Development Sunday Open to Customers

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In July, in response to the chef shortage, Sat Bains and his wife Amanda announced the restaurant would be changing to a 4-day operation. They hoped it would be a start to making ‘the industry more attractive’. It seems other chefs are looking to follow suit including Michelin-starred chef James Close from The Raby Hunt in Darlington. From next month he has decided to scrap the weekday lunch service but keep Saturdays, not only to take pressure off his chefs but also to allow them more time to create new and innovative dishes.

james1 low res“It’s something new for us,” James explained. “I feel pressure to be open every day, as a restaurant you are expected to but just opening on an evening would be perfect so we can concentrate on the night times, deliver an amazing service and dishes with a wow factor.

“It’s breaking the mould to say we are going to be open nights only, it’s to help our chefs but also to allow us to enjoy our job and ultimately give customers a better experience.”

As well as increasing creativity James wants to give his staff more time off and believes this way he ‘can rotate the staff a lot more’.

>>> Read: Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms to change to a 4-day week

He said: “Doing this job is very stressful, doing every lunch and every dinner it’s a lot of pressure and chefs get worn out. This allows them more time and we get better dishes because they have the time – if they enjoy their job more it benefits the customers.”

He added: “Some lunches we might be full but others there might be a table of two because we are so out of the way. To get ready for service for a table of two to me is counterproductive. When you add it all up and get the bottom line there’s not much we make off lunches.75

“We are a small restaurant with not many overheads so we can afford to go this way. To get better as chefs this is the idea we came up with and it is going along the same lines as Sat Bains but he has a development kitchen, we don’t, so this is the way we can try and create that.”

James wants to give his chefs a platform to showcase the dishes they will now have time to create and will open the last Sunday of every month and offer ‘The Development Menu’. Inspired by Attica in Australia, which has a ‘Creative Tuesday’ and gets a very different clientele on that day, it will consist of five experimental courses which will be completely different to the usual dishes on offer.

He said: “It’s for people interested in trying something new; out of those dishes only two might be amazing but that’s the idea, to find one or two dishes we can then transport back into the main menu.”

He added: “I really want to get the chefs involved in creativity. I want to push us forward and try to become better chefs. It will take away the pressure of having to create dishes which straight away have to go on the normal menu.

food4 low res“We want the dishes to be 100 percent new and we already know that some of the things we create will probably be rubbish but that’s the whole idea!”

The Raby Hunt is no different to other restaurants around the UK, James feels the pressure of the chef shortage as much as those in charge of larger establishments.

He said: “We do struggle big time. We had a chef come in recently, he did two weeks and then didn’t turn up. It’s very hard to find chefs who want to be in this type of industry at this level because they want to be chefs but then they realise the hours we do and it puts them off. Changing our working week is a way of trying to keep the staff.

“At the end of day we can’t be creative and we can’t be a better restaurant if we can’t keep our staff.”

Raby Hunt makes prestigious Top 100 list

A RESTAURANT in rural County Durham has proved it can mix it with the best after being included in a prestigious list of the UK’s top 100 eateries.

The Raby Hunt in the village of Summerhouse, near Darlington, was ranked 51st in Restaurant Magazine’s Top 100 – making it the 15th highest placed eatery outside London and the highest in the North East.

Owner and head chef James Close is delighted with the achievement and said: “It is one of those awards that even though it features 100 restaurants, it is still really, really hard to get in it.

Jay Rayner Reviews Raby Hunt for the Guardian

Raby Hunt: restaurant review

Raby Hunt is the tiny but miraculous first restaurant of James Close, who abandoned golfing ambitions to cook

The Raby Hunt Restaurant dining room
North star: the smart, light-filled dining room. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer

Some ideas make no sense, even when they succeed: think budget airlines, pop tarts and Milton Keynes. The Raby Hunt in the hamlet of Summerhouse, a 15-minute drive outside Darlington, is another one of those. You can work backwards from where it is now. You can list the regular appearances in best-restaurant lists, the Michelin star, the way it is hailed as a beacon of gastronomy in a region with precious few. Do that and you will declare self-taught chef James Close a visionary who knew exactly what he was doing. But did he? I suspect a rare combination of hard work, innocence, stubbornness and talent allowed him to get lucky.

