Devon Life meets James O'Connor, head chef at the Royal Oak in Bigbury
PUBLISHED: 16:55 02 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:35 20 February 2013
James O'Connor joins the new owners at The Royal Oak Inn, Bigbury, after a career which has included working at Claridges and at Marco Pierre White's The Restaurant
Meet The chef
James OConnor joins the new owners at The Royal Oak Inn, Bigbury, after a career which has included working at Claridges and at Marco Pierre Whites The Restaurant
What is your earliest food memory?
Cooking in my grandparents best friends house. I made trifle and really over-whipped the cream, so it was like butter, but everyone ate it.
How did you get into cooking?
I always liked cooking and baking at school; I used to stay with my grandparents at their greasy spoon, the Copper Kettle, in North Shields to help them out during the summer.
What were the flavours of your childhood?
Bubble and squeak was always a winner my Mum cooked it perfectly, the proper way (not just mash and cabbage). I do it in the same way at The Royal Oak, making sure it bubbles away, as it should. I also used to have the most incredible steak and kidney puddings with baked beans at the Copper Kettle.
What made you decide to become a chef?
I always loved cooking and I had an aptitude for it so I started off in college in Wakefield.
What was your first experience of cooking professionally?
At 17 I headed down to London to do six weeks work experience at Claridges. I loved the regimented order of the big kitchen, the hierarchy always gave you something to set your sights on and you had accountability for your post.
Any outstanding successes or disasters in those early days?
I guess everyone has the odd disaster like dropping a plate, but on the whole I was very lucky, moving quickly from the larder/veg section on to fish and then sauces.
How did your career progress?
I had great mentors. After my experience at Claridges, I worked in London and at 23 I was offered work as head chef at a Yorskshire restaurant where we received two rosettes. Other experiences include outside catering for George Michael and a Michelin star restaurant in Jersey. I then headed to the South West with my wife, where Ive worked at Bovey Castle and the St Moritz Hotel & Spa.
What sort of foods and flavours inspire you today?
Everything thats in season. I love to try things out and see what customers like. Im really flexible with my style; I seem to have a natural hunch for how a building feels and so what sort of food you should cook in it.
Do you have any food hates?
There are no ingredients I hate, but my room 101 is chefs who dont use great local, seasonal produce.
Do you have any signature dishes?
New dishes depend on what produce is available, but one staple is ham hock scotch eggs (quail eggs) served with piccalilli. My menu is also weather-dependent, so if its a cold day it will be hearty dishes such as braised lamb shank with celeriac puree, and if its warm and sunny, lightly seared sea bass.
How important is sourcing for you?
Absolutely critical, its what great food is all about.
Who are your preferred suppliers?
Cheese from Thomas Hanson in Truro (he scours the South West for all of the finest cheeses), fresh fish from S&J Fisheries in Ivybridge, mussels from the River Exe, and ice cream from Salcombe Dairies.
Describe the best meal you ever had?
An incredible six-course taster menu, with matched wines, at The Halkin. For dessert they served my now all-time favourite, lemon and yoghurt mousse with pink grapefruit and thyme.
Who inspired you in the cooking world?
John Williams was head chef when I was at Claridges, for the way he ran the kitchen. And Marco Pierre White who is the best cook. He has passion in his eyes and an amazing talent for flavours.
Who would you most like to have round for a dinner party?
When youre around inspiring people it can rub off on you, so I would invite Bear Grylls, Jonny Wilkinson, Ellen MacArthur, and no dinner party would be complete without Stephen Fry.
Which ingredient could you not do without?
Tomatoes: vine tomatoes, beef, heritage... I have to have them in my life! Baby plum tomatoes are my equivalent of chocolate.
The Royal Oak Inn, Bigbury.