James Close on scrapping lunch hours and why Michelin has its eye on the North East

By Sophie Witts contact

- Last updated on GMT

James Close on scrapping lunch hours and why Michelin has its eye on the North East

Related tags: North east, Restaurant

In October Michelin-starred chef James Close scrapped the weekday lunch service at his restaurant The Raby Hunt in Darlington after claiming excessive working hours had become ‘demotivating’ for staff.

Two months on the chef told BigHospitality the changes had reduced staff stress and kicked off a broader plan to raise the foodie profile of the North East.

“One of the key reasons for doing this was to get everybody enjoying their job a bit more and I think that’s starting to pay off," said Close.

The Raby Hunt chefs have used the extra time to create new recipes for a development night at the end of each month, and so far four dishes have joined the main menu.

The restaurant has also begun to host a series of guest chefs including Tommy Banks from the Michelin-starred Black Swan in Oldstead.

Close said he was trying to create something with a ‘wow factor’ in the North East.

“You can go to London and see guest chefs at restaurants all the time but no one's ever done it in Darlington” he said.

“We’re hoping to get chefs to come from all around the country and eventually Europe. Being able to bring them to Darlington would be great for the area.”

Michelin calling

Until the release of the 2016 Michelin Guide The Raby Hunt was the only restaurant in the North East with a Star.

Close has now been joined by Kenny Atkinson at Newcastle’s House of Tides,​ and the chef believes the North East dining scene is on the cusp of something big.

“When we got the star I think it showed everybody in the North that people that aren’t that well known have a chance to get recognised,” said Close.

“There seems to have been a big increase in restaurants doing more refined food and trying to get a Star, and it was never like that before.

“It’s great for the North East and I think there will be a lot more Michelin-recognised restaurants in the area over the next few years.”

Close, who went to school ten minutes down the road from The Raby Hunt, said he felt a responsibility to raise the profile of the local restaurant scene.

“We want to put the North East food scene on the map,” he said.

“I was born in this area so to get a Star here is massive. You feel like you’re doing it for the North East and you feel like you’ve got the responsibility to keep improving the food in this area.”

Targeting young chefs

The chef said one of his main aims was to inspire the next generation to develop the regional food scene rather than leaving for the capital.

“London’s great but there are places outside now that can compete with it,” said Close.

“We’ve taken on a new sommelier who wanted to stay in the North East, but until we expanded our staff he had to work in London because there weren’t any options here.

“We want there to be more regional restaurants like us so at the top level people don’t have to move away.”

Worth the risk

Close admitted that though the restaurant would likely take a financial hit after axing the weekday lunch service, so far the gamble had paid off.

“Because we’re a destination restaurant lunch services can be full or empty,” he said.

"Yeah we probably will lose a little bit of money, but we’re not that bothered. It's not going to make us bankrupt.

"Is it worth it to reduce the stress on chefs? Should we give our staff a better standard of life? Absolutely."

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