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Behind the scenes at The Raby Hunt

Behind the scenes at The Raby Hunt

by Great British Chefs 14 January 2020

The Raby Hunt was virtually unknown ten years ago; today, it has become a trailblazer for a resurgent culinary scene in the North East. We went behind the scenes to chat with head chef James Close.

Scan through a list of the UK's two Michelin-starred restaurants and you’ll see, for the most part, a host of pedigree chefs running institutional establishments. Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones at Le Manoir, Simon Rogan at L’Enclume, Sat Bains at Restaurant Sat Bains, Claude Bosi at Bibendum – career chefs who have spent their lives in kitchens before climbing to the top of the pyramid.

In that context, there is a conspicuous outlier on the list. James Close, head chef and owner of the two-Michelin-starred Raby Hunt, didn’t start cooking until his late twenties. He didn’t start washing dishes in a local pub at sixteen years old, nor did he work his way up the brigade ranks; in fact, The Raby Hunt is the only kitchen he has ever known.

Instead, James had aspirations of travelling the world as a professional golfer. He spent his days at the range or on the course, obsessing over his swing, practicing, studying. ‘All I wanted to do was be a golf pro,’ he says. ‘I used to play every day, seven days a week. My house was full of golf books.’ He was in his mid-twenties when he finally called time on the dream. ‘I could have been a decent teacher but I wanted to be the best golfer in Europe,’ he says. ‘As soon as that dream died I had to walk away from it.’

Shortly after, James and his family bought a little-known old boozer in the quiet village of Summerhouse, near Darlington, with an eye towards doing it up and running it themselves. James had always loved food and he dived into the kitchen with his mother, redirecting his perfectionism into cooking. In the ten years since that fateful day, The Raby Hunt has won two Michelin stars and a whole host of accolades since then, and James has become one of the UK's most renowned chefs.

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The Close family took over The Raby Hunt in 2009 and built it into one of the best restaurants in the country
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The Raby Hunt's skull motif – nicknamed 'Freddy' – appears in the restaurant in various guises
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In over ten years at The Raby Hunt, James has never missed a service
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His partner Maria Guseva is sous chef of The Raby Hunt, and oversees the restaurant's incredible pastry creations

‘There wasn’t even a proper kitchen when we first started,’ says James as he walks us around the newly-renovated kitchen. ‘There was only room for one person. We had fridges with the doors ripped off that we used as plate racks. We didn’t even have a proper oven – it would only keep things warm so we cooked everything on the hobs. Nigel Haworth came for dinner once – I showed him the kitchen and he just started laughing.’

James’ style has evolved alongside the kitchen and dining room at The Raby Hunt. He and his mum started out rustling up pub grub for local drinkers – now he leads a kitchen team that creates a beautiful, intricate tasting menu. James taught himself to cook, largely from books but also from visiting restaurants and eating what was on offer. ‘I’ve never read a book in my life,’ he explains, ‘but I learn a lot from the pictures.’ He has a remarkable memory for things he’s tasted in certain restaurants; those combinations stick doggedly in his mind, and he uses that memory to develop new dishes at The Raby Hunt. A razor clam and almond dish, for example, has roots that extend back over a decade to a langoustine dish he tasted at the legendary French three-star La Maison Troisgros. ‘The more you eat, the more you learn,’ he shrugs, sagely.

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Pomme soufflé with oyster
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The Raby Hunt house salad always features seasonal vegetables and greens
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Langoustine tempura
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Squab leg with cavolo nero, brioche, fois gras and truffle

When James is developing new recipes, he takes inspiration from far and wide. ‘We start the menu off with a lot of global things inspired by our travels,’ he explains. ‘This allows us the freedom to create whatever we want before we go into our signature dishes.’ Plates at The Raby Hunt start with a single ingredient – the best possible ingredient they can source – and then a dish gradually unfurls from that. ‘Lots of that stuff is local,’ says James, ‘but we use the best ingredients, regardless of where they come from. I don’t want to be growing a tomato if I know I can get better tomatoes from France.’

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Mango and yuzu tart
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The Raby Hunt's signature chocolate skull comes in various flavours throughout the year

No one in the North East had a Michelin star when James won his first in 2012. All eyes were on Kenny Atkinson at Rockliffe, who was expected to win a first star for the region – instead, an unknown pub in tiny Summerhouse appeared on the list. Two Michelin stars later, The Raby Hunt is the patriarch of the North East's culinary scene. James is keen to start up a food festival in the region that brings together local chefs and food businesses, and the restaurant continues to press on with its perfectionist head chef at the helm. The prospect of a third star always looms, but James is only concerned with improvement. ‘It’s just about getting better,’ he explains. ‘It’s an obsession to be better – find better ingredients, better cooking techniques, build a better team. That’s our ethos now.’

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Behind the scenes at The Raby Hunt

 
 

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