Many people eat in grand restaurants and find themselves swooning. They’re slipped a piece of, say, baby rook cooked for 97 hours at 56C and then lightly brushed with unicorn tears, and they gasp. In Close’s case it was a meal at El Celler de Can Roca in northern Spain, regarded by many as one of the greatest restaurants in the world, which knocked him off his axis. Close ate some stuff. He was thrilled by it. He wanted to spend his time making thrilling stuff for other people. The remarkable bit is that he followed through on that thought. On those terms this tiny restaurant, located in a 19th-century inn quite a long way from most places, is a minor miracle.

A word in your shell-like: the Lindisfarne oyster.

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A word in your shell-like: the Lindisfarne oyster. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer

Close comes from a family immersed in the hospitality business. His mother ran a hotel. He spent a couple of years as the lowest of the low in a hotel kitchen, chopping vegetables. But that’s it. At the point when he took on the Raby (as in baby) Hunt, he was trying to make a living as a golf professional. Presumably he’d worked out he was never going to qualify for the Masters. Originally the plan was to open a 30-seat bistro, generally a euphemism for “cook some straightforward stuff and get bums on seats”. Given the pub’s location in the middle of some fields I can’t quite see how that would have worked.

Instead he serves tasting menus which shouldn’t work either, but do. Five courses cost a reasonable £35 at lunch and £55 in the evening. Nine courses are £80. We had the five courses, with substitutions so we could try as much as possible with a couple of other bits and pieces thrown in. It begins with a curl of crisp, dehydrated and salted cod skin, dotted with splodges of a saffron aioli and a hit of fennel. It crunches satisfyingly but then the flavours come through: the fish, the saffron, the aniseed. It’s a high-end snack that tastes like a perfect Mediterranean fish stew. A puck of raw scallop served at room temperature on a disc of lime is dressed with a little miso glaze and sesame seeds. So now we’re in Japan and very happy to be there. An oyster from nearby Lindisfarne has been cooked at 62C and returned to the shell atop a little fruity vinegar. Too often sous vide leaves a raw texture. Here the oyster is hinged between meatiness and rawness. It’s damned clever.

Best of these snacks, and proof of an instinct to feed, is a buttery piece of still-warm toast, laid with thin slices of lardo, the cured back fat of the pig, in turn loaded with a dollop of caviar. There is salt and crunch and fats of so many different kinds, and the knowledge that if you were brought a plate of these you’d snaffle the lot in seconds. That may just be me.

Turning Japanese: raw scallop with miso glaze and sesame seeds.

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Turning Japanese: raw scallop with miso glaze and sesame seeds. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer

A beef bone, sawn through on the horizontal and cleaned out so it looks like a piece of Skandi tableware, comes filled with slices of raw beef from a Dexter-Wagyu cross, the former gifting flavour, the latter texture. I want to track down some steaks of that for myself. It’s dressed with a little smoked marrowbone oil, dots of anchovy and torn basil leaves. It is a sultry, aromatic mouthful. Tiny cylinders of duck-liver parfait come wrapped in the thinnest leaves of smoked eel, with beetroot in various forms, including as meringue. In my notebook I scribble one word: earthy. I think that just about covers it.

A thick piece of duck breast has gloriously rendered skin and comes with a ragu of the offal with crushed hazelnuts. The latter is a tiny intense mouthful, both dirty and light at the same time. It leaves you wanting more, even though you know more would be too much. A frilly leaf of deep-fried kale takes the dish off towards thoughts of Chinese deep-fried seaweed which isn’t seaweed at all.

Most impressive of all is a plate of sea bream, served skin up. Close must at times feel he has something to prove. The temptation will be to go off on one, with a whizz and a bang. Instead he serves a piece of fish, skin crisped, flesh just the right side of done. It’s about as perfect a piece of fish cookery as you could hope for. There are swirls of a light cod’s roe cream, and a dusting of powder made from more cod’s roe that has been dried. And then a couple of wilted spinach leaves. And that’s it. It’s simple and excruciatingly effective. It is self-confidence expressed in three ingredients.

'In my notebook I scribble one word: earthy': smoked eel with beetroot and cherry.

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‘In my notebook I scribble one word: earthy’: smoked eel with beetroot and cherry. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer

We finish with a block of light milk-chocolate parfait with a salted-caramel centre, glazed with shiny dark chocolate, alongside a scoop of popcorn ice cream. It’s a Mars Bar that’s gone for a makeover on Bond Street. The otherwise charming service is so fully with the project that questioning anything becomes tricky. They insist upon making coffee through the Chemex drip method and are so thrilled about the whole palaver I couldn’t quite bring myself to say (until now) that it was merely fine and not the pokey espresso I actually wanted.

