Leeds chef rises to the challenge

Douglas Crampton.
Douglas Crampton.
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In the third in a series of features on a year which changed my life, chef Douglas Crampton speaks to Neil Hudson about 2013, a year of casualties on the Leeds restaurant scene.

Douglas Crampton’s passion for cooking started in his mum’s kitchen in east Leeds when he was 13. Now the 26-year-old is at the helm of James Martin’s Manchester restaurant, part of the Manchester 235 casino complex.

As a youngster, the former Boston Spa pupil always took an interest in collecting ingredients, following recipes and experimenting during stays with his grandparents in Skipton and he was ever the perfectionist.

It’s a trait which has served him well. He’s worked for (and with) some of the best chefs in the country and has been head chef at James Martin’s Manchester restaurant since September 2013.

But his journey there has been far from smooth - 2013 was the year in which his life took several sharp turns.

Turn the clock back just over a decade and cooking was very much a hobby for the youngster, who was also a keen footballer, playing for his local team in Barwick-in-Elmet.

Aged 14, he began attending weekend cookery classes at Thomas Danby College. At the same time, the chef most serious chefs don’t like to mention (so, whisper this: Jamie Oliver) was re-shaping the way we all thought about food on television.

“I wanted to be a chef,” he recalls, matter-of-factly. “It’s all I have ever wanted to do. I love it. The hours are really punishing, you never really switch off. Even when you are not at the restaurant, you are constantly thinking about ingredients and dish ideas.”

He studied for a professional chef diploma and a diploma in culinary arts for two years at Thomas Danby.

It was during that time, he entered and won the West Yorkshire Young Chef 2005 competition and came se+cond in a national competition - the Nestle Toque d’Or, where he travelled to London to cook at Earl’s Court.

While still at college, Douglas kicked off his professional career in two reputable establishments including Anthony’s at Flannels run by Anthony Flinn Jnr and with Ashley McCarthy at Ye Old Sun Inn, Colton, near York.

Such was his dedication, he worked double shifts on a Saturday - in the morning for Anthony in Leeds and in the evening for Ashley in York.

Douglas started as a part-time commis chef, working his way up, learning his craft, building upon his knowledge and skills in both kitchens, an arrangement he kept up for two years.

His diligence was rewarded with the offer of a full time position as a full time commis chef at Anthony’s on Boar Lane, where he ended up working for three years, gradually moving up through the ranks to become a sous chef at the AA three-rosette restaurant - quite an achievement for the then 20-year-old.

“At that time when I got that job, there was only really Anthony doing that kind of [fine dining] food in Leeds and so from that point of view, it was great to get that experience.

“He’d worked at El Bulli in Barcelona and brought his experience in fine dining to the city and it’s fair to say was one its local pioneers.”

Two years later and he landed a job as a sous chef in a legal agency and later at a two-rossette restaurant in York, before he applied for a vacancy at James Martin’s The Leeds Kitchen in the Alea Casino at Clarence Dock.

“The first time I met James was at the interviews. It was a bit like Masterchef. There was a bag of ingredients and I had to cook a dish for him within a timeframe.”

James Martin must have been impressed because he offered Douglas the sous chef position in March 2011.

It was a big gig for such a young chef, with a lot of responsibility not just in terms of cooking in the kitchen but being involved in the opening of the restaurant itself - attracting someone like James Martin was seen as a real coup not only for Alea but for the city as a whole.

The establishment was extremely successful but two years later came the first of the major upheavals of 2013 when Alea suddenly closed. It was a moment which left the city in shock, not to mention Douglas, who, along with 98 other staff, found himself jobless.

It was at that point, his previous employer, Anthony Flinn, pounced and offered Douglas the head chef job at his restaurant, Anthony’s Piazza. It was a great responsibility and a proud moment for Douglas, who had looked up to Anthony in his younger days and regarded him with a great deal of respect.

The Flinns, Anthony Jnr and his father Anthony Snr, moved to Leeds in 2004 when they opened the eponymous restaurant in Boar Lane, opening two other restaurants, Anthony’s at Flannels and Anthony’s Patisserie, shortly thereafter. In November 2008, the Piazza by Anthony opened and in March 2013 all of the businesses were concentrated under one roof at the Corn Exchange.

Douglas found himself in charge of several chefs running one of the city’s busiest and most respected kitchens. Things, it seemed, were simmering nicely for Douglas but they were about to boil over because by June, Anthony’s was forced to close.

The announcement came out of the blue and came as a real shock to the city’s restaurateurs.

It was not only the end of an era for the Leeds dining scene, but for Douglas it also meant the end of a working relationship which had lasted several years.

“I was shocked when Anthony’s shut. It was a sad day for the city and for Tony because I know how much he put into it and what it meant to him.

“I worked for Tony from an early stage of my career, so I knew how he worked and the high standards he expected. I spent a lot of my time there, he took me under his wing when I was young, I had a lot of emotional attachment to the place. It was run by a family and not some big commercial operation with lots of money. It is a hard environment in Leeds because there are so many chain restaurants now and not so many independents.”

Ever the pragmatist, Douglas soldiered on, adding: “You take situations like that and you have to learn from them, you try to take something from it which might help you in the future.”

He took on some part time agency work but then heard on the grapevine that James Martin was opening a new restaurant across the Pennines in Manchester but this time, rather than having to apply, Douglas was headhunted by the celebrity chef to run the new outfit at Manchester 235, starting in September last year.

“I’m really enjoying it and trying to make the restaurant and food experience the best it can be,” he says.

“It has been a busy 16 months, and I am happy with how things are going.

“The menu focuses on British modern style dishes using excellent local produce. We use Goosnargh chickens from Preston, Herdwick lamb from the Lake District and have exclusivity to Yorkshire wagyu beef.

“We have anything up to 150 covers per day and James and I work together on creating seasonal menus.

“In September, we had our first birthday, the restaurant is open seven days a week and it is busy so the year has flown in.”

James and Douglas also collaborate on occasions outside the Manchester establishment for special event such as the recent takeover of the Orient Express.

Douglas explained: “The train set out from Victoria Station in London and travelled into the countryside. We prepared and served a seven course tasting menu to the passengers over the duration of the evening.

“It was very challenging as the kitchens were small and the delivery of dishes from one kitchen at one end of the train had to be in sync with the other kitchen from the opposite end of the train but it was a great experience to be involved in.”

In addition, his CV doesn’t start and end with Anthony’s and James Martin, he’s also ‘served’ with Tom Kerridge, Pierre Koffmann and Heston Blumenthal doing something called ‘stage’ (pronounced ‘stahj’), which is where chefs go to train at established restaurants to learn and pass on new culinary skills.

So, does he want to follow in James Martin’s footsteps? “I’m not a TV chef,” he laughs.

That said, he has dipped his little toe in the world of celebrity cooking and is featured in a new book, Relish, where he gets his own page.

If his career path thusfar is anything to go by, you may well be hearing his name again in the future - just remember, you read it here first.