James Sommerin

James Sommerin

Noted for his innovative, flavourful food, James Sommerin has won two Michelin stars in his career – one at The Crown at Whitebrook and another at his eponymously named restaurant in Wales.

You’d be hard pushed to find a Welshman who isn’t proud of his roots, and none more so than James Sommerin. The Caerleon-raised chef has remained faithful to Wales, garnering a reputation that has helped elevate the country’s gastronomic status. What sets him aside from his region’s peers is his characteristic cuisine, which he explains, is focused 'on more unusual products, to show there’s more to Wales'.

His modus operandi has certainly evolved since the Saturdays he spent making bread and corned beef pasties with his gran, whom he credits for giving him an appreciation of good food and a passion for cooking. As a teenager he earned his stripes at an Italian restaurant, went on to formal training after school, then worked at the Cwrt Bleddyn Hotel near Usk before making his way to Scotland. It was here, at the Farleyer House Hotel in Aberfeldy, where a youthful James learned the pared-back French style of Richard Lyth, a chef who – whilst not holding the same culinary rank as celebrated mentors such as Pierre Koffmann – had a profound influence on him. 'If it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. He taught me the important things like seasonality, quality of ingredients, and respect more than anything else,' he affirms.

Scotland proved fortuitous for the fledging cook – he was shortlisted for Young Scottish Chef of the Year and met his wife Louise, with whom he has three girls. In August 2000, after five years at Farleyer, he returned to Wales to work as a sous chef at The Crown at Whitebrook in Monmouthshire. In late 2003 he became head chef; in 2007, the recipient of his first Michelin star – something he is immensely proud of, given his non-Michelin background. The Observer marked him as a Chef to Watch in 2008; potential he realised in 2009 when he won the Welsh regional final of BBC2’s Great British Menu (he also competed in 2008, 2010 and 2012). He maintained the coveted star – Wales’s longest-standing – until The Crown closed in 2013. It has since re-opened as The Whitebrook, headed up by the Raymond Blanc-trained chef Chris Harrod, who secured a star in 2015.

In summer 2014 his 'baby' – Restaurant James Sommerin – opened on Penarth’s esplanade, a short drive from Cardiff. The dining room’s minimalist, vaguely masculine décor is smart and sumptuous, winning him yet another star from the Michelin Guide in 2016 – an accolade it held until its closure in 2020.

James' contemporary cuisine is inspired by France though keenly British, loyal to good quality local produce and the seasons, light on the stomach – and unique.

It’s fair to assume that James' hero is the food itself. 'I don’t like to overshadow the ingredients,' he says. The key, he feels, lies 'with fantastic produce and treating it sympathetically'. Although his approach is modern, he’s chosen not to deconstruct too much or be fancy for fancy’s sake. 'It’s not about having masses of complicated elements on the dish; you want the main element to really speak for itself. When we serve scallops with Iberico ham, it’s literally scallops and Iberico ham. The flavours are really pronounced and there’s something slightly earthy about it. That’s what it’s all about.'

At Restaurant James Sommerin, menus continued to showcase the clever flavour combos that brought James applause in his early days. Sometimes they appeared revised; a dish of langoustine and white chocolate evolved to include turnip and tonka bean over the original fennel, for example. Menus were succinctly scribed with just three to five ingredients disclosing each dish – a bold format that was perplexing to some, tantalising to others. Jerusalem Artichoke, Egg, Truffle was one example; Turbot, Carrot, Cockles, Ginger is another – unexpected flavour medleys that delighted diners.

James Sommerin is a local-boy-done-good, a family man whose wife worked in the restaurant and whose daughter was sous chef in the kitchen (and also appeared on Great British Menu). While Restaurant James Sommerin has now closed, for as long as his cuisine brings class and invention to Wales’s fine dining scene, James' career will continue in the ascendant.