James Cross made his bid for telly stardom early on in his career. It was on MasterChef in 2005, he was 25, an eager, young law graduate from Birmingham and he risked a soufflé (check out our step-by-step guide to making soufflés here) in the quarter finals. The soufflé flopped, the title fell to Thomasina Miers, and “that was the end of that”.
Ever the high flyer, the new recruit was straight in at Michelin-starred Simpson’s in Birmingham for four formative years. “You walk into a kitchen like that, you don’t learn any bad habits.” Then a celebratory meal with his parents at Heinz Beck’s three-Michelin-starred La Pergola in Rome upended everything again. “You think you can cook, you think you understand what deliciousness is,” he recalls, “then you eat a meal like that and you realise that you haven’t got a clue.”
Not speaking a word of Italian, he went to work at La Pergola for a year as a commis (the only Brit in a brigade composed almost entirely of Italians) before New York and a stage at Thomas Keller’s Per Se beckoned. Another giant leap forward.“It felt like starting from scratch again,” he says. “It’s not often in your career that you can go into a world-class kitchen and be a nobody. This is something that I think is lacking in the industry at the moment. Everybody wants to be a somebody before they’ve had a chance to be a nobody. Just enjoying being part of something special without the intense pressure is very beneficial.”
How to top this? With two brilliant years at Noma in Copenhagen, then the World’s No 1 restaurant, after which it was time to bring this experience of “the pointy end of the pyramid” to bear on James’s own place. In 2014, he relocated to the Lake District to open Lake Road Kitchen.
His aim was to establish “a humble restaurant where the food was delicious and people would come to eat”. Mission accomplished. Lake Road Kitchen’s first years have gone swimmingly. The ace reviews and top awards haven’t stopped coming: a rare 10/10 from Marina O’Loughlin in her Guardian days, five stars from The Sunday Times, the ‘Best New Restaurant in the UK’ from The Good Food Guide, and – a point of personal pride for James – Sustainable Restaurant of the Year in the National Restaurant Awards 2017. But lest anyone think that a chef’s life is all glamour, think again. James and his partner, the restaurant’s general manager Sally Wilson, run the place on a skeleton staff, no gardener, no linen company. Expansion plans, TV appearances and lucrative brand tie-ins are not happening any time soon.
“Sally and I come home from work, we do three loads of laundry and drying before we go to sleep at night,” he tells me. On their days off, they’re in the garden or “going through data”.
“That sounds a bit boring I suppose,” he admits. It does a bit, but the all-work, no-play approach is a sound strategy. James sees himself as much a businessman as a chef, and all the number-crunching and hard graft is to support his passion for the long term. Tales of talented chefs falling at the first hurdle are legion. James has no intention of being one of them.
In common with Noma, Lake Road Kitchen forgoes olive oil, lemons and chocolate for food that is “representative of the climatic locality”. One might encounter cloudberries (in sorbet form with soft whipped cream and hazelnuts toasted gently over charcoal), Icelandic sea urchins (with aged ham consommé), Norwegian king crab (lightly steamed with shredded Hispi cabbage in a cultured butter emulsion with dulse and dill oil) alongside great local produce.
“If a product grows in this weather zone, we’ll use it. England is very similar to Scandinavia (check out our best Scandi food tips), especially in the north. I felt it was the only part of the country where I could do this style of cooking legitimately. I could never cook like this in London.”
James also serves “the oldest beef in Europe”, as a supplement to the five- and eight-course tasting menus (£65/£85). Aged for up to 430 days, the beef (a collaboration with Lake District farmers) is characterised by a high degree of marbling – the equivalent of A4 wagyu, reckons James – and an incredibly complex flavour profile.
Around 90 per cent of the green produce comes from the restaurant garden (aka James and Sally’s Winster Valley back garden), where every square inch is devoted to raised beds, polytunnels and planters. Menus are planned a year ahead, seed catalogues in hand. This affords a level of freedom he wouldn’t otherwise have – some nights there can be as many as a dozen different menus running across eight tables. One regular has had 110 dishes over the course of 12 months.
“We say to all our guests that, unless they want a repeat dish, they will have a completely different menu next time they come back, even if they come back tomorrow.
“We work very, very hard. That’s the bottom line.”