Restaurants: The Long and Winding Road

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How do you become the most exciting young chef in Britain? Eat lamb’s hearts at three, climb a mountain at eight, and work with the very best in the world. Easy, right? David Lloyd meets Lake Road Kitchen’s James Cross.

James Cross is worried. His Lake Road Kitchen hasn’t merely scooped Best New Restaurant in this year’s Good Food Guide, it left the competition so far behind it’s bordering on awkward.

His neat Ambleside venue, with its log-cabin cladding and womb-like galley kitchen, is cooking up the sort of superlatives few restaurants attract in their lifetime, let alone within their first few months of opening. And we’re coming down from the mountains, beating a path to its door.

But, as Bitten arrives, James is seized by matters more pressing. The weather.

“Where are the ceps?” he asks Bitten. We pat our pockets. We’re all out. “This time last year we’d bagged a huge harvest. This year, nothing.”

You or I, gripped by an unshakable conviction to make merry with the wild mushrooms, might reach for the big jar of dried porcini festering away in the back of our store cupboard (oh, ok, just us). But that’s not the LRK way. If James – or sous chef Freddie – don’t happen upon them, wandering lonely as a cloud on their Cumbrain morning constitutionals, they’re off the menu.

“I mean, what season is this supposed to be anyway?” James frets, looking out onto a busy Lake Road – Gore-tex-covered tourists caught short by an uncommonly warm blast of late autumn sun. A last hurrah for the summer that never was.

For James, making do isn’t a matter of fudge and compromise. Rather, it’s about finding deliciousness in the least expected places. About recalculating another route to this evening’s dinner when a cold snap’s wreaked havoc with your courgette flowers. And the journey’s the thing.

People will judge, that’s just the way of it. What concerns me isn’t what people write. It’s making sure all of us walk out at the end of the day with a sense of pride over what we’ve accomplished.

It’s why this small, industrious little spot, squeezed politely between Lakeland watercolourists and outdoorsy boutiques, is responsible for some of the most dramatic pursuits this side of Helvellyn – Belted Galloway steaks aged for 90 days, slow roasted octopus tentacle, buttermilk fried guinea hen, heritage carrots pimped up like the porn stars we always knew they were. Little gilded parcels of precise and delicate beauty, arranged like the illuminated initials of monastic manuscripts.

As Bitten settles into a window seat, James’ personal weather front seems to dissipate, as he lets us into a secret.

“I never used to get it, the weather,” he says, slurping the froth from a hastily arrived espresso for Chef. “Now it fucking dictates absolutely everything we do.”

It’s hard to imagine any other Ambleside eatery being quite so hung up about the vagaries of the Cumbrian climate – save for a sudden downpour delaying them enroute to the wholesaler’s. But this is a man with previous – a spell at René Redzepi’s Noma was every bit as formative as you’d imagine it to be.

“René was always looking at the forecast on his phone, watching what weather patterns were coming in. Reworking the menus if the rain came…”

It’s tempting to start wrapping the story up here – after all, it all fits into place, doesn’t it? Young chef, starred-up after spending time in Copenhagen’s cauldron of northern European cooking, sets up on his own Noma by numbers in the North West.

But spend time with James and before long, a deeper truth emerges. His foraging retraces a songline that stretches back way before René pickled his first cloudberry. Because northern European cooking isn’t a culinary calling card, it’s an entire system of living. Meals this magical are as much about place as they are about technique. About a deep, visceral connection with the coordinates you choose to set up camp in. Or maybe it’s the coordinates that choose you.

First, plant your feet in its soil. Then go out and let the landscape offer itself up to you. Don’t even think of warming up your oven until your place tells you what’s on the menu.

For James, the lessons began on wintery walks with his family – on holiday from their Birmingham home – a quarter of a century ago.

“We used to come up here and just walk and walk,” he says, “Dad was very outdoorsy, and there was no allowance made for the fact that I was eight. We’d set off in the snow, over Striding Edge, or traversing (notoriously tricky Lakeland ascent) Jack’s Rake. I was never allowed to sit still. Never allowed to stay in the cottage and watch a movie. I saw a lot of these hills.”

James tells of how, on his 33rd birthday, he retraced the Striding Edge walk with his Dad. It must have felt like he’d come full circle? That those breathless afternoon scrambles were always leading, inexorably, to Lake Road Kitchen’s door?

