John Burton Race
Dartmouth Celebrity Chefs - A Brief History
Dartmouth seems to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to notable and well-renowned chefs. Attracted by the beauty of the town, its river, and the richness of the ingredients available in South Devon, chefs flock here, and food-lovers follow, gratefully, to their well-regarded establishments. Below is a short history of some of the town’s most notable - and sometimes notorious – ‘celebrity’ chefs.
Restaurants were bleak places for anyone wanting to try intriguing and original dishes before the 1970s. Unless you were lucky enough to go to the ‘Hole in the Wall’ in Bath – owned by George Perry Smith – that is. The Lancastrian restaurateur used influences from across Europe to infuse his menus with beautiful dishes people flocked to try.
Into his kitchen one day walked a ‘domestic science’ student called Joyce, who wanted to be his cook. It quickly became clear that she had a talent and temperament that the friendly man wanted to nurture.
She showed herself to have consummate skill, and yet was still immensely humble, and when Perry Smith came to Dartmouth with her in 1973 to look at a mock-Tudor building on the South Embankment, he knew she was ready to run a fantastic and highly-regarded restaurant on her own.
The Carved Angel opened in 1974, and quickly became regarded as the finest restaurant anywhere in the country. Chefs from London and beyond came down the long A38 to taste the food created by a woman who claimed she never wrote a single recipe, but was a ‘magpie’, taking the best bits of other people’s ideas. She demanded a friendly and happy kitchen, with staff all working in the kitchen and serving food too. She is often described as humble and kind – which seems amazing now considering how many ‘celebrity’ chefs recently have been described as ‘irascible’ and even ‘bullying’.
The Carved Angel was sold in 2004, but Joyce had already ‘carved’ out a new career, gaining fame as a judge on the original Masterchef series – which also left the slightly less-happy legacy of Lloyd Grossman as a ‘foodie’. She has now settled into a happy retirement, still regarded as one of professional catering’s best regarded and most loved characters.
John Burton Race
John Burton Race, Michelin Starred chef, appeared in Dartmouth in the summer of 2004 following the purchase of the Carved Angel - which was renamed the New Angel – with a reputation.
Before his fame, Burton Race was a great, award-winning chef, and a hard task master. He was consultant chef on the Lenny Henry series Chef! In which the comedian played an irascible chef at a well regarded restaurant, rather similar to Burton Race himself.
He then, in 2004, went to France with his wife Kim and their many children to recharge his batteries and find new food inspiration. The year away was documented in the TV series French Leave, and highlighted his fiery temperament and tendency to make snap, and sometimes unwise, decisions.
His return from this self-imposed exile was to take on the previously renowned Carved Angel and reshape it in his own image, incorporating new ideas brought about by his time away. This again was documented in a television programme, called Return of the Chef. In the show he again showed his difficult and mercurial nature – being called ‘Satan’ in all the trailers by Kim was a particular example of this – and continued to impress with his cooking.
The business seemed to be well-placed and gained a Michelin star in 2005.
The town seemed to benefit from his presence and the continual TV exposure he brought, with 2005 and 2006 being particularly good summers for the tourism industry thanks, said some, to the ‘Burton Race effect’.
But trouble was just around the corner – the business wasn’t doing well and neither was Burton Race’s marriage. He was revealed to have had a child with another woman and split from his wife. He then seemed to get a lifeline thanks to a spot on ‘I’m A Celebrity….Get Me Out of Here!’ at the end of 2007. But while he was in the jungle, eating bits of a crocodile NO ONE would think to make food out of, his estranged wife was closing the New Angel restaurant they jointly owned. She posted a sign on the door, helpfully including her ex’s mobile number for the gagging national press.
On his return, Burton Race was instructed to liquidate all his assets for the divorce and it seemed his short tenure in Dartmouth was over. However, thanks to the intervention of his friend Clive Jacobs – a dot com millionaire and former shareholder of lastminute.com – he returned to the New Angel in 2008.
He continued to work on a number of TV shows, and danced Michael Jackson’s Thriller for Comic Relief. It seemed he was looking beyond Dartmouth, and in early 2010 he left the New Angel to ‘concentrate on TV consultancy’. Whatever he does next, it is clear that he will be in the spotlight when he does it.
Keith Floyd was a unique, fascinating and ultimately flawed man who ignited TV with his wine-fuelled cooking sessions on his many TV series, starting with ‘Floyd on Food’.
Floyd started his gastronomic career at his bistros in Bristol. He came to the attention of TV bosses thanks to one of his regulars being Leonard Rossiter of Rising Damp and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin fame. Rossiter wrote the foreword to Floyd’s first book, and fame soon beckoned.
Several TV series later and the former Tank Regiment dropout had basically invented what we now call a ‘celebrity chef’. He was rude, he was irreverent, he was often drunk – but he was always watchable, interesting and actually very likeable. Floyd was always himself, no matter how bad that looked, and the TV audiences found that extremely attractive.
He clearly LOVED the food he cooked and respected great cooks and chefs in a way he couldn’t respect anyone else. He craved good company, good food and good wine, and often found all three.
He came to the Maltsters Arms in Tuckenhay in the 1990s, pouring £1million into a business not on the beaten track and to which he rarely gave his full attention. He got married to a beautiful Dartmouth girl, and their relationship was played out in front of the media – with break ups and reconciliations outlined in amazing detail by the national newspapers – until their eventual split and divorce in 1994.
Then Floyd, perhaps not before time, went bankrupt, reportedly after accepting a cheque for a £36,000 bar bill at the Malsters – which then bounced.
He left south Devon at that point, and ended up in the South of France, in his final years striking out angrily at the celebrity chefs he himself had helped to create. He said they put themselves first rather than the food, which remained his great love for the whole of his life. He died in 2009.
One of the most interesting chefs to be linked to Dartmouth in the recent past – Mitchell Tonks turned his back on accountancy to become a fishmonger in 1995. His Bath fish shop soon had a cookery school and restaurant added to it, and became Fishworks, a new way of selling and promoting seafood.
Mitch had spent his whole life enthusing about seafood, and his enthusiasm and obvious skill earned him the reputation of being the real deal among those in the know in the catering industry. Fishworks quickly expanded and was even floated on the stock exchange. Mitch then started appearing on TV programmes, and his wide smile and friendly personality proved a hit with viewers.
He was voted Restaurateur of the Year by Tatler magazine in 2006, the latest in a string of accolades that started with the 1997 Best Fishmonger award from the Food in Britain Agency and Country Living Magazine.
He stepped down from his hands-on role with Fishworks not long after that award, and was then looking for a new project to get his teeth into.
Having visited Dartmouth often during his childhood, Mitch came to the town in 2008 to see what there was available. He saw, just a few doors down from the now famous New Angel, a perfect opportunity for his new venture. The Seahorse, opened with his business partners Mat Prowse and Mark Ely, opened for summer 2008, and instantly earned a stellar reputation, for both its food and ambience.
In 2010, Mitch and friends bought premises just three doors down the Embankment, and opened Rockfish; the second in a new high-end fish and chip restaurant chain. It was an intriguing and an original concept for Dartmouth, but a successful one, as the restaurant was crammed for the whole summer. Mitch, with a friendly and likeable personality, a love for food, and a love for the town in which he finds himself, might, perhaps settle here for longer than some of his more fiery catering colleagues.
First Published October 2010 By The Dart