Yorkshire Evening Press : 4th March 2006

Michelin-starred chef Jeff Baker is opening a restaurant in York. Maxine Gordon reveals his recipe for success.

JEFF Baker has much to boast about. He has cooked for The Queen, was the first chef to achieve a Michelin star in Leeds and is the Yorkshire chef of the year.

But you won't hear this 38-year-old from Middlesbrough blowing his own trumpet - even if he has held a coveted Michelin star for ten years, a rare achievement in the restaurant business.

"I'm only as good as the next meal I've cooked," says Jeff, who is opening his first restaurant, J Baker's, in York city centre this month. "All that matters is that next meal and the next customer being happy. It doesn't matter what I've done in the past."

Jeff has taken over Rish, the former fine-dining restaurant in Fossgate, and is turning it into a bistro, going back to basics to offer simple, affordable food with the accent on quality.

Produce will be sourced locally, including beef from Scott's the butchers in Petergate (a favourite of Rick Stein), venison from Round Green Farm in South Yorkshire and seafood from the coast off North Yorkshire.

Jeff aims to create a relaxed dining and drinking experience in the two-storey restaurant, which will have 35 covers downstairs as well as a lounge bar, a chocolate room (selling coffees and hand-made truffles and desserts) and private dining room upstairs.

He is in the middle of a refurb and is still hiring front-of-house staff, but plans to be open mid-March.

A grazing menu will be offered during the day, with dishes such as York ham and cheese croquettes and blue-veined Wensleydale and red onion tart with prices from £3 to £8. The evening a la carte menu will be priced at £18.95 for two courses and £24.50 for three and will feature the likes of potted rabbit and spiced plum with Armagnac, East Coast halibut chunk, brioche crumbs, parmesan and sweet herbs and Jeff's signature pudding, manjari chocolate orange cheesecake.

Despite working with some of the best chefs in the business, Jeff says much of the inspiration for his new restaurant comes from the home cooking done by his mum and grandma.

"I always wanted to be a cook. My grandma had 13 kids and when you went to visit her she always had a dinner for everybody. My mum had five children and was always cooking fresh food, proper pies. Nothing technical, just homely and nice. A little bit like what we are trying to achieve here."

He says he wants to move away from "1990s food", where dishes have "a fan of this on a bed of this".

He adds: "Ask 100 blokes what they want to eat and eight out of ten will say steak, egg and chips. So that's what we have on the menu, not chateaubriand and pomme frites. We'll get the finest beef and the best potatoes and make our own chips... doing it properly with a little bit of love."

Opening his own restaurant has been a long-held dream for Jeff, who left home for London at 16.

"I came across one of Yorkshire's finest chefs, Brian Turner, at the Capital Hotel, and introduced myself as someone who would wash up. He said: `Where you from?' `How old are you?' and `Do your Mam and Dad know you're here?' Then he asked me what team I support. I said `Boro' and he gave me the job."

After spells working with some of the best chefs in London and Europe, Jeff moved to Leeds and became head chef at Brasserie 44 and Pool Court, where, in 1996, he earned a Michelin star - something he kept for ten successive years.

He once cooked for Princess Diana's 25th birthday meal at a restaurant in London and while in Leeds worked at Harewood House, catering for royalty and dignitaries, including the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, Bill Clinton, Neil Armstrong and Desmond Tutu.

Jeff, wife Maggie, and one-year-old daughter Jessica, live in a flat above the restaurant. On a wall hangs a framed picture of Jeff shaking hands with The Queen after she came to Harewood during her Golden Jubilee celebrations.

"I was asked to do a cold main course because they were on a tight schedule," recalls Jeff. "I did Esk Valley wild salmon poached with Dublin Bay prawn jelly. We were also told that the Duke of Edinburgh didn't want wine and prefers bitter. I think we served him John Smith's!"

And Her Majesty's verdict? "She said the salmon was lovely," says Jeff with a smile.

When Jeff considered the location of his new restaurant, York was a forerunner. As a child, he often came to the city to visit relatives in Bootham and Acomb. And he is delighted with his spot at the top of Fossgate, already well established on the city's eating-out map. He expects the street to become even more of a dining destination when Loch Fyne opens in the former Stubbs building later this year.

Jeff said: "When people think of coming into York to eat I'd like them to think, Fossgate. For us, the more the better. Eight or nine restaurants down here, then that's great."