There is a bigger question around sense of place. The landscape of this part of the northeast is very particular. It can, by turns, be both brutal and enfolding. The food here, accomplished though it is, has at times a restless feel to it; beyond a little name-checking of ingredients it doesn’t reflect location in the way, say, Simon Rogan’s food does at L’Enclume in the Lakes. But that is less a criticism than an observation. 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.

Man Behind The Curtain Comes to Raby Hunt

man behind the curtain

For the first time in our short history we will be opening our doors on Sunday 5th July 2015 in a collaboration that will see James (Raby Hunt) & Michael O’Hare (Man Behind the Curtain) joining forces to create a one off menu consisting of snacks and canapés – then 4 courses each.

For those who don’t know Michael O’Hare – Let me introduce him – he is Chef/Patron of – The Man Behind The Curtain – Leeds. Michael is well known for his Leather Cuban Heels and eclectic style, once the man behind The Blind Swine in York. Nowadays the ‘lad from Boro’ has a more refined and sophisticated restaurant where he presents wonderfully creative food – theatrical with extraordinary tastes.

This event is already proving very popular and as such we have decided to hold back on releasing tickets for the event until 10am on the 18th March 2015 – Tickets will be sold on a first come first served basis. 28 Tickets are up for grabs and we sincerely hope to see you there in what hopes to be a ground breaking event for the two local North East chefs.

We will be posting more news about the event on twitter as the countdown grows closer to ticket launch day.

Follow us on Twitter @therabyhunt

Michelin Star 2015

michelin-man

Once again for the 3rd year now we have been awarded a Michelin star – STILL the only restaurant in the whole of the North East to hold such an accolade. We are very proud to again fly the flag for the north east and hope that we can push on for next year, constantly improving and updating dishes so we can continue to bring you the best food the area has to offer.

Good Food Guide 2015 – Raby Hunt enter the top 50

Waitrose Good Food Guide 2015: Press Release

Posted on: August 26th, 2014 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Three restaurants score perfect ten in Good Food Guide in a 15 year first

WaitroseGFG2015webFor the first time in 15 years, three restaurants have scored full marks (10/10), in the Good Food Guide, published by Waitrose and now in its 64th year.

In another first, Clare Smyth, Chef/Proprietor at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay has become the first female chef in fifteen years to be awarded a perfect ten score by the best selling restaurant guide, as it publishes its 2015 ranking of the UK’s Top 50 restaurants on 8th September.

For the second year running, Simon Rogan’s Cumbrian restaurant, L’Enclume, has achieved the top spot. At number two is Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, which has now scored a perfect ten for seven years in a row – longer than any other restaurant since the guide adopted its current scoring system. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay achieved third place with its top score, rising two places from last year.

Elizabeth Carter, Consultant Editor of the Waitrose Good Food Guide, explains what makes Clare Smyth so special: “After a break of a decade, Gordon Ramsay’s Chelsea flagship has once again been awarded a perfect 10. Now the domain of Clare Smyth, with support from what is, without doubt, one of the best front-of-house teams in the UK, this most impressive of London’s premier restaurants is back in that elite club. Further congratulations, too, for Smyth is the first female chef to achieve our top score in 15 years. With her brilliantly artistic, elegant, modern French cooking she perfectly complements the witty, cerebral Fat Duck and the sensual farm-to-table delights of L’Enclume at the pinnacle of our Top 50 list.”

Clare Smyth at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay said: “This is incredible, I’m absolutely overjoyed, we all are. I have personally referenced The Good Food Guide for places to eat for years and value their opinion as it’s the customers’ opinion.

“It makes it so much more significant when you know it’s through customer feedback. Like all restaurants we are one big team and my team here is tremendous, so a huge thank you from every one of us.”

Simon Rogan, head chef at L’Enclume, comments on his success: “We feel so privileged to be at the number one spot for a second year for L’Enclume. The full 10 rating really is a reflection of all the continued focus and improvements we have been undertaking at L’Enclume every single month. The team just keeps on getting stronger and stronger, and we now also have a hugely skilled front-of-house staff who more than match our culinary standards.”

