Forager and private chef James Burton from Northumberland has made it to the semi-finals of the current series of BBC2 MasterChef: The Professionals. KATHARINE CAPOCCI went to meet him at the family farm just off the Military Road
JAMES Burton is describing his stint to date on the BBC2 MasterChef: The Professionals show and revealing nuggets of delicious info on formidable judges Michel Roux Jr and his sous chef Monica Galetti.
The eagle-eyed, legendary double Michelin-starred chef Michel, as you’d expect, doesn’t miss a trick, while eye-rolling Monica’s facial expressions convey so much, says James, rather diplomatically.
“Michel has got the eyes of a hawk. You can sense him behind you!
“I think it’s fear going in front of Monica. She’s a sous chef for Michel Roux (at Le Gavroche) in an industry that’s not known for women.
“But for me, food is about having fun. There’s no point in doing it otherwise. I just want to cook. That’s what I do.”
Dining expert and kindly judge Gregg Wallace, meanwhile, whose catchphrase is “cooking doesn’t get much tougher than this”, has even graced James with the moniker “clever old stick”.
Forager and private chef James has made it through to the semi-finals of the culinary show. At the time of writing, the 33-year-old from Northumberland is the only contestant from the North East to make it to the semi finals, although there are another two heats of 10 applicants each to go.
Chef Rob Taylor, who lives in Stockton-on-Tees, made it through to the quarter finals, but left the competition last night.
Fans of the show will recall chefs from our region fared rather well in the cooking show back in 2010, with North Easterners John Calton and Dave Coulson just pipped to the post by Claire Lara from Liverpool.
Viewers will next see James Burton on the show on Monday December 3 when he will be put through his cooking paces in semi-final week.
Chatting to him at his mum Geraldine’s 60-acre farm, just off the Military Road and near the village of Wall, his love of the land is evident. In army fatigue trousers and a fleece, he’s been getting to grips with gardening tasks that afternoon.
He gestures to the fantastic view of rolling fields from the window of his simple cottage, pointing out Hexham in the distance.
The land is currently let to a local farmer for the grazing of sheep and hay. He says: “I used to have pigs on here. I used to do the dry-cured bacon and make black pudding, but when the food prices went up, it wasn’t cost effective.
“That’s part of the problem with good quality food. You have to do it small and it’s expensive.”
“I just cook British food. It’s not modern. There’s no gimmicks. A lot of my food is very simple, but a lot of my food takes days to cook and prepare.”
James has been shooting since he was knee high to a grasshopper, cultivates a veggie garden and forages for all manner of goodies, from wild mushrooms, sorrel, yarrow and wild hazelnuts to bog myrtle, to flavour his dishes.
And he reveals he was more nervous about crossing London than the testing cooking tasks he was faced with.
“I haven’t been to London for eight years. Newcastle is bad enough! So to be honest I was more nervous about getting to London and getting the Tube and crossing London.”
He does admit to being a little daunted and excited about the forbidding culinary tasks, but it was a challenge he relished too.
“I was nervous about going on there and making a fool of myself but really I love doing different things.
“That’s why I’m not in a kitchen in the North East. I don’t conform to rules. I like to be progressive,” says James.
“It’s terrifying, it’s daunting. The feeling is not wanting to let yourself down. You can think ‘I have got a great palate’ but actually you might not!
“I think one of the first cookbooks I got was At Home With the Roux Brothers when I was about 14.”
James has had his own business, Vallum Cooking, which has no connection with Vallum Farm on the Military Road, for 10 years.
There are two aspects to the business, he explains, the private cheffing, where he specialises in British cooking, and the other side, the making of preserves, savoury jellies, cordials and chutneys, often incorporating foraged finds, which he sells at Hexham farmers’ market, of which he is a director.
“Working as a private chef, I can be doing anything from a big country house weekend or dinner for nine in Low Fell. Come the summer you have fishing, grouse, stalking. I go up to Scotland for a whole week here, several weeks there.
“You cook breakfast, packed lunch, dinner and cater for anything from five to 20 people.
“This time is shooting. This weekend I’m cooking lunch in a house.
“February, March and April I don’t really have any work except the farmers’ markets.”
James applied for the MasterChef show after seeing adverts in the back of the Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine.
Friends had urged him to go for it. A series of interviews followed before he was invited to come along.
The series runs for six weeks as professional chefs are tested and pushed to the edge of their gastronomic limits in the hunt for the next culinary superstar.
James has already come through the ingredients test and the skills test, where he was challenged to make honeycomb garnishes under Monica’s watchful eye. Then the challenge set by Michel of creating two classic dishes to Michelin-star level followed.
The heat will be cranking up on the show in semi-final week with eight chefs whittled down to six. The final week sees the chefs face the toughest challenges of their career, including preparing a three-course menu for 30 of the world’s leading Michelin chefs with 40 stars between them, at Pearl in London.
The outright winner doesn’t win a prize as such, the cachet of securing the title of Professional MasterChef 2012, is accolade enough.
James was largely brought up in North Yorkshire, and attended schools including Durham School and a school in North Yorkshire.
He has lived in the North East since early 2000.
He earned his chef whites training at Darlington College in County Durham.
After college he spent stints at Corse Lawn House in Cheltenham, Rudding Park Clocktower restaurant in North Yorkshire, and he’s worked in Australia for a year, including a few months at Level 41 in Sydney.
Closer to home he has worked at The George at Chollerford, Matfen Hall and The Angel Inn at Corbridge.
His mother, who lives in the farmhouse on the farm, is Cordon Bleu-trained.
“I wanted to be a gamekeeper because I loved being outdoors. I have grown up with shooting. To me, it’s a natural part of life. I spend a lot of time wildfowling. It’s about field craft, it’s a love of the countryside.
“A lot of chefs don’t have the respect for the meat. It gives you a great understanding of how to cook them if you kill and butcher them yourself. I have shot hundreds of rabbits in my time and I understand the anatomy.”
James adds: “I have spent 17 years as a chef. I have cooked all my life. I’ve had a veggie garden since young. I’ve grown veg all my life.
“I have shot things and plucked things since I was knee high. As a chef you should be interested in how it’s grown.”
James says he would like to be back in a kitchen now and if there were any offers on the table from the genius Michel himself, he says: “If I was offered a job it would be amazing, but I couldn’t work in London.
“I want to be back in a kitchen. I’m at a stage now where I want to be in one place.”
He’s a fan of the ground-breaking two-Michelin starred Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.
And closer to home, Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume in Cumbria. “I really admire what he’s doing, the sort of food, it’s a quirky menu.”
And he loves nothing more than a bite to eat at his local, The Rat Inn at Anick, which has built its reputation on the use of fine local produce.
James will be selling his Vallum Cooking preserves at Hexham Christmas market on December 8.
MasterChef: The Professionals continues on Monday at 8.30pm on BBC Two.