James Durrant on working with Gordon Ramsey, winning Great British Menu and his gastro pub in Longparish
PUBLISHED: 15:26 16 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:46 03 November 2017
James Durrant may have trained under Gordon Ramsey and won the BBC's Great British Menu but it is by the dishes he cooks every day at his gastro pub in Longparish that this ambitious and exacting chef patron expects to be judged
You can see the influence of Gordon Ramsay on Great British Menu winner, James Durrant. Sitting in the sunshine in the garden of The Plough Inn in Longparish, James - like his mentor - is a plain speaker, open about everything from family life to his obsession with cooking.
James worked for Ramsay for nearly ten years, first at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea and then as a sous chef at Ramsay’s restaurant at Claridges.
It wasn’t an easy ride but James had wanted to be a chef since he was eight years old. At 16, he decided college wasn’t for him and worked in Pizza Hut before landing a job at a local pub.
“It was horrendous,” he recalls, “there must have been seven microwaves in the kitchen. But it was the banter and atmosphere that I loved and it confirmed that cooking was what I wanted to do.”
James took up an apprenticeship at a four star hotel in Chester, training in the classics and cooking for huge numbers. He learnt a lot over the four years he was there, working on every section.
“It was my head chef who told me to move on, to get more experience. He was selfless like that. He sent me home to go and watch Gordon Ramsay on ‘Boiling Point’ on TV. I watched him terrorize people for half-an-hour and I thought, yep, I need to go and work for him.”
So, 20-year-old James called Ramsay’s restaurant to find out the name of the head chef to whom he should address his CV.
“He told me not to bother as I wouldn’t get a job. He said ‘if you haven’t got the gumption to call and ask for a job then forget it’. So I asked. ‘Right then, can I have a job?’”
James went to London the following week and had a gruelling 18-hour interview; cooking, prepping, cleaning mushrooms and peeling onions.
At the end of the day, by then the early hours of the morning, Ramsay offered James the job.
“Everything was difficult about it,” he remembers. “The single hardest thing was getting used to the hours. To work in any restaurant you’re going to do at least 12 hours a day, it’s 18 hours sometimes, then on just two hours of sleep a night you go back in to be terrorised again.
“It wasn’t until after three months of working there that I started to appreciate it. I wanted to leave before that, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t lose face and go home to my mum,” he laughs.
At The Plough, James doesn’t employ the same tactics with his staff but he has the same ‘firm but fair’ attitude as Ramsay - and particularly so when it comes to himself.
“My discipline definitely came from working in Gordon’s restaurant. If it’s not 100 per cent right then the customer’s not going to get it. Having the courage to put it in the bin if it’s not right has to be instilled in you from the start. If you can do that, you will be good a chef.
“I try to teach that to the guys in my kitchen here at The Plough. I’m able to run a service and I oversee every plate that goes out of the kitchen; that’s where I have aimed to be ever since we opened.”
James has wanted to plough his own furrow since he first became a chef. Following a period as head chef at Maze with Jason Atherton, he and his wife, Louise, decided that it was time for them to take the plunge.
They were expecting a baby so although the challenge of London kitchens was tempting, James realised that he needed a lifestyle change, to go where the pace was slower and, after looking for two years, they found The Plough Inn.
At first, their ethos was to provide something for everyone but in the past two years, they have started to focus more on à la carte.
“It’s taken that long to find our identity. There’s a diverse clientele here; it’s certainly changed a lot since the Great British Menu, bar sales have dropped and more people have come to eat in the restaurant.”
This year wasn’t the first time that James had been invited onto the Great British Menu, but circumstances - and Gordon Ramsay - had put a stop to it. But this time round James realised he needed to do it.
“I called my friend Tom Kerridge and asked if there was a chance he could put a word in. I wanted to take part and I knew it would help the business.
“I was chosen to represent the North West, they sent the brief and my life became consumed by the show.”
James was working on his courses for the Great British Menu after being in the kitchen all day at The Plough. He wasn’t finishing until 3am and then had to be up with the children at six. With his dishes finally honed, he went to London for the regional heats in September last year.
Suddenly James was on television, being watched by an average 2.5 million viewers.
“Being in that environment with cameras pointing at you is so scary. The show would push you to your limit. You can see it on screen; people get emotional, breaking into tears.
“The producers know you’re tired and emotional but it does make good TV. If I was to make a mistake then people are going to remember it.”
James won the regionals and went back home to tweak his dishes before heading back to London in December for the finals, which culminated in cooking a banquet at St Paul’s Cathedral for D-Day veterans.
“I had two new dishes that I’d never cooked before. I’d only practised my main course once, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to make it in the time.”
But James blew the judges away with his ‘Blitz Spirit’ main course, which included roasted veal loin, sautéed sweetbreads and beans, mushrooms and toast, winning a score of ten from each.
The inspiration came from his wife’s grandmother, who had told James a story that fitted perfectly with the show’s ‘Spirit of Britain’ brief.
“She was in the Lakes at the time of the war and up there everyone helped each other, trading produce, veg and rabbits. Morale was constantly up so it had to be a sharing dish,” says James.
“Then it was a matter of research with the butcher, who suggested veal, as that’s what they mostly ate, as well as sweetbreads and offal. Food was hearty and beans were a staple at the time.”
James couldn’t quite believe it when his dish was selected for the banquet menu, but it wasn’t until the day arrived that it finally sunk in.
“St Paul’s was amazing and to be a part of it, honouring the guys who gave us our freedom, was hugely emotional.
“The war seems so long ago now and it’s drifting into the past but it’s still important that we remember. To think about that really does bring it home, it was a really humbling experience.”
James hasn’t decided whether he will compete in the television series again but the coverage has put him - and The Plough firmly on the culinary map.
“People drive for miles to come and try the veal and to get a signed menu but that’s only going to last so long, I think.
“It’s the local customers that are most important to us. They come for a more gastronomic experience now, rather than just fish and chips.”
James’s top five
Favourite place to spend a quiet day in Hampshire - I have a three-year-old, a nine-month-old and 12-year-old so it’s nice to go away. It can be anything, a walk in the New Forest or crabbing in Mudeford, as long as we’re together I don’t mind.
Favourite Hampshire restaurant - Well, I haven’t been to all of them, but I had a great meal at the Purefoy Arms in Preston Candover. What Andreas is doing there is fantastic. I always want to go to Lainston House and have a meal with chef Olly Rouse. Then there’s Verveine in Milford on Sea, I’ve heard so much about David’s cooking.
Favourite Hampshire producer - There are so many but when the game season is on here along the Test we get some fantastic pheasant and partridge, not to mention plenty of fish.
Best thing on the menu at The Plough Inn - That has to be my Great British Menu ‘Blitz Spirit’ main course of roasted English Rose Veal Loin, Veal Blanquette, Sweetbreads, Mushrooms, Beans and Toast.
The kitchen utensil you couldn’t live without - A tasting spoon is without doubt the tool I couldn’t do without. I wouldn’t dream of sending food out if I hadn’t tasted it beforehand.