Maybe. But James took an awfully long detour to get here. A degree in Classical Literature and a Post Grad accelerated course in Law (“the plan was to become a lawyer,” he says) saw to that.

But he was always cooking.

“I got into mushrooms when I was at university,” he says – without pausing to acknowledge that the statement could have any other meaning than purely gastronomical.

“I learned that you couldn’t buy good wild mushrooms off the shelf, but if you bought an OS map and tracked down areas of forests, that was more rewarding than any trip to the supermarket.”

This is what happens when you stay away from the Cow and Gate. “Mum never bought baby food. She made everything from scratch – most of it from Dad’s allotment. I suppose the love of seasonal stuff must have started there,” James says. “What you learn when you’re young stays with you throughout and I often return to Mum’s words of wisdom when I need inspiration.”

That, and an early exposure to that classic toddler fayre – lamb’s hearts and snails.

“I went skiing with Dad in France, and he took me to a little auberge and said ‘it’s time you tried some snails.’” James grins at the pleasure the freshly plucked memory releases. “I remember every single thing about that whole meal. The little fella behind the bar cooking up the snails. I absolutely loved it. Once you’ve had snails as an eight year old, there’s no going back.”

Between University courses, James waited tables at Raymond Blanc’s Le Petit Blanc Birmingham (“I was front of house, but I knew more about food than some of the chefs”) and, over time, doubts began to creep into the edges of James’ meticulously planned career path.

“I never saw a career in cooking. I never saw a financial return on it,” he admits. “I’d make lavish Thanksgiving feasts for my American flatmates, read up on cooking techniques, but never thought it was something more than a hobby.

Readily admitting that his Dad – who ran a successful GP practice – would have supported him whatever left turn he decided to take, James revisits the thought processes of his 20 year old self like someone wandering through a strange and alien landscape.

“I suppose I was on a journey that finished when I realised I didn’t want to be a barrister. That it really didn’t matter about the six figure salary,” he concludes.

If a spell at Edgbaston’s Michelin-starred Simpson’s edged him ever closer towards the inevitable, it was James’ Dad – again – who encouraged him to take that final push to the summit.

“He called me to say he’d seen a call out for contestants for a cookery show on the BBC. He’s like that. It’s all about direct action with Dad. He saw me agonising about what to do, and decided it was time I stopped dithering I guess.”

James sailed through the auditions. The show? The rebooted Masterchef with added Greg and John. The competition? Thomasina Miers. “I was doing well until my soufflé collapsed on me!” James recalls with an almost imperceptible shudder.

Miers won the battle (when, years later, Miers ate at Noma, René escorted her backstage for a reunion, introducing her to the brigade as ‘the chick that put James out of the competition’ – James recounts with a smile), but one can’t help but feel James’ Dad won the war. His long game campaign was well underway.

“Dad doesn’t have this concept of ‘it’s too difficult’. He lost two brothers and his father to heart attacks, so he knows all there is to know about living in the moment,” James says, of his father who retrained, in his 30s, to be a GP.

“He was unhappy. He knew what he had to do. He did it. My ability to keep pushing is down to him, no-one else.”

Masterchef completed, James took to work on an organic farm, using the time to plant seeds of an altogether hardier disposition.

“I don’t want to look back and say if you pushed harder you could have been more,” he says. “I want to reach my potential in everything I do. If my Dad sees an opportunity, he takes it, he gets it right, he has the courage of his conviction. He has this deep set belief that he knows best. When it comes to making the decisions you make to get you where you are, it’s only you. No-one else.”

There’s just six of us. We make tasty food. We work together, and we deliver excellence. Everything has to fucking nail it. Every time.

Decision made, James’ next moves were as surefooted as a mountain goat on Wansfell Pike, ticking off time as a stagiaire (trainee) in Heinz Beck’s 3 Michelin-star La Pergola in Rome, and Thomas Keller’s 3 star Per Se in New York. It was here where he met Matt Orlando – now owner of Copenhagen’s celebrated Amass, then Sous Chef for Keller.

“You have a limited window when you can go to a kitchen that will test you to the limits, and just absorb it with no responsibility to win a star. Be a nobody in an amazing space. You can’t do that for long, there comes a moment when it’s your time.”

Orlando, recalled to be the first Chef de Cuisine at Redzepi’s Noma (he’d spent time here as Sous Chef prior to Per Se) had already clocked the industrious force of nature that the young James embodied. And James? His eyes locked, laser-like, on Orlando.