The Good Food Guide’s annual Top 50 restaurant ranking is highly regarded by chefs and restaurant-goers alike, with particular attention paid to those chefs and restaurants who make it into the Top 10. Cornish favourite Restaurant Nathan Outlaw takes the number 4 spot for 2015, followed by Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus, which rises two places from seven to five. Retaining sixth place is man-of-the-moment Jason Atherton with his flagship restaurant Pollen Street Social, followed by Nottingham’s Restaurant Sat Bains at number 7, and Philip Howard’s The Square at number 8. For the first time David Everitt-Matthias appears in the Top 10, with Le Champignon Sauvage taking the ninth position, and Brett Graham’s The Ledbury completing the list.

This year’s Top 10 – cooking Score is between 1 and 10. Last year’s ranking is shown in brackets.

1. L’Enclume, Cumbria. Cooking score 10. (1st)

2. The Fat Duck, Berkshire. Cooking score 10. (2nd)

3. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London. Cooking score 10. (5th)

4. Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Cornwall. Cooking score 9. (3rd)

5. Hibiscus, London. Cooking score 9. (7th)

6. Pollen Street Social, London. Cooking score 9. (6th)

7. Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottinghamshire. Cooking score 9. (4th)

8. The Square, London. Cooking score 8. (8th)

9. Le Champignon Sauvage, Gloucestershire. Cooking score 8. (11th)

10. The Ledbury, London. Cooking score 8. (9th)

Fifteen year flashback – the 10/10 scorers in 1999

  • Nico Ladenis, Chez Nico
  • Oak Room Marco Pierre White
  • Gunn Eriksen, Altnaharrie Inn

ENDS

Waitrose Good Food Guide 2015, Top 50 UK restaurants

1. L’Enclume, Cumbria (10) 

2. The Fat Duck, Berkshire (10)

3. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London (10)

4. Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Cornwall (9)

5. Hibiscus, London (9)

6. Pollen Street Social, London (9)

7. Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottinghamshire (9)

8. The Square, London (8)

9. Le Champignon Sauvage, Gloucestershire (8)

10. The Ledbury, London (8)

11. Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Tayside (8)

12. Midsummer House, Cambridgeshire (8)

13. Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire (8)

14. The French, Manchester (8)

15. Le Gavroche, London (8)

16. Whatley Manor, The Dining Room, Wiltshire (8)

17. Fraiche, Merseyside (8)

18. André Garrett at Cliveden, Berkshire (7)

19. Fera at Claridges, London (7)

20. Marcus, London (7)

21. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, London (7)

22. The Kitchin, Edinburgh (7)

23. The Waterside Inn, Berkshire (7)

24. Pied-à-Terre, London (7)

25. Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, London (7)

26. Michael Wignall at the Latymer, Surrey (7)

27. Restaurant Martin Wishart, Edinburgh (7)

28. Artichoke, Buckinghamshire (7)

29. Fischer’s Baslow Hall, Derbyshire (7)

30. Restaurant James Sommerin, Glamorgan (7)

31. The Peat Inn, Fife (7)

32. Murano, London (7)

33. Paul Ainsworth at No. 6, Cornwall (7)

34. Gidleigh Park, Devon (7)

35. Hedone, London (7)

36. Hambleton Hall, Rutland (7)

37. Restaurant Story, London (7)

38. The Pass, West Sussex (7)

39. Casamia, Bristol (7)

40. Ynyshir Hall, Powys (7)

41. Freemasons at Wiswell, Lancashire (7)

42. Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, London (6)

43. The Hand & Flowers, Buckinghamshire (6)

44. Yorke Arms, Ramsgill, Yorkshire (6)

45. Paris House, Bedfordshire (6)

46. Simon Radley at the Chester Grosvenor, Cheshire (6)

47. The Raby Hunt, Durham (6)

48. Chiltern Firehouse, London (6)

49. Northcote, Lancashire (6)

50. The Clove Club, London (6)

An interview with James Close as featured with @theartofplating

In the village of Summerhouse, UK sits The Raby Hunt Restaurant, a Michelin starred 30 seat fine dining establishment owned by the Close family. In the kitchen, you can find chef James Close, a former pro golfer turned chef, pouring his heart and soul into the food he describes as “Simplicity.”

MY ADVICE FOR ANYONE WANTING TO SET UP A RESTAURANT IS TO FULLY COMMIT YOUR LIFE TO IT.

We had the pleasure to sit down with him for an interview and asked him about his cooking, the culinary community, and his advice for aspiring chefs.

