absolutely heaving" with customers enjoying their fish and chips. That might have been enough for some, but for Close it was just the start of an incredible culinary journey - one that has seen him transform from a sportsman who 10 years ago had not, by his own admission, even heard of Michelin, to today being in charge of one of just 20 restaurants across the country (and the only one in the North East) to hold two stars.
It's not unusual to hear a pub chef tell you about how their predecessor had failed because they had tried to create a fine-dining restaurant instead of sticking to a tried and tested formula.
In that respect, what Close and his parents did when they opened the Raby Hunt made sense.
What came next took a little more faith. The early days of helping to run the pub fired Close's interest in food. He started to go to more restaurants, began to study top chefs and travelled to their restaurants.
"Obsessed is a big word, and I don't think it is the right way to describe it, but I really saw this as the right time to prove that I could do something,"
Close explains. "I had this opportunity with this restaurant that had been bought for me and I was like, 'right, I am going to do it'."
Gradually, the self-taught chef became more adventurous in his creations. "I remember the first time I used a waterbath," he recalls. "We were probably about a year old and I hadn't got a clue what I was doing. I remember it was New Year's Eve and I stuck a fillet of beef in the bag and I asked myself all these questions: should I have seasoned it before? When do I season it? When do I fry it off? What temperature does it need to be in the middle? I had to go and research all of that. El Celler de Can Roca was massive for that because they have a book on sous vide, so I bought that and started learning. Then I started working out flavour combinations. I used to wake up in the middle of the night making notes about what might go with something else and recording it."
That's not to say that the Raby Hunt's kitchen is equipped in quite the same way as El Celler de Can Roca. In fact, when you see what Close has been working with, it makes his achievements all the more impressive. It is, in his words, "ancient".
There's an old oven that has been there since the days when it was a pub - which Close says he doesn't even use - a solid top, and a reasonably sized pass.
There are some signs of more sophisticated kit: an Urban Cultivator for microgreens and herbs under the counter and a couple of the aforementioned water baths, but that's it.
Outside, there is a walled garden that Close has built with the help of his friend, the renowned grower Ken Holland. Fridges are stored in a shipping container outside the back of the restaurant. "We laugh that we're the only two-star with a shipping container out the back," he says. It's not a large kitchen, either.
"You should see it on a Saturday night. We do things old school and it's mental. We are doing 12 dishes on the menu at the moment, so you times 12 dishes by 24 and you get 300 dishes in here. Now we have three or four chefs, but every service kills you because it's full-on.
"Every service I have had to consistently smash it, and we do. Every night has been perfect for seven years. You would say, surely you have fucked one service, but I can't think of a single dish that has ever come back."
That's not to say there won't be improvements. After seven years at the Raby Hunt, an extension is to be built to allow the kitchen to divest itself of its shipping container. A bar area by the entrance will also be converted into a pastry kitchen with a chef's table. "We are going to update it, but we have never been able to invest in it because my mum and dad invested their savings to get this property for me. It's not like we've got shitloads of money. We were never going to go and get a new kitchen even after one star - we needed a business plan," he says.
Perhaps Close's rapid progress has been driven in part by the fear of financial failure.
He tells me that the Raby Hunt has always turned a profit but it hasn't been something he and his parents have taken for granted.
"I would say that I have learnt in the same way as everyone else, but I have done so extremely quickly because I knew that as a business this place might not survive unless I got the accolades and moved forward.
"The month before we got the first star, I had a meeting with my dad upstairs and he said that this place wasn't going to survive. We were busy, but not busy enough. When we got the star it changed everything. The phone was ringing, and because it's the North East, everyone wants to come and try it. If we hadn't got the star then, I don't know what we would be doing now."
Now with two, it's another order of magnitude and the restaurant is booked up some way in advance on Fridays and weekends.
Luckily, Close's style of food suits his basic kitchen. He is very enthusiastic about cultivating his own high-quality vegetables - baby radishes, baby turnips, mustard, cress, pea shoots and so on - hence his friendship with Holland (see panel), and, as well as the Urban Cultivator, he is also growing vegetables under lights upstairs. There are also plenty of raw dishes that employ fresh, top-quality ingredients.
And then there are the water baths: "We do a lot of water-bathing, but we don't do it like everybody else does it," he explains. "You can't just vac things up and chuck them in - you have to be clever. So we might fill the bath with duck fat and drop the birds into it. But we never cook fish sous-vide - I hate that. Our style is very pure."
That he is more assertive about what his style is now (although he's keen to not give away too many secrets) shows how far Close has come since those early days. So does he see being self-taught as a disadvantage?
"It is definitely a disadvantage, but it is also a huge advantage," he says. "A disadvantage because you are always trying to learn techniques - classic sauces, for example - that you have never been shown. You second-guess yourself, and you doubt yourself. But that means you have to rely on your palate.
