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The Interview: John Burton-Race

Published:  23 July, 2008

How did television's latest celebrity chef end up in Dartmouth?
Back from France, we were originally looking for a small country-house hotel. Then we heard that the Horn of Plenty, a place of pilgrimage once owned by the legendary Sonia Stevenson, was on the market, but prices had doubled in the last three years and we couldn't afford it. That brought us to the West Country, and we were about to take on a restaurant in Topsham when we were offered the Carved Angel. We initially turned it down because the owner wanted too much, but he persisted and we finally agreed a deal.

You mentioned France. How did that come about?

I'd won two Michelin stars at L'Ortolan, in Berkshire, and had then moved to London and opened a restaurant in The Landmark hotel opposite Marylebone station. Pat Llewellyn, the TV producer who created Two Fat Ladies and put Jamie Oliver on the map with The Naked Chef, used to come in and we chatted a lot. I was saying one day how much I wanted to go back to basics, like they do in France, and that led to the programme idea. French Leave was commissioned in about 10 weeks; pretty impressive given that it usually takes about 18 months to commission a programme from inception.

So has Return of the Chef been a successful sequel?

It's changed my profile completely. When I took on the Angel, we had to rewire, replumb - we blew our budget completely. For the first six months I'd not taken a salary and we were running at around 70-75% occupancy. Once the series broke, it was full-on. We're now fully booked at lunch and dinner for months. I wanted a very unpretentious place, somewhere where you could get a plate of fish and a glass of wine. I wasn't after guide recognition, but having been awarded one Michelin star I'm impressed at how they've changed. Time was that you needed all the fancy table settings and starchy service to get Michelin recognition, but they seem to understand now that good simple quality deserves recognition.

Is it very different from your experiences in rural France?

France rekindled my passion for sourcing local produce. We buy our butter from a local dairy in 60kg blocks. I have a lady who supplies duck eggs to me only. I prefer local beef such as Ruby Red or South Devon that has been crossed with Charolais or Limousin; but if I don't like the meat, I change cut or change animal. Initially I did a lot of hoofing about, but now they come to me. I get wild mushrooms from the back of the naval college. It's so like France: you've got to take what comes in. It's like a pub blackboard - fresh is best. Dartmouth is on the Bay of Biscay. The boats come in with great mullet, bass, lovely brill and sole, and there's always mackerel. Most of the good turbot goes to Spain. There are 30 to 35 local varieties of fish off Brixham, but 75% of fish caught in local waters goes to Spain. Crab here is second to none, but you can't give away spider crabs - they're fabulous. I've agreed a price for lobster all year round, so it won't be more expensive on the menu in winter.

Television has been very good to you, but it hasn't always been the case. Did the expos on kitchen violence back in the '80s hurt you?

Unfair criticism still hurts. I felt a bit of a scapegoat, but I didn't lash back. And now I've learnt more about the tricks television editors can play. Other professions tend to close ranks, but chefs are not politically correct animals, we're not gentlemen in the navy' - we're all driven. It made me more

of a recluse. All the shutters went down looking at the hypocrisy. Don't forget, the year that the programme was aired, I'd won my second star, was voted Chef of the Year and won Restaurant of the Year.

Have you learnt any lessons?

I've learnt there's no love between colleagues, and that competition is not healthy. Indeed, we will use any means

to put one another out of business. It's definitely not a good industry. I wouldn't recommend it to my kids, but then I wouldn't do any other job. My other low point was moving to London and learning how much everything costs. I was employing a chef at 15,000 just to make amuse-gueules - insane!

So is the future looking rosy?

I'm making money, and I'm doing what I wanted to do. Last week we had an 18th birthday party upstairs, and downstairs an 80th birthday celebration. I thought, I've done it!', and it's the greatest buzz in the world. I see more of my family now than ever, and I'm much more involved. I missed out on the older girls, but now I can take a night off if I want to and I have much more contact. But it's not like rural France. There's much less pressure there - the two-hour lunch still exists. They do so little work, the country must be going broke.

You sound very contented. Is there anything else left to do?

I'd love to have a pub. Not a gastropub - somewhere that you can get a proper steak pie. I'm not content, I have to do more. I've only felt everything was fantastic three times in my life, and I always want more.

The New Angel, 2 South Embankment, Dartmouth, Devon TQ6 9BH, Tel: 01803 839 425, Fax: 01803 839 567

The new angel has just opened a small annexe with six luxurious bedrooms to become Dartmouth's highest-rated B&B (five diamonds), with breakfast cooked by a new angel chef.

John Burton-Race also runs a small cookery school for 8 to 10 people at a time only. He invites local suppliers to come and talk about their produce.

The wine list at the new angel contains around 120 bins, with 20 by the glass. A verre de vin system has been installed to maintain optimum quality. Wine suppliers include Charles Steevenson Wines, Enotria, T&W wines, Bill Baker and Yapp Brothers.