Chef of the Year: James Carn-Pryor
PUBLISHED: 10:00 19 September 2016
Honing his skills at Bury St Edmunds restaurant Pea Porridge has earned James Carn-Pryor the title Chef of the Year. Linda Duffin talked to him about his food and his ambitions
“It was really simple cooking,” says James Carn-Pryor of the starter that was one of the three dishes that won him the accolade of Chef of the Year in this year’s EADT Suffolk Food and Drink Awards. He then goes on to describe a dish that, if I’d cooked it, I’d be bragging about from here until Christmas.
“I wanted to find lots of individual suppliers, producing something not everybody might have heard of or use. I started with Pinneys, of Orford, Smokehouse – I love it there. I used smoked eel from there, a few old cubes of that in an emulsion and a brandade of the rest. I sat a nice fat piece of chunky pan-fried gurnard on top, and then I used some beer from the Old Cannon pub in Bury St Edmunds to make some crispy batter for some cockles, then a few sea herbs.
“I was quite intimidated seeing the other people in the competition pull out venison, scallops, lobster, all the go-to things, but I think it’s harder to make a piece of gurnard stand out than it is, perhaps, scallops.”
James went onto to cook a braised blade of Wagyu beef from Stonham Farms as a main course and a rhubarb millefeuille for dessert. At 25 he was the youngest of the chefs in the final and he faced stiff competition from Alexander Aitchison, of the Brandeston Queen, and Trevor Clark, formerly with the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club. James didn’t want to enter the Young Chefs’ category; he wanted to test his skills against established chefs.
It was all a bit nerve-wracking, but as James says: “You just get stuck in. I’ve never really done anything like that before. I just wanted an opportunity to cook and the rest was up to me.”
The Bury-born chef has been working in restaurants since he was 16, including jobs as sous chef under the award-winning Lee Bye at Tuddenham Mill and, for the last two years, with Justin Sharp at Bury’s Pea Porridge, holder of Michelin’s Bib Gourmand for six of its seven years.
Like Lee, Justin holds strong views about the importance of mentoring young chefs, and is a firm believer in traditional techniques.
“We are very produce-driven, not technique-driven at all. We don’t have gadgetry. We have a six-ring burner, a small fryer and Bertha, our indoor charcoal oven. We don’t have water baths. The guys who do it and do it well, fair play to them, but I think a lot of young chefs don’t have that skill set of pan-frying a duck breast and getting a skin nice and crispy. It’s all done sous vide.”
Pea Porridge is a good place for a young man to hone his skills and, judging by his success in the competition, James has used his time well. “I didn’t know I’d won until the day of the awards ceremony. I was absolutely over the moon; I didn’t expect it at all.”
Justin says: “He was really keen to do it. I said ‘I think it’ll be good for you, your status and a feather in your cap. He cooked extremely good food. It stood out. I thought he was in with a good chance. I’m very, very proud.
“He’s ready for his first head chef’s job and definitely up for it, he’s chomping at the bit. He wants to have his own place, but he needs to get his first head chef’s role under his belt as his next career step. But he’s ready to move on.”
Not outside of Suffolk though, happily for local diners. James, whose wife at the time of writing was expecting their third child, says he wants to stay in his home county.
“I love Suffolk. My wife teaches at the local college. I’d love to have a little village pub where I can just cook really simple pub food – no bells and whistles – familiar food, but done really well.
“There’s not really anywhere to go for that, somewhere you can get really good fish and chips without getting chips in a basket, which does my head in. And I think you can have some desserts that are more refined, and starters that have some skill to them but are familiar, without scaring everybody off. Because smears and dots . . . It’s all gone full circle and everybody wants to be fed again, they want big flavours.
“I would like that, but we’ll see what happens. I’m in no rush to make any rash decisions, I’m quite patient. I’ll wait for the right thing to come along. And Justin says he’ll help me. We’ll see where we end up.” He leaves to pick up his boys from school before returning to Pea Porridge for the evening shift.