So, you’re a former professional golfer turned chef. How did this happen?
The transition from a pro golfer to chef isn’t as much of a transition as you would think. The key attribute in both careers is consistency and adaptability. Every day is changing and all elements need to be fine-tuned. So I think the change over was easy. The only thing that has really changed is the late nights and hours!

Can you tell us about the first time you found your passion for cooking?
I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world with my parents and subsequently, from a very early age, I’ve been able to eat at some of the best restaurants. I’ve always had a keen interest in food and combinations and have always been keen to cook.

What made you choose simplicity as your philosophy for cooking?
Simplicity is something I admire in food. When you use the best of produce it should not be complicated by contrasting flavors or needless theater. If you have the best and most fresh, why ruin that? Let your customers eat food as nature intended.

Where do you find inspiration and how does that influence the way you cook or plate?
I find inspiration by traveling, reading and learning. As I’m relatively new to the industry, everyday is about learning. I would imagine even chefs with 20-30 years in the industry still need to learn, but my steep learning curve means I must do it quickly.

Nature also inspires me while plating. I let the food do the talking – a fish should look like a fish, garnish should be recognizable, and the natural form of food should be apparent. I hate being confused as a customer so I try to avoid over-complicated and over-worked presentation. I want my customer to be able to relate to my food.

What is your process for creating a new dish concept?
New dishes can take seconds or even many years to finalize but like many artists that never tire of trying to improve a painting (would time allow them), I’m the same with my food. Take for example the Smoked Eel dish – that started out as a mere canapé and over the last 2 years has developed into a full dish. Which if I’m honest, I’m still working on it!

What are some things you can’t cook without?
I can’t cook without many things, but if I had to choose one it would be my Big Green Egg. It’s a very intuitive indoor BBQ that allows me to inject flavor within foods un-creatable by traditional methods.

What is a day in your life like?
A day in my life: I live, breathe, and sleep food. When I’m not working, I’m traveling to other restaurants in other parts of the world. When I’m relaxing, I’m doing it with a cookbook. I can’t switch off but sometimes I force myself for the sake of my family. When I can unfocus for a moment, I relax by spending time with my daughter Harriet and my partner Charlotte – who both thankfully understand me, the most.

What are some of the difficulties you have faced on this culinary journey?
My biggest difficulty has been produce. I found out very quickly that if you’re not extremely thorough in your ordering and with produce management it could lead to exponential problems. Now, after some very tough discussions with suppliers, they know I only demand the absolute best and thankfully they understand that. I’m now lucky enough to be in a position that my team and suppliers will only accept and deliver the highest standard of produce – from meat to even the smallest garnish.

What advice would you give someone aspiring to be a chef or restaurateur?
My advice for anyone wanting to set up a restaurant is to fully commit your life to it. Forget your social life. Forget your past-times. Work harder than you ever thought imaginable and then work even harder. Forget lay-ins. Forget your favorite TV program. Forget looking at the clock… Wake up everyday and excel. Never be satisfied. Never think you have made it. Never relax. Question everything you do. Adapt and remember to breathe. One day in the very, very distant future take a day off (only one!) and look back at what you have achieved.

You’re the only Michelin starred restaurant in the whole north east of England. What are your thoughts on the culinary community there and how would you like to see the area improve?
Being the only Michelin starred restaurant in the north east has its advantages, but if I’m honest, I hope what we have achieved here at the Raby Hunt only kick starts a wave of future restaurants in our area to gain success. There are some talented chefs in the north east and I hope next year to be joined by some of them to represent the north east in what is, at the moment, a little bit of a culinary black hole.

 

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The Raby Hunt Restaurant

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Smoked eel with beetroot and cherry.

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Squab Pigeon with miso glazed braised leg.

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Razor clam with brown shrimps, cauliflower, samphire, morels and almond.

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Forced yorkshire rhubarb with tonka bean panna cotta.

 

The Raby Hunt Restaurant
HTTP://WWW.RABYHUNTRESTAURANT.CO.UK/

EDITOR IN CHIEF

Maria Nguyen is the Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director at The Art of Plating. As a curator of edible art, she believes that plating is as captivating for the eye as it is for the palate.

– See more at: http://theartofplating.com/editorial/james-close-of-the-raby-hunt/#sthash.1C140ean.dpuf

Visit to Champagne

Earlier this month we were lucky enough to visit one of our champagne producers – Philipponnat, located in Ay, the heart of champagne.Philliponnat

Here we are pictured helping with the harvest.

