Food for Thought: Chef James Cochran

Photograph by Lateef Photography

Winner of BBC’s Great British Menu and owner of 12:51 restaurant, James Cochran is one of the UK's most exciting chefs. After years spent working at world-renowned restaurants and following his success on the popular cooking show, James Cochran decided to take the leap and launch his own establishment. Known and loved for his bold and flavorsome dishes, we chat with the Whistable-born chef about his inspiration, favorite dishes and future plans.

Photograph by Lateef Photography
Photograph by Lateef Photography

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I was only nine when I knew what I wanted to do. My dad was all about education, but I knew being a lawyer or banker was never going to happen. I was going to cook, and thankfully, I wasn’t wrong.

What was your first job in the industry?

I got my first job at Wheeler’s Oyster Bar in Whitstable, where I grew up, which was a real local favorite. I was 14 and began as a pot washer; they realized quite quickly I had a real passion for food as well as a real knack for cooking. Following this, I worked my way up to sous chef before moving onto Read’s restaurant in Kent, where I learned all about fine dining. London was never in the plan, but I realized it was the next logical step. I got a role at The Ledbury, and that’s where everything sort of blew up.

Photograph by Lateef Photography
Photograph by Lateef Photography

Who influences you the most?

My love of cooking was influenced by my childhood—the fresh seafood scene in Kent, as well as my father being from Scotland and my mother being from St. Vincent. My mum really wanted me to understand my West Indian roots when I was growing up. This meant that many of the dishes we ate had a Caribbean influence; Sunday roasts were particularly unusual, with jerk-spiced leg of lamb, boiled breadfruit mashed with suet, and fried plantains among the more well-known dishes. We always cooked banana bread together during the summer holidays, which is a fond memory.

In terms of chefs themselves, Anthony Bourdain, Grant Achatz, Mark Stubbs, and Brett Graham had a huge impact on me. Anthony Bourdain and Grant Achatz from afar, Brett Graham and Mark Stubbs first-hand in the kitchen as I was learning my trade at Wheeler's Oyster Bar, The Ledbury and The Harwood Arms.

What’s your favorite dish/food?

I genuinely am not a fussy guy; I love experimenting with lots of different flavor combinations and eating out a lot. If I had to choose a last supper, I think I’d go for fried chicken with gravy, smoked bone marrow mashed potatoes with grated comté, truffle and frozen smoked bone marrow. Not forgetting a pint of negroni to go with it.

Photograph by Lateef Photography
Photograph by Lateef Photography

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs or your younger self?

Be firm with the path you want to take; you need to realize what your unique selling point as a chef is before you enter the sector.

What’s your proudest moment to date?

There are too many to count, but my team, including Dan Henry, who has been by my side from the beginning, is one I am super proud of. They are what make the projects we work on a reality, and without them, I would be nowhere.

What’s in store for the future?

I would love to continue expanding my condiment selection; the first one is my famed scotch bonnet jam in collaboration with Sauce Shop. Perhaps a pineapple chutney or green sauce next?

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