Face to face with Devon's grumpiest chefs: John Burton and Chris Sherville
PUBLISHED: 15:53 17 October 2016 | UPDATED: 15:53 17 October 2016
Catherine Courtenay braves coffee and croissants with Devon's most bad tempered chefs
When John Burton Race announces a new venture called Two Grumpy Chefs, there may be an inkling of what’s in store. After all, he has his fair share of reasons to be grumpy; from scandal and divorce (he came home from starring on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! to discover his wife Kim, who was furious to discover he had a child with his then mistress Suzi Ward, had shut their Michelin-stared New Angel restaurant in Dartmouth), to subsequent bankruptcy.
He’s also not afraid to speak his mind, which is why restaurateurs would be forgiven for running for the hills when he visits. “Do they get worried when you pitch up?” I ask, having heard about a particularly disastrous ‘black potato’ experience at a local pub. “Yes, they do a bit.” He has a look in his eye. “I always tell them,” he says, adding that the pub roast was “unbelievably appalling”.
“It’s so unnecessary!” interjects an exasperated fellow Grumpy Chef, Chris Sherville. “It’s really not that difficult,” he says, explaining that potatoes should go in at 20-minute intervals for a busy Sunday roast. “There’s something about the way they’re storing potatoes these days,” he adds. “If they’re black they’ve been stored too cold, the supplier is not looking after them properly.”
“Do you see why they’re the grumpy chefs?” says Suzi, who has briefly joined us for coffee and pastries at the kitchen table.
I’m at John’s South Devon home near Strete, and he’s telling me about the private dining company he’s set up with Chris, a personal chef, who lives near Totnes. John’s career is well documented, achieving a string of one and two Michelin stars at the restaurants he’s worked in. Chris, on the other hand, is a bit of a surprise discovery. A former London buyer for Gianni Versace, he has 20 years’ experience in the luxury hospitality industry, with clients that include American Vogue and Virgin. He can conjure a dining event out of nowhere - if needs must; he’s even been known to have pop up kitchens built in the passageways of stately homes.
With their wives being best friends - their two 11-year-old sons grew up together - it was when John was asked to cater for a party on Dartmoor that the two chefs came together. In true no nonsense fashion, the event came up and John told Chris he was doing it. “I didn’t give anyone an option,” he grins.
From private dinners for a few guests, to weddings, sporting events and launch parties, there’s no end to where Two Grumpy Chefs can go and what they can cater for. They’ll perfectly match wines to their food, or people can supply their own drinks. Likewise with the waiting staff, whether it’s guests’ children stepping in to do service duties, or highly trained silver service waiters, they can provide - and Chris can even source a butler if needs be.
The culinary magnitude of what Two Grumpy Chefs is about only really hits when John starts explaining how it works.
“We go into someone’s kitchen, sit down with them and the first thing we’ll do is open all your cupboards…”
John Burton Race investigating my kitchen cupboards! I’m incredulous at the thought.
But this is exactly what happens and once John and Chris have seen the layout and checked equipment, they’ll present a plan of what they can do for you.
“We know straight away what sort of menu we can offer you. And if you say you want a ten-course tasting menu, I will say...‘No chance!’” beams John, before adding. “But we’ll say, instead of a sit down starter, why not have ten or 11 finger things to start the meal?”
It seems there’s a way around everything, but make no mistake, the Grumpy Chefs will tell it straight. On one job they had to ban guests from wandering through the kitchen. But, let’s face it, that is part of the charm, the addition of a certain feistiness to your dining adventure.
They seem to complement each other perfectly, each instinctively responding to what the other is doing in the kitchen, which may mean they don’t speak to one another for ten hours.
“Chris does the stuff I don’t want to do and have no intention of doing, and vice versa.”
“He just keeps shouting ‘SALMON!’ at me, is the response from Chris. “It may be I’m running around and making sure he doesn’t upset too many people.” Then he adds, seriously, “It’s always been me responsible for everything before, but now I’ve got someone to bat off, it’s a great thing for me.”
Likewise it seems John values the commitment of working with Chris. “It’s a responsibility,” he says. “Now I have to worry about money. If I don’t make money, then Chris doesn’t.”
There are more plans in the pipeline, including a potential restaurant, where the two will create “a great style of Devon cooking”. “The time will come when we will need a base,” says John. “A pub, a hotel or a restaurant with rooms - it will be inevitable one day. Not pretentious or high end, where Mr Middle Class can afford it.”
A Grumpy Chefs restaurant in Devon is a tantalising prospect, but in the meantime, the idea of hiring these two to cook for your event is excitement enough, and I’m inclined to agree with Suzi when she says, “You won’t need a magician or a juggler. I think they’ll be the entertainment, don’t you?”