Yorkshire Living Magazine : Natalya Wilson : November / December 2006 edition

Natalya Wilson talks to Jeff Baker about his award-winning eatery, J Bakers Bistro Moderne.

The word bistro stands for everything local, friendly and warm. Welcome to the philosophy to renowned chef Jeff Baker, who deliberately called his new York- based venture J Bakers Bistro Moderne to reflect the atmosphere and clientele he wanted for his Fossgate eatery “we did quite a bit of research before we came to York, and we found that people here were looking for something of their own, where they can enjoy  good local produce in warm and friendly environment,” he says.

“Our priority was to build a reputation for good food and great value which has created a high volume of regulars, which was our main goal.

“We wanted to be a busy bistro for local people, and that’s what we set out to achieve.  Some nights I know all the people in the restaurant, which is great.”

Not bad for the eatery that which has been open just eight months.

Middlesbrough- born Jeff started his career at the tender age of 16, when he headed of to the bright lights of London, knocking on the doors of restaurants and hotels. He chanced upon the Capital Hotel, where celebrity Chef Brian Turner took him on as his apprentice. From there he went to The Geenhouse, in Mayfair, and worked in Michelin-Starred restaurants in the capital for the next nine years. Before coming to York, Jeff was head chef in at Brasserie 44 and Pool Court, in Leeds, which he ran concurrently, and was the first chef in Leeds to win a Michelin star_ an accolade he consistently retained during the ten years he was there. He also did a catering for Lord and Lady Harewood, and has cooked for the Queen and Princess Diana, as well as a host of celebrities
Clocking up ten years in Leeds was a milestone which prompted Jeff to aim for a new challenge: opening his own restaurant. Jeff business partner, Neil Nugent, who used to be his second chef at Pool Court, is from York and says Jeff, knew the restaurant scene well. Jeff was keen to come to York, and heard that the owners of Rish looking to sell.  “We came for a meal and put the offer on the table that night”, says Jeff. It was accepted and they soon got to work on refurbishing the premises fitting a whole new state-of-the-art kitchen.

“We are the food-led restaurant. It is all about the cuisine first and foremost, so a new kitchen was a priority,” says Jeff.

The restaurant is very much family –run affaire, with Jeff’s wife Maggie doing everything from printing the menus to waitressing, and his nephew Nathan assisting in the kitchen. The team is small with Jeff and Steve Smith as chefs and Dean Martin as front-of-house manager.

Jeff describes the cuisine at J Bakers as “traditional cooking with a modern twist”.
The menu changes weekly, sometimes more frequently and could include sausage and beans with local quail, white beans and parsley crumbs, Scott’s Galloway chargrilled steak with duck egg and chips, clover-fed lamb chops with hot pot potatoes and red cabbage and Manjari chocolate tart with parsnip ice cream and smoothie. There’s also children menu and ’grazing’ lunchtime menu, when Jeff says the eatery has more “chilled-out” feel with dishes such as wood mushroom on toast, salted cod in beer batter with marrowfat peas and charred rib steak and chips. This last has been nominated for an award for best steak and chips in the UK, and it’s a tape of cuisine that Jeff would like the restaurant to be known for.

Not that Jeff is any stranger to awards. He recently picked up Yorkshire Chef of The Year Award, is listed as one of the top 35 chefs in UK, and the bistro has already made has made the Which? Good Food Guide 2007. But that as he says, is not what he or the restaurant is about.

“We are not interested in Michelin Stars, we’re interested in providing affordable cu sine, great wines and whatever follows “he says.

“We want to take the formalities and starch out of eating good food.

“Our slogan  if you like is more inclusive less exclusive. A bit cheese, maybe, but that what we want,” he laughs

“If people come in here in jeans and spending £10 at lunch time and just enjoying good food, then that’s good. We want to feed more relaxed marked. Though Jeff is building on the downstairs bistro, he has big plans for the upstairs ‘piano room’. The building was once a piano shop. He wants to use the space for people to book events, from christening and business meetings, to friends watching football together, with casserole and beers if they want.

“We can cater for anything from a ten-course tasting menu to an intimate affair with pie and mash. That’s what we are aiming for in the next year,” he says.

“Saying that we are already pretty busy up there with events, considering we’ve not even started promoting it yet!” He also has plans to open a chocolate room an upmarket and stylish coffee shop, with good coffee and hot chocolate and a pudding menu, as well as chocolate counter selling home made truffles and the like. But for the moment his concentrating on perfecting bistro.

“ It’s my first business  so I want to get it just right, and we’re all on learning curve” he says.

However, we aimed at first to serve 200 to 250 people a week and the number is already exceeding 350 – we’re always busy. What I have to do is make a business sustainable for the next few years, but I’m really enjoying the challenge.” I want to be able to get closer to the customers and find out what they want. It’s something I’m looking forward to working towards. “ as long as we cook good food that our customers enjoy, then that’s what I’m happy with.”