Interview with James Tanner, Tonbridge, Kent

Updated: Mar 31

Last Wednesday, it was actually a beautiful hot lunchtime, Sue and I sat out in the sun at The Kentish Hare. We had arranged to interview James Tanner who owns this restaurant. I recognized James from his appearances on TV and as normal practice did my homework in advance!

Therefore, It was a real bonus and surprise to meet Chris (older brother) and James. We got both the Tanner brothers! We were lucky to catch both of them as they explained to us it was rare to find them both at the same location. They both took time away from the kitchen (that evening they were hosting a tasting menu) to come and join us for a coffee.

The story starts and continues around Plymouth which is where both the Tanner brothers, James and Chris now live. It was obvious from the moment we started talking that these guys were hard workers and always have been.  They have always given all their time and energy into their work and it was obvious as they are both sitting in their kitchen ‘whites’ and are very much still ‘hands on’, working on plates of scallops after we left!

“We had very little… ” James explained. He was just 23 years old, when they opened the first restaurant in 1999. “We picked up a van for £100 in Paddock Wood and we raided Mum and Dad’s house for bits to sell at the car boot, so we could buy enough cutlery to use in the restaurant”, said Chris.

I asked if there had been catering connections in the family and James laughed and said “really the closest any of the family have been involved in catering is my late Grandfather who owned a pie and eel shop”!

So Chris and James Tanner opened their first restaurant in 1999  ‘Tanners’.  Since then: 2006 – ‘Barbican Kitchen’ (The Barbican Kitchen is located in a beautiful Gin Distillery in Plymouth) 2011 ‘The Kitchen Café’, May 2014 ‘The Kentish Hare’. In 2015 ‘The Catch’ opened and already has won best fish and chips newcomer in 2016. This fish and chip shop has a dedicated fish and chip fryer for ensuring they provide a completely non gluten, non contaminated offering to customers with special diets.

Generally in all the restaurants the brothers try to accommodate all diets. James said 20 years ago when he was in the States he commented that ‘everyone has allergies’ we are now the same in the UK and more so in Plymouth. For example: allergies to mustard so they have a separate lemon and olive oil dressing ready in the kitchen!

‘Fresh local produce at a realistic price’ was the tag line at Tanners the first restaurant the brothers opened and has always been their philosophy. They try to source locally as much as possible and if not its  keeping it British. For the Kentish Hare all the ‘veggies’ they source are local to Tonbridge. Then the seafood comes from Rye. Speldhurst sausages and Chapmans  in Sevenoaks for some meat but most comes from Plymouth.

They really take pride in their staff too. This is proved by the continuity of staff across all the restaurants. A lot of them have been with the brothers for over 10 years. “We pay the most we can, we try to give them hours/life balance and nuture them, train them on so they can then train new staff.” said James.

‘Brookers Oast’ was James’ first job in the kitchens! And where he got that ‘buzz’. As a teenager, he used to help the Pub Owner put together a few Sunday lunches when the Chef didn’t turn up! After studying hotel management at West Kent College, Tonbridge he worked in several restaurants often with Chris. He was invited by the Roux Brothers to move to the US and work in upstate NY. When James returned to England he worked at the 2 Michelin starred ‘Lettonie’ in Bath.  He then returned to Kent as Head Chef at Tunbridge Wells ‘Right on the Green’.

James has been on TV for many years now. He appeared originally on BBC Ready, Steady, Cook with Ainsley Harriot and currently holds a regular cooking slot on ITV’s Breakfast programme ‘Lorraine’.

James is also the Chef/Director for Hotel Olympia.

I asked about Ainsley and James said they have kept in touch and are friends “yes saw him just recently”. Ainsley appeared on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, do you fancy anything like that? James replied “ I haven’t been asked and haven’t thought about it”.

James who is the celebrity you would most want to cook for?

“Cannot say one I would say two. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro if they walked into the restaurant that would be pretty cool! They are great actors and I grew up watching their movies. Oh by the way, I do love a movie night.  When I am off, at home I like to pull the curtains, chill out and watch a movie maybe with a bit of tapas in front on the telly!”

James also added “as I am in to Formula 1 – Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher”.

What do you both do to chill out? Or relax?

James replied that he loves a day on the track racing cars but if its holiday then chilling on a beach!

Both of the Tanner brothers enjoy Tapas! Chris has recently been to Barcelona and enjoyed the city and then going on to a more remote place where there were no English and he could really relax. We laughed a real ‘hideaway’.  He has limited Spanish but speaks better French. The rabbit course on the tasting menu that they were serving later that evening, he tried/created it out there!

I asked if James was in to any sports in particular?

“I am bad at golf but I have tried, and used to like snowboarding when I was younger…”

What would be your favourite supper?

James – “Rib eye steak, green beans, shallots, garlic, crispy chips with a pot of mustard and rocket dressing on the side. To drink an Argentinian Malbec.”

Chris – “Asian food, something simple like pasta with chilli and prawns. I Love Sriracha sauce and just the other night we both met up and went for dinner, which never happens! We went to Sosharu, a Japanese restaurant but done differently! Was a great meal.”

I asked James about his typical day and really its work, work, work, also covering the distance and spending time on the road between Tonbridge and Plymouth. Then I have to fit some sleep in!

James remembers Tonbridge from growing up! He says the High Street is very much the same, just the occasional new housing estate ‘popping’ up here and there. He does get annoyed when people suggest he lives in London. “Kent isn’t London. I love looking out on the roof terrace here at The Kentish Hare, there are beautiful views over the fields. I grew up in hop fields, apple orchards – the Garden of England”.

James and Chris have also found it important to keep involved with colleges and universities, nurturing the next chefs! James told me that he works with schools on teaching them the practicalities of cooking. He goes in and talks to them, even serving lunch. This ‘life skill’ education is very important to him. He mentioned that he works with Bromley College which has great choice of courses. James says “I feel the government should be investing in teaching of cooking as much as Maths and English, it’s a life skill and would help with obesity crisis for a start.”

James has been involved for 14 years and is master of judges for the ‘Toque D’Or’ one of the longest running and most respected competitions in the country. “It is in my interest to stay involved” he explains as he has a young woman working for him now at The Kentish Hare after spotting her at one of these competitions. “She did not win but I offered her a job”. For more information on the Toque D’Or visit: https://www.nestle-toquedor.co.uk/Home/Competition

James and Chris have written a few books too:  For Chocolate lovers (2006), Ice Cream (2008), James Tanner takes 5 (2010), Old Favourites, new twists (2013).

James does enjoy the perks of the job! Going and doing food events, and demonstrations. For example he was in Bury St. Edmunds, just recently. “I get to see beautiful places in this country for a few days.”

When he is in Tonbridge he tries to catch up with his parents. His Mum helps at the Kentish Hare. Family is important.

 Do you have advise for future chefs

– if you have interest in food, grab it, go offer to work in a restaurant, cook fresh food. There is a huge skills shortage in the industry. Look into colleges, in-house training, nothing comes over-night. James says ‘ I am still learning, its an endless journey’. ‘New ideas, food evolves never stays the same, always something new.’

What are your future plans?

James – to perfect what we have!

The Kentish Hare is hosting a Macmillan Coffee Morning on the 30/9 9-11am.

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