Chef profile - James MacLeod-Birch of Rupert & Darwin in Hull

While we wait for lockdown to end it’s an ideal time to look back on the career of James McLeod-Birch. It was only in 2019 that opened his new venture – Rupert & Darwin on Hull’s de facto gastronomic boulevard, Princes Avenue – but it has already proven that the time spent  running various ventures for the 1884 brand may have been effort better spent on his own restaurant.

Chef James MacLeod-Birch.

Born and raised in Hull, he started in the restaurant game whilst studying for a design degree at Goldsmiths College in the late 90s. But he realised he was more intrigued by the food he was cooking for his housemates so he enrolled at Leiths School of Food and Wine in Kensington.

While at the school, James met Gary Rhodes and secured a job at the Michelin-starred City Rhodes. Various stages at more renowned (some Michelin-starred) restaurants followed, before he was headhunted to run the newly-opened Wells Tavern in Hampstead, north London.

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After a brief stint running restaurants in the Outer Hebrides, he moved back to Hull and became involved in the first 1884 project, Dock Street Kitchen.

Twists on classics is the philosophy of James MacLeod-Birch at Rupert & Darwin

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Seven years and four restaurants later, James, his wife Beth and business partner David Rooms decided what Hull needed was an approachable, reasonably-priced restaurant serving twists on British classics. Before lockdown, James could be found either side of the pass in Rupert & Darwin.

Can you remember the first dish you ever cooked – and was it a success? It was Chicken fettuccine, taught to me by my mum when I was 18 and she was preparing me to go off to university. I was terribly well-looked after at home and didn’t even know how to boil an egg up to that point. It actually had Bachelor’s Chicken Cup-a-Soup as one of the ingredients. All I can say is that it was very salty and not at all like my mum prepared it. I got better though, eventually.

Who is your inspiration in the kitchen and why? I have several inspirations – my first head chef, Michael Bedford from City Rhodes, was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. The best chef I’ve had the pleasure of working with was Andy Gale, head chef of the Wells Tavern, who then moved to Australia and made big waves there. His style was everything I love about food – simplicity, elegance and flavour. I’ve got a real thing about natural chefs now, though. Magnus Nilsson, when he had Faviken, is a perfect example.

What was the first recipe book you ever owned? My first proper cookbook that I went out and bought myself, because I liked the chef, was Nigel Slater’s Real Food. I loved that he spent the first half of the book talking about what drives his cooking, the produce he used and the seasons, before you even get a sniff of a recipe to try. It was a real eye-opener.

If you organised a dinner party, which three people would you invite and why? Pierre Koffmann, the French chef who was one of the first people to get three Michelin stars for a restaurant in London. He’s the Granddaddy. I went pheasant beating with him once and he was mad, joyously mad. Stephen Fry, because, well, it’s Stephen Fry, and Sir David Attenborough – can you imagine the stories he has to tell?

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