“I watched him work, I learned from him. He’d come in with a basket of mushrooms and ask, ‘who wants to prep these?’ Boom. ‘I want to prep them chef.’ I was all over it. We became friends. We were on the same page. Chefs would bring their food to him, and if it wasn’t bang on, he’d be like ‘what are you doing? Treat produce with the love it deserves. All I get to do on the pass is to plate your product. This is your food. It’s a representation of you as a chef.’

It’s about putting the fate of the chefs squarely in their own hands?

“Fucking damn right it is. It’s about self discipline,” James shoots back, with a smile.

“Matt could open up a burger van and I’d follow him.”

Fortunately, he was off to Copenhagen. And he took James with him – where the young chef was given control of an entire section. The heat was on.

“We had 15 chef de parties, more than 35 stagiaires from 22 nationalists over three kitchens on multiple floors. It was intense.”

And the main man?

“He’s a genius,” James says of Redzepi without missing a beat. “Some men are great men. You know what I mean? I mean, this man is wise.”

Asked to recall what was the single most transformative nugget Redzepi gave to the nascent Chef, and James has no hesitation, “He told me, ‘your biggest problem in the kitchen is that when things go wrong, you beat yourself up too much. You need to let go of things quicker than you do.’”

James glances coyly to us, as if to say ‘fair cop’. And, pushed further, he admits to a few more tête-à-têtes with the wise one that were more forthright than philosophical. “Sure, there were some moments of high drama, but it was always awe-inspiring being around him. If you’re smart, you have to absorb all this energy, this…wonderment.”

Wonderment. That’s a word, we wager, that’s stuck.

“René can’t be defined by anyone or anything other than what’s in his heart. That’s enough for him. Stars don’t matter. None of it matters. What he does transcends all that stuff.”

After Noma? “Well, there’s nowhere else you can go, except set out on your own,” James admits. “Anything else would be a backwards step.”

Which brings us to this sparse, cool space – recently in with a bullet in the Good Food Guide’s Top 50 – and No1 in the Best New Restaurant. Michelin? They’ve picked up the scent, for sure. But if all inspectors’ eyes are on him, James doesn’t look like he’s a rabbit in anyone’s headlights.

“People will judge, that’s just the way of it. What concerns me isn’t what people write. It’s making sure my staff have jobs. Making sure all of us walk out at the end of the day with a sense of pride over what we’ve accomplished. If we don’t cook delicious food, if we don’t have a dining room that’s buzzing and full happy guests, it means nothing.”

And so, every week, with just a handful of days off at Christmas James, Sous Chef Freddie, and front of house team run by James’ partner Sally, take their positions, and get to work.

“There’s just six of us. We make tasty food. We work together, and we deliver excellence. Everything has to fucking nail it. Every time.”

The quest for the sublime has, for centuries, drawn intense young men – Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats – to the glowering peaks of the Lakes. They came to tilt against the ordered and the ordinary. Now, that spirit – that quest for the sublime – is acted out every evening, on every dish, at Lake Road Kitchen.

What’s next, we wonder? James, his face set ablaze by the low autumn sunlight, smiles. Or maybe it’s a grimace.

“Push, push, push…”

Onwards. To the next summit.

THE F WORD

If one culinary word’s been overcooked this year, it’s – by some margin – foraging. But James stands by it. Unlike most, when Lake Road Kitchen use the word, it means they’ve got their hands dirty. And, let’s face it, it’s the central tenet of the north European kitchen faith.

“This is a big time for us. We’re processing, bagging, fermenting. Winters are long and cold. We’re out foraging as much as we can, to make sure we’ve enough to see us through,” James says.

“Lots of chefs in city restaurants will put foraged on the menu when they mean purchased from a supplier, or a wild product that’s been cultivated. But the taste has gone. Buckler’s sorrel – beautiful found wild, tasteless cultivated.”

James and Freddie find theirs by clear streams, in forest clearings, well away from pollution – wild primrose, onion cress, Miner’s lettuce (above) – spotless, vibrant, soft leaved, absolutely delicious.

“Freddie’s out for a couple of hours every morning. If we could track him the GPS information would be fascinating.”

And, of course, when the season’s gone, it’s time to move on. And, if you’ve been foraging responsibly, wait until the season’s cycle brings them back on the menu.

“Pick sensibly, never from the root, and never more than you need,” James says. “If everyone followed those principles nature would give us enough for absolutely everyone.”