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Star shines so brightly; The Raby Hunt near Darlington is the proud recipient of a shiny new Michelin star - the only one for the North East and the first for the region in two years. KATHARINE CAPOCCI catches up with head chef James Close.

Byline: KATHARINE CAPOCCI

JAMES Close, of the Raby Hunt at Summerhouse, is clearly still in a state of shock at news of his restaurant's coveted Michelin star award. It's fair to say the phone to the smart but tiny 30-seat eaterie has been red hot with Press, food bloggers and diners all keen to get a piece of the action.

There's added delight at the stellar news as the restaurant-with-rooms is the only establishment in the North East to hold a sought-after star, seen as the Oscars of the restaurant world.

And it has been more than two years since a restaurant in the region last held such an award. Keen foodies will recall Seaham Hall in County Durham was stripped of its star in January 2010 after its critically-acclaimed head chef Kenny Atkinson upped sticks and moved to Rockliffe Hall at Hurworth-on-Tees.

James, 32, who is almost entirely self-taught, admits the phone's been ringing off the hook since people have heard the news.

"People are just starting to find out. Actual customers are starting to find out now.

"It's really been an amazing week. I wasn't expecting it. I thought I would have to put in a few more years. It's one of those things I have to let sink in! I still don't believe it. But we are starting to get very busy now."

It was almost farcical how James heard of the restaurant's coup, but he is jubilant - if slightly bemused - all the same.

News of the new Michelin Guide 2013 winners was leaked a week early when a technical error resulted in the hotly-awaited list of winners appearing online on the guide's website before hastily being taken down.

James explains the moment he found out. "It wasn't Michelin, it was actually an email from a food blogger, who had seen online that the stars had been updated by accident.

"Then I rang Michelin who said they wouldn't be able to tell anyone. I rang them a second time and then they confirmed it."

News of the winners is now official. It's a fillip for James and also a feather in the cap for the region, as he admits: "It's good that we are the only restaurant in the North East. It's quite unusual to be the only one. It can only be a positive thing to get one. I hope it sets the ball rolling again for the North East." As if things weren't busy enough, James and his parents, Russell and Helene, who own the Raby Hunt, are also coping with the aftermath of flooding after last week's storms. Fortunately, the flooding was confined to the cellar of the handsome Grade II-listed, early 19th Century building and the restaurant, which only closed for one night, is fully open for business.

James explains: "The day we got news of the star we were flooded. A fire engine had to come out and we had to cancel everyone. It came in the cellar. We're pumping it out all the time. The restaurant's still open. We only closed for one day on Thursday." Diners will no doubt be eager to sample the fine dining creations making it out of James' kitchen and into the restaurant (which also has an additional 10 seats outside). The menu features predominantly modern British dishes with European influences. James, who is a big fan of local sourcing, says the tasting menu, in particular, is marked by its absolute simplicity. The seven-course menu costs PS65 and diners can feast on delights such as ox cheek, scallop with caviar and black radish, pan-fried wood pigeon with liver parfait and beetroot, rare-breed suckling pig and rich chocolate bar with popcorn ice cream.

Diners can pair with carefully selected wines for an extra PS40. Two-course set lunches come in at a budget-friendly PS18.95 while three courses cost PS21.95. There are early-bird evening menus too as well as a la carte and Sunday lunch costs PS20 for two courses. "It's a family-run establishment. There's only me and one other chef. It's a restaurant with rooms (two bedrooms), but it's really all about the restaurant." James, who was brought up near Barnard Castle, lives above the restaurant, while his parents live in Hamsterley. "They don't really work here all the time. They come in once a week. We have a front-of-house and a manager." James, who notched up a couple of years working at Headlam Hall, near Darlington, says: "I'm basically self-taught. I worked in a hotel for two years just doing wedding functions. All I was doing was washing up and cutting carrots!" His family have owned the Raby Hunt for three years. The restaurant's anniversary is next week ... and the starry gift in their possession couldn't be a better way to mark it. "Before that it was a real ale pub. It had been left empty for a year. "When we first opened it was me and my mum doing it, but then the last two years I have really gone for it. "I have travelled around Europe and really made myself learn everything. All the modern techniques and classical techniques as well." James says his food philosophy is driven by simple flavours and local sourcing.

The guide in its description picks up on this also. "They have picked up on the food being simple, the ingredients are only the best. I go round the local firms," he says. "It's fine dining - it's very refined food, very simple. It's nothing over the top. Everything is very relaxed. We don't have a sommelier. The customer is in charge. It's their night." He adds: "Our tasting menu is driven by simplicity. It's simple foods, three flavours on the plate." James, talking about the turn of events which led him on the path to his Michelin star, explains: "I went to college for about five weeks when I was 19. Then I went to be a professional golfer. I worked at Thirsk golf course for four years." James later decided on a complete change of career and went to London to work as a labourer. "I came back and the only thing I realised I was good at was food." And of the weight of expectation on James' shoulders and the inevitable pressure that a Michelin star brings, he is fairly relaxed and not too worried. "I have so much more to learn. I take it as a positive thing. As far as I'm concerned I have got so much more to do." It's a case of onwards and upwards for the Summerhouse superstar. The Raby Hunt is one of 16 British restaurants awarded their first Michelin star for 2013, while three restaurants have been elevated to two-star status, including Simon Rogan's L'Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria. Four restaurants have retained their coveted three-star status in the 2013 guide.

CAPTION(S):

ACCLAIM Self-taught James Close has quickly made a name for himself and his restaurant

REFINED James specialises in locally-sourced ingredients
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 5, 2012
Words:1162
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