Head Chef James Durrant – Acorn Winner and Ultimate

The other day, as I was driving back from attending my first meeting as a newly-appointed Ultimate Head Chef, I was thinking what an incredible four years it’s been at Peach.

Four years when I’d been given the chance to climb the career ladder, run my own kitchen, open a new Peach pub and supported to win one of the most prestigious awards in our industry, an Acorn. And then be named an Ultimate Head Chef.  What a whirlwind!

It didn’t seem like four years ago when I first walked into a Peach kitchen at The Thatch in my home town of Thame. Nor very long since I got my first job as a waiter at The Angel in nearby Long Crendon, way back in April 2007.

Waiting on tables was something I spent most of my Summer holidays doing, and although hardly fine dining, the experience stayed with me long after I had to go back to school.

School, as it turned out, was a bit of a mixed experience. I did pretty well at my GCSE’s but ‘A’ level biology didn’t really cut it so I decided to leave and get a job instead, back at my holiday haunt at The Angel, a lovely 1 Rosette place. I was a waiter once more.

But my eyes were glued to the pass, watching the chefs work, the pace the food came out of the kitchen, the attention to detail. I was excited at seeing all the fabulous dishes. And everything else that went on in the kitchen, like the night a towel caught fire and the Head Chef just looked at it and carried on… It was then I knew, I wanted to be a Chef.

After convincing the Chef / Patron to take me on as an apprentice and send me to Oxford and Cherwell College to get qualified, I got my NVQ 2 and 3, but couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen full time. College taught me how to skin fish and how to pipe properly, but all I really wanted to do was to cook.

I spent another year at The Angel before deciding I needed to move on to broaden my skills. I’d never had the chance to cook on the sauce, meat or fish sections and wanted to learn about menu planning and costing. The opportunity came after probably the most daunting interview of my life, in the home of Chef Gary Witchalls, who cooked at and ran The Mole Inn in Toot Baldon. I started the following Monday, so I must have done OK.

Gary’s kitchen isn’t big but it did give me ample scope to move between starter, sauce and pastry, creating and costing my own dishes and generally become a more rounded chef. I spent three very happy years there, and learnt a lot from working with Gary, who helped me develop my knowledge of the kitchen management side as well as menu planning, costing and stock control.

I was eager to progress, though, and when I heard about a job going at The Thatch, a pub I knew and loved, Ithrew myself into the trial to try to land it. As junior Sous Chef, I spent my first weekend at the pub with just two others in the kitchen; together we did £3k on food sales and I was promoted to Sous just two weeks later. This has gone down as the fastest Chef promotion in Peach history.

I really liked the buzz of the pub’s kitchen, the focus on really great quality fresh, seasonal food and being able to write my own menus. Before long, I was running my own kitchen. In just over two years, I was acting Head Chef, and I was just 25. I was proud that the pub did well financially, won some fantastic awards and that guests loved our food.

My next challenge was The Fishes in Oxford, where the kitchen was a huge step up to a much bigger operation, particularly in the Summer when people spill out into the garden and covers rise by a third. I made a point of sitting in the bar writing menus so I could listen to what people were ordering and what they were enjoying. We had a fantastic summer in the Tipi serving an Oxford themed BBQ menu from our new outdoor kitchen.

I didn’t really want to leave The Fishes but when we took on a new pub with rooms in Cumnor, I couldn’t resist.  When I say new, it’s actually very old, with parts of the beautiful Ragged Bear & Staff dating back to Tudor times. Now we’ve put the beating heart back into the pub and I’m pleased to say it’s busy from morning until night with happy guests and food sales seeing a healthy increase.

I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved here, and prouder still that my contribution towards my pubs’ success was recognised by me being nominated for an winning an Acorn Award. This is a big honour in our industry – only 30 are awarded each year to people under 30 with bright futures. I was lucky enough to attend the winners’ weekend and presentation lunch at The Lygon Arms in Broadway at the start of the month, and bring back my Acorn trophy to the pub.

Being named Ultimate Head Chef is just as much of an honour, and I know I wouldn’t have achieved any of this, nor had the chances to progress, anywhere other than Peach. It’s been amazing”.

To find out more about our opportunities, visit our join us page or email natalie.cash@peachpubs.com.