John Burton Race : A Profile

01 January 2000
John Burton Race : A Profile

John Burton Race is a chef's chef. He has worked his way up the culinary ladder; after 20 years in the business he's still at the stove every day and hasn't joined the ranks of the self-styled media chefs

Five years ago, Egon Ronay went as far as to say the chef-patron of two-Michelin-starred L'Ortolan in Shinfield, Berkshire, was: "Something of a freak - he doesn't appear on television; he doesn't write books; and he doesn't sign autographs."

Since then, Burton-Race has written one cookery book, Recipes from an English Master Chef, and after striking up a solid friendship with a regular restaurant customer, comedian Lenny Henry, Burton-Race became advisor to the popular BBC television series Chef.

On the whole, though, he still shuns publicity, rarely making an appearance front of house at L'Ortolan.

Shy? Possibly. Driven? Definitely, and a perfectionist to boot. One of the many citations he received for the award praised him as: "Without doubt, one of the most talented chefs in Europe."

He describes his cooking as "unashamedly influenced by classic French cuisine". It, in turn, has been lauded by the guide books.

However, Burton-Race is not afraid to admit he never set out to be a chef. "I just wanted to paint," he explains coyly. But when he failed his exams at school, his parents sent a teenage Burton-Race to work in a hotel, thinking it would be the remedy for him to return to his studies.

But their strategy didn't work; Burton-Race fell in love with cooking. He completed his City and Guilds exams at Highbury Technical College and Portsmouth Polytechnic before starting as an apprentice at the Wessex hotel, Winchester.

He recalls that, "back in the dark ages of British cooking", he learnt to break a lobster from film slides as he did not have access to the real thing!

All that was to change when he started work in the real world, working as a commis under Carl Waddsack at the original Quaglino's in London, before moving to Chewton Glen, where he met his wife, Christine.

A year at Oxford's Sorbonne was followed by what Burton-Race describes as the most formative period of his career - working with Raymond Blanc at the former Quat'Saisons. He quicklyprogressed to running the kitchen at Oxford's Le Petit Blanc.

As if these achievements were not enough, his independent streak prompted him to set up his own restaurant. And so on 7 October 1986 he opened L'Ortolan in an old vicarage in the heart of Berkshire.

A string of accolades quickly ensued, including a score of 18 out of 20 in Gault Millau and fourAA rosettes.

Having survived the lean times of recession that put his business plans on hold, he is now busy realising his ambition to open a central London brasserie. This will allow him to raise the capital to develop L'Ortolan and further develop one of the fonts of British gastronomy.

In the introduction to his book, Burton-Race reveals his belief in British cooking: "Many critics say it is difficult for us to cook with the best in Europe because we have no tradition in our craft to fall back on. This is not true. We have centuries of fine British cooking behind us, plus influences and ingredients from the centuries when Great Britain governed about a third of the world. This is a major part of my own cooking tradition."

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