Jeff Baker was the pride of York’s restaurant scene. But with his bistro closed and the Michelin-starred chef looking for a new job, he tells MAXINE GORDON what went wrong.

WHEN J Baker’s Bistro Moderne opened in York seven years ago it signified one enormous evolutionary leap in the city’s eating-out scene.

Chef patron Jeff Baker was the real deal – the first cook to bring a Michelin star to Leeds, and hold on to the accolade for ten consecutive years.

J Baker’s, on the site of former fine-dining establishment Rish at the top of Fossgate, was never going to win a Michelin star.

That was never Jeff’s intention. He wanted it to be less formal, with the emphasis on quality food at affordable prices – but with bags of flair.

He launched his three-course menu at £25 a head; for cooking of that calibre, it was a steal. The menu offered intriguing twists on well-loved bistro classics such as steak, egg and chips as well as imaginative dishes featuring offal and game.

Jeff also opened an upstairs Chocolate Room, tempting diners with decadent fondues, truffles, marshmallows and drinks all made from the finest chocolate.

Customers seemed to get it; bookings flourished and regulars knew they had to book weeks in advance to secure a table.

The restaurant’s reputation extended beyond York; helped no doubt by glowing reviews from food critics including AA Gill in The Sunday Times, Jay Rayner for the Observer and Terry Durack in The Independent.

But just three weeks ago, the restaurant suddenly closed. The only sign something was amiss was the locked door and the dusty windows. There was no note of explanation at the premises; no message left for inquiring customers on the answerphone; the website was no longer operational.

Investigations by The Press revealed that the business was for sale – with agents DDC Davey Co seeking £135,000 for the private lease.

On the grapevine, people were suggesting the restaurant might have suffered from negative reports on Trip Advisor.

“That had nothing to do with it,” says Jeff, who was keen to put the record straight for Press readers. “It’s a forum for people to say what they think and that is fine.”

So what went wrong?

“It was quite sudden. The bank put a big squeeze on us,” begins Jeff, a former Yorkshire chef of the year. Margins, he said, were extremely tight. “It was becoming a pointless venture; we had to nip it in the bud.”

The clinical language almost disguises his evident sadness at the failure of the restaurant – the first to bear his name.

“Everybody is quite upset. We had some very loyal customers; some of them came from Leeds – one couple had been coming to me for 20 years. It’s been quite emotional.”

Jeff revealed it has been a difficult time for his family, his Polish-born wife and their two young children. They all lived above the restaurant in a spacious flat.

“They have gone back to Poland until I find a job,” he said.The chef, who has cooked for royalty, said keeping hold of staff and competing in York’s burgeoning eating-out scene were factors in the closure too.

He said new restaurants such as Wagamama and Jamie’s Italian were “great for the city” but “local restaurants are going to get nipped.”

While he looks to relocate – “probably to London” – Jeff has been focusing his energies and talents on the online food business, in which he is a shareholder.

“It’s a market place for high-end food supply,” said Jeff. In a nutshell, the business offers customers the chance to buy quality produce – the same goods normally sourced by chefs.

It has a hub in Skipton and its HQ in Ripon, although the majority of customers are in the south, says Jeff.

The appeal, he says, is that not only can customers order top-notch goods, but also recipes for how to turn them into delicious dinners. “People quite like to stop at home, open the iPad and cook from a recipe. Farmison serves that solution; it gives you all the ingredients and the recipe card, taking you from A to Z, all in one box.”

Jeff provides many of the recipes and has been sourcing some products.

“This morning I was in Bedale at Small Cow, Big Sheep, that breeds pure Dexters and Gloucester Old Spots, talking to them about their meat.”

On the demise of his restaurant, Jeff takes ultimate responsibility. “It was my name above the door,” he says.

Despite the sour end, plenty of his memories are sweet. One highlight, he says, was bringing culinary legend Pierre Koffmann to J Baker’s for a one-night-only dining experience. Koffmann has worked with the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Tom Kitchin and employed a young Jeff at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Tante Claire, some 26 years ago.

“Getting Pierre Koffmann was a one-off for York. I don’t think that will ever happen again. We had good times and great memories.”

J Baker’s – the critics’ verdicts:

The Sunday Times critic described Jeff’s food as “mad but fab” singling out the Lemon Tops (soft meringue, and soft curd) as one of the best conceived desserts, he'd eaten all year.

Jay Rayner
Writing in The Observer, Jay commented on the value for money of the food and wine, adding: “If there were more places like this in Britain's towns and cities, there would be a skip in my step and a song on my lips and a killer scar on my chest from where they'd gone in to perform the heart bypass on account of my overindulgent eating habits.”

Terry Durack
In his review for The Independent, Terry was full of praise: “J Baker's is all about great produce turned into great food with imagination, and an understanding of what we love to eat. Simply by doing this, it has taken York from the 13th century into the 21st.”