"Being self-taught showed me how to do these sauces without doing it the classic way and maybe even do them better. If you extract beef juice direct from beef mince through the water bath you get this pure juice. It's better than a classic sauce, which is full of wine. Being self-taught allows you creative freedom.
A lot of the stuff you come up with doesn't work and ends up in the bin, but then there will be one dish that is mindblowing and on a different level - and that's what we do."
In that sense, the travel that Close did in his early days, and the obsessive touring of restaurants, has diminished in importance. "I would say that in the first five years, if I hadn't done that, I wouldn't have got anywhere," he says.
"But now you have to watch that you don't overdo it because you don't want to get influenced by other people too much. The better I get, the more I would like to have the ideas completely by myself."
Having the space to be creative is very important to Close, who in October last year scrapped midweek lunch services to allow him and his team more headspace to devise innovative dishes. "Suddenly we had a bit more time and everyone was a bit fresher," he says of the move. "Everyone has one menu now,
so it gives us more time to make sure that everything comes in right, the produce is right, we are not rushing around. But it has only been a year, so I would say it probably hasn't kicked in that much yet."
Ahead of the game
It's clear that Close is highly competitive and strives to be not just better than the competition, but also different. A supplier tells me how he wants items in his restaurant that not only fit with his vision but also aren't being used by anyone else. Could his drive, focus, and the success he strives for be explained by his background as a sportsman?
"Massively," he replies. "I try not to relate too much to chefs, but I do look at sport and people like Nick Faldo. He is a complete perfectionist. He changed his golf swing halfway through his career and everyone asked him what he was doing it for and then he went and won six majors. Although when I was a golfer I probably practised too much. I didn't have the confidence. You have to embrace the perfectionism, but you also have to know when to switch off. For the first few years here I couldn't do that but you need to create a balance. Yes, it is great to create dishes, but I also need to go on a golf holiday occasionally and just chill out and have a few beers. If I didn't have that, I'd probably be a bit fucked up, to be honest with you."
And so, perhaps there is more of a link between golf and Michelin-starred restaurants than there first appears. Certainly it's not one that Close wants to forget. One of the quirkier aspects of the chef's personality is his love of skulls.
His Twitter profile is a picture of a skull, he has a large silver one on show in the restaurant, and the menu features a handmade chocolate skull at the end of the meal. When he first introduced it, making and tempering the chocolate himself and using a mould he found in Belgium, Close reckons the Raby Hunt was
the only restaurant to offer such a thing in the UK. Now others are starting to get in on the act and so, true to form, he's starting to think of what he can do differently - he serves a chocolate Buddha occasionally, for example. But the skull will be something he sticks with in one way or the other - he even has a skull bracelet and drinks from a black skull mug as we talk.
What's the significance? It's a reminder, he says. "We don't want to overdo it, but I just liked it, so I got into it. There is a bit of meaning.
"Everyone goes through times where they might fail or hit that wall in life and it just reminds me that anything is possible."
•Raw scallop, grapefruit
•Artichoke (fresh white Alba truffle £20 supplement)
•Razor clam, almond, celeriac
•Raw beef, nasturtium, basil
•Sea bream, smoked cod roe, spinach
•Black olive, chocolate and sheep's yogurt
Nine-course tasting menu, Saturday lunch, £70 per person; 10-course tasting menu, Wednesday to Saturday evening, £85 per person.
Staff on tour
One of James Close's chefs is currently working in a restaurant in Asia, but Close won't say where, on what is effectively a paid placement. It was Close's idea to foster loyalty among his trusted chefs, as well as allow them to broaden their knowledge.
"We have this problem where there aren't enough chefs and then when you do get one they leave after six months. I am going to tackle it by employing four or five chefs and sending the sixth one to work somewhere for six months and I will pay them while they are away. I think it is the way forward if you can afford it," he says.
"Otherwise, someone comes here and works for six months and then fucks off and you have to get someone new and train them up, which is horrendous."
James Close's accolades aren't just important for him - they put the North East on the map. Recent plaudits, as well as the second Michelin star for the Raby Hunt, include the Newcomer Award Catey for the Staith House in North Shields this year and the burgeoning reputation of places like Kenny Atkinson's House of Tides in Newcastle (2015 Newcomer Catey winner).
Close was born in Bishop Auckland in County Durham and is now one of a number of culinary ambassadors for the region, and he's keen to see it get more
attention on the national stage.
"You have Terry Laybourne, who was the first person to get a star in the North East, and he has been an amazing ambassador for the area and still is," says Close. "And now we have two stars I do feel the need to do my bit. We are busy at the moment, but eventually, if anyone wants my help or to listen to me, then I'd be happy to do it."
And while Close doesn't source purely locally, he'd like to do so more.
"We have some great suppliers in the North East and we need more of them," he says. "I wish there was a supplier doing Durham Wagyu beef or something like that, but at the moment there isn't and I have to go further afield."
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In