We are very lucky to have Philipponnat as our champagne of choice, being a small family run vineyard. Not only this we believe its one of the best champagnes on the market and will continually support small and unique growers.

Probably the coolest pop-up restaurant you’ll find

Some of the nation’s top chefs are ‘popping-up’ in Northumberland’s Tyne Valley – including Michelin starred James Close of the Raby Hunt – to cook meals featuring the freshest local ingredients. Is the unique Chef’s Pod a recipe for success? JANE HALL for the JOURNAL

VALLUM Kitchen Garden is overflowing with abundance. Everywhere you look vegetables are growing and ripening in the August sunshine, giving a daily harvest that will be winging its way to not just the region’s best restaurants but some of the nation’s finest eateries too.

POP-UP DINING Back, from left, Ryan Bunker, Maria Guseva and Craig Malcolm. Front, from left, Ken Holland and James Close at the Chef’s Pod. This is the heart of renowned vegetable grower Ken Holland’s empire. A true local food hero, Ken of North Country Growers fame has made his name supplying fresh organic vegetables and salads – in particular weird and wonderful heritage varieties – to the most discerning restaurants.

Among his loyal customers is a clutch of Michelin-rated chefs, including James Close of the Raby Hunt at Summerhouse near Darlington, the only North East restaurant to hold the coveted and much sought after culinary star.

Vallum Kitchen Garden is a relatively new venture for Ken (he has other vegetable growing outposts at Little Harle at Kirkwhelpington and Blagdon in Northumberland).

He and his green fingered team, which includes wife Tracy, have transformed what were fields at the Vallum Farm artisan producer hub in the Tyne Valley into a thriving and productive smallholding complete with poly tunnels and raised beds.

But something new and unexpected has sprouted from the earth this year in a quiet corner of the kitchen garden: probably the coolest ‘pop-up’ restaurant you’ll come across.

Called the Chef’s Pod, it’s a showcase for fine dining featuring, as you might expect, the plethora of fresh micro and other vegetables grown just a few feet away, although there is nothing refined about the building itself.

The brainchild of Ken, the pod is made from reclaimed wood, has wheels and a corrugated iron roof (salvaged from the doors of a fallen barn at Bellingham) and can best be described as a cross between a traditional Northumberland shepherd’s hut and a Gypsy caravan.

It boasts a tiny kitchen, a front wall that folds back to bring the outside inside and can seat a maximum of 12 at one long communal wooden table.

Inside it is decorated with storyboards telling the history of the recovered wood (beams have come from Swan Hunter, pitch pine from Newcastle’s High Level Bridge and there’s maple underground tube train flooring), while the outside walls are adorned with edible herbs and flowers planted in organ pipes from a church in Ashington.

It’s a bizarre, extraordinary and organic (as in spontaneous) creation that has captured both food lovers and chefs’ imaginations alike.

The rough-edged surroundings and the way the pod opens out to frame the kitchen garden like a living, breathing picture, only add to the atmosphere.

Boasting only a tiny albeit functional kitchen, however, you would think any self-respecting restaurant chef would run a mile before daring to set foot on the pod.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The likes of Terry Laybourne and former North East Chef of the Year David Kennedy (who has his own restaurant at Vallum) have both held sell-out dining events there in the past few weeks.

And recently it was the turn of James Close to bring his own brand of simply flavoured, locally sourced Michelin-ranked British food to Vallum.

The 33-year-old has just started taking delivery of Ken’s vegetables at the Raby Hunt, which will find out this October if it has managed to retain its Michelin award.

In return Ken invited the mainly self-taught chef (he has no formal training and has only been cooking for just over five years), to recreate his culinary magic at the pod featuring carefully selected ingredients from the garden (indeed, the aim is to ensure the inspiration for the menus behind each event is the locally sourced produce found in and around Vallum).

The lucky handful of diners sat down to a mouth-watering six course meal with canapés, including beautifully presented razor clams with brown shrimps, broad beans, peas, girolles and samphire; spring lamb with crispy kale unusually cooked on a barbecue manned by Ken himself; a delectable beer battered Lindisfarne oyster with ice plant and smoked eel with beetroot and cherry puree.

One minute the vegetables, salad leaves and herbs had been growing in Ken’s garden, and the next they were on the plate.

As Ken says: “You can’t get food any fresher than that.”

