OWT, the tiny café they’d been running since November 2018, was becoming increasingly popular and with just 12 covers they were sniffing out larger premises close to the market.
So when a unit at the Corn Exchange became free this enterprising young couple didn’t think twice. But the pandemic put paid to their plans and almost as soon as they’d arrived.
James hasn’t had any formal training but he’s picked up a wealth of experience working in kitchens up and down the country. “I’ve always been interested in food and worked in pub kitchens as a teenager in London, then as a chalet cook in the French Alps.”
During summer breaks from university he worked in the kitchens at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships before moving to Leeds and cooking for the Real Junk Food Project in Armley and at the Brunswick bar. He met Esther at a music festival in France (when he’s not behind the stove, he’s behind a drum kit) and they returned together to the UK.
When the chance of taking on a stall at the market arose they grabbed it with both hands.
Esther’s upbringing in Provence and James’ ‘‘natural skills’’ have shaped their style; seasonal, French bistro style small plates.
“We’re keeping the same concept for OWT at the Corn Exchange, plus a fresh deli serving sandwiches, salads and Esther’s fabulous cakes. When we can open fully we’ll be serving big plates too,” says James.
In the meantime, James and Esther have come up with an ingenious scheme: customers can order food online and collect it. “We can’t use our main door at the Corn Exchange for takeaways, so we’ve been using our Victorian windows to lower orders in a wicker basket to customers – it’s Covid safe and it puts a smile on everyone’s face.”
What was the first thing you remember cooking? Eggy bread. I was shown how to make it at school when we used to go on camping field trips.
Who is your culinary inspiration? Incredible meals cooked by my family and extended family. I admire Keith Floyd’s cooking style – his passion has always been inspiring to me. Going on holidays to France is always a huge source of inspiration.
Who would be your dream dinner party guests? Anthony Bourdain – he tried every food imaginable and I really respect his outlook on both food and wider cultures and politics. Sheila E – one of the greatest drummers of all time, she toured with Prince. As a drummer myself, it would be an honour to share a meal with such a genius. Julia Child – she had so much knowledge. She seems so kind and full of life.
What piece of kit could you not live without? A good cast iron dish. I use one for pretty much everything.
What’s your guilty food pleasure? Chocolate Hobnobs and very plain, cheap white bread.
What’s your favourite ingredient? Garlic is the ultimate umami bomb. It’s an integral part of what we do here. I use roast garlic a lot – roasting it renders it soft and smoky, it almost becomes another thing altogether. The sweetness is a base for a number of dishes here at OWT.