It’s Tanner’s time
2nd May 2019
Celebrity chef James Tanner and his brother Chris are celebrating 20 years at the top of their gastronomic game – and five years running The Kentish Hare. Ahead of their appearance at Pub in the Park in July, James tells Eileen Leahy how the siblings have survived the heat of the kitchen…
If you enjoy food – whether that’s cooking it, dining out on it or watching it being prepared on TV – then you’ll be familiar with James Tanner. The Tunbridge Wells-born chef, who trained at West Kent College and had his first head chef position at Right on the Green in Southborough (now The Twenty Six), is a familiar face on the foodie scene.
As well as appearing on numerous TV cookery shows, he’s also a published author and before he started his own gastronomic empire 20 years ago alongside his brother Chris, James worked for the likes of the Roux brothers in their upstate New York eaterie Lake Placid Lodge and also for Martin Blunos at the Michelin-starred Lettonie in Bath.
In 1999 James and his brother Chris decided to go it alone and so opened their first place, Tanners brasserie in Plymouth, which they sold seven years later after opening The Barbican Kitchen, also in Plymouth, in 2006.
'More than anything we’re well aware that nothing lasts for ever and you have to adapt, look at trends and possibly make them too. Be creative as nothing will continue forever...'
Five years ago the brothers, who grew up near East Peckham, opened a place much nearer to home: The Kentish Hare in Bidborough. This smart gastropub stands on the former site of The Hare and Hounds pub and the pair have been enjoying huge success there ever since.
As part of their 20th anniversary celebrations James and Chris are holding a number of special tasting menu dinners at both The Kentish Hare and The Barbican Brasserie. And they will also be taking part in the second ‘food and grooves’ Pub in the Park event, which is happening this July in Dunorlan Park. Its organiser, Michelin star chef Tom Kerridge, asked the Tanner brothers back due to the success of their last pop-up.
“What a beautiful and fantastic event that was,” smiles James as we sit down to chat in the cosy snug area of The Kentish Hare on a sunny afternoon. “Last year was really great, there was a wonderful festival feeling and the bands were amazing and we got some really great food producers and chefs from all over Kent turning up to it.
"There’s no denying it was fast and furious for those of us catering to hundreds of people every day but we were well set up for it all. Our aim was to serve up the highest quality food, quickly and consistently, and happily we achieved that. The feedback we had from customers was amazing!”
Like Tom Kerridge, James Tanner has been a regular face on our TV screens for years. He cut his broadcasting teeth nearly two decades ago on shows like BBC2’s Ready Steady Cook and ITV’s Lorraine and This Morning and he’s now due to star in a new Channel 4 show entitled Beat The Chef later this summer.
James says that being able to do the additional work on TV, pen recipes and run two different sites is down to having a very tight crew. I guess you could say that the brothers have always looked upon their fellow chefs as family? “Yes, absolutely. This industry is a lot of hard work and there will always be problems but we could never be able to do any of this, to this high level, without our great crew.”
Even those who have gone on to run their own establishments after training with the Tanners still keep in touch, adds James. “Elly Wentworth, who was a Masterchef Professionals finalist in 2016, started with us when she was just 16. She is now running The Angel at Dartmouth but we still keep in touch. She came up last year to help out at Pub in the Park and we had a great time.
'The smell of the hops, the vegetables, Kentish strawberries and fresh fruit. Our local produce here in Kent, the Garden of England, is the best so let’s celebrate it'
"So we have brought a lot of people with us along this journey and I always say that we would be nothing without a good crew. There is no hierarchy and at events like Pub in the Park I’m usually the one there sweeping out the van in the car park at the end of service!”
In addition to the many strands of his career, which also include running a pop-up restaurant during Royal Ascot and a lot of consultancy work, it’s clear James loves the buzz of being in his kitchens: “I think there’s a general perception that if you have done lots of telly you live in a mansion and drive around in a Ferrari but that’s not the case with me.
"I am on the road a lot but it’s mainly driving between our two sites! We sourced the first restaurant down in the South-West as it was cheaper at the time so it’s nice to now have one where we grew up too.”
And another bonus of running The Kentish Hare, James says, is the abundance of fantastic local ingredients that can be sourced so easily: “I’ve always been big on local produce and here in Kent, the Garden of England, we really do have the best strawberries, the best soft fruits and hops to make great beer!
“It’s so great to have all of this quite literally on our doorstep. I grew up around hop fields, Bramley apple and cherry orchards and when Colin the farmer now delivers our strawberries I just have to smell them and I’m taken back to my childhood of riding my BMX down to the pick-your-own fruit farm and picking my own strawberries. I love the great relationships we have with our local suppliers – and staff. We’re just a blip in this industry but if we can help make a mark and push it on then we’ve done our job.”
The Tanners talk… Pub in the Park
Tom is a fantastic chef and a really, really nice guy. It was an honour to be asked to do the first Pub in the Park. Our crew is very open and we all loved chatting to the people who came to see us.
It’s an event that’s brilliant to have in our area but it also helps generate awareness of the quality of produce that’s around us here in Kent. We’re a massive county with lots of fantastic fruit, veg and beers. We’re called the Garden of England and I can’t stress enough how important it is to champion that.
Pub in the Park also helps to shine a spotlight on the area’s brilliant chefs, the establishments and styles of food being created here.
We’re aiming to do five dishes at this year’s event and have been busy practising and perfecting timings. I can tell you there’ll be a courgette tortilla marinated in garlic, rosemary and thyme as well as amazing crispy monkfish tacos.
Last year we did on average 700-800 plates a day so there’s a lot of work to be done! The prep involved was pretty brutal as we are all about super, super fresh ingredients.
Once the service is over you get to catch the last music act and have a beer as the sun is going down but then it’s back to clean the kitchen!
Pub in the Park is on at Dunorlan from July 12-14 www.pubintheparkuk.com