It is, as James states, a chef’s dream, being able to walk around and pick such fresh produce. That’s not to say that working on the pod isn’t challenging in other ways. If you’re used to a modern, hi-tech kitchen then the pod’s, which has fewer cooking facilities than a camper van, is an eye-opener.

But it’s one that the self-effacing James rose to admirably – and others are queuing up to follow in his esteemed footsteps. Andrew Fairlie, head chef at Gleneagles, Simon Rogan from the acclaimed L’Enclume in Cartmel (who Ken works closely with) and Claude Bosi of Hibiscus in London, are among the ‘names’ rumoured to be making their way to Vallum in the future.

The question is why, when they could be playing it safe in the familiar surroundings of their own restaurants? “Because,” James says, “there is nothing like this anywhere else and it is a challenge.”

He was also attracted by the “whole Scandinavian, natural feel it has to it and because I thought it would be a great thing to do. I didn’t do it as an advert for the Raby Hunt but because I wanted to be involved and work with Ken.

“Ken is unique himself. His vegetables are some of the best in Europe and he is using different techniques for growing.

“Ken is from the North East, I am from the North East and I think the Chef’s Pod is a great way to showcase the North East.”

As the region’s only current Michelin-starred chef, James is doing a great job himself of shouting loud and proud.

His entry into the Michelin club came as something of a surprise to the quietly spoken chef who much prefers to let his food do the talking. And no doubt it raised a

few eyebrows among seasoned chefs too who have striven long and hard to attain the honour – and thus far failed.

James came to the vocation relatively late in life after starting out as a golf professional.

But what James, who worked in a hotel for a couple of years where he “basically just did the veg,” boasts in abundance is an unerring ability to successfully pair ingredients.

His is a talent borne from instinct and a deep desire to be the best he can. He has travelled widely in Europe learning all the modern and classical techniques and his summer holiday treat to himself this year will be dining in 10 different Michelin-starred restaurants in Belgium and Germany.

He has saved the money by living over the Grade II-listed Raby Hunt – owned by his parents Russell and Helene – during the week to save on petrol driving to and from the family home in Hamsterley.

He hopes to pick up new ideas, see what the latest foodie trends are and also have the honour of tasting what his fellow Michelin-starred chefs are creating in their kitchens.

James is modest about his success. “I just do my style of cooking and thankfully it seems to work. With me it is about simplicity and flavours. We’re not into foams and the like; we are into natural food and it’s all about taste.”

It is a complaint often aired that those who achieve Michelin status find themselves under intense pressure to maintain it – a feat not always achieved. Is James worried he’s done enough to retain his star?

“Yes, there is pressure to keep it, but I don’t think about it. I have never really gone in for awards; the pressure I have is to learn. That’s the burden I put myself under. I just want to keep getting better.”

That aside, how will he feel if his name isn’t on the Michelin list come October? “I don’t think negatively, I always try to think positively. But it is something you have to keep working at. It’s like sport, one year you can be in the Premiership and the next you have dropped.

“I always maintain that you can only be as good as your produce. If you can’t keep your eye on the ball then that’s where you fall down.

“We support local as much as we can; we always put local first.”

Hence his pleasure that Ken, who is discerning about who he supplies, favouring those who are as passionate about food as he is and will use the ingredients as they should be, has seen fit to link up with the Raby Hunt and invite James to be part of the ‘pod party.’

And his thoughts on his own Chef’s Pod experience? “I think the whole idea is great and it will just get better and better.” Hopefully just like James Close. For more information on the Chef’s Pod and upcoming events go to www.chefspod.wordpress.com

The Raby Hunt Restaurant, Summerhouse, County Durham, DL2 3UD, 01325 374237, www.rabyhuntrestaurant.co.uk

Chef’s Pod – Low Mileage Food

James Close and his team are once again taking the Raby Hunt food to another location. This time to Newcastle Upon Tyne on a farm in a wooden hut!

Vallum farm situated in the shadows of Hadrians wall are artisan producers of all things grown naturally and organically. Specialist veg grower Ken Holland had an idea that would encourage chefs to use ingredients picked from the farm and delivered straight to the plate.

Chefs Pod was born. A small reclaimed wooden hut with a cooking space and a table for 10. James will create a 5 course menu using ingredients from the farm picked literally as they are needed.

The Raby hunt team will first be showcasing their food at the chefs pod on Sunday 11th August. Further dates will be announced here.

chefs pod