What’s cooking? Justin Sharp, Pea Porridge, Bury St Edmunds
We spoke to chef Justin Sharp just days before he won Suffolk's first ever Michelin Star about cooking for Albert Roux and Tom Cruise, and his favourite local foodie haunts.
How did you become a chef/ what was your first job?
When I realised I was nowhere near good enough to play football for a living, I thought “what else do I enjoy doing?”. I managed to get work experience while I was still at school at a hotel called The Waterside Inn in Peterhead, a one hour drive from home.
I was very lucky to have the support I had from my parents who would drive me straight from school on Friday to start work at 6pm, and to then pick me up at 4pm on Sunday to take me home. Those early days were hard, but gave me good grounding and set me up for my adult working life.
What has been your career highlight so far?
I was lucky enough, whilst in between jobs, to be invited to St Lucia to work for three months in the best hotel on the island, with the best Scuba diving in all of the Caribbean. It was a great experience.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Nose to tail plays a big part, and I’m a massive advocate for using lesser known cuts and offal. I always aim to source locally (as close to zero food miles), buy the finest quality, and cook the produce simply, with zero fuss. Above all, it’s all about flavour, flavour, flavour!
Most memorable moment at work?
I was very sad to hear the news of Albert Roux’s death. As a true culinary icon, it was an absolute pleasure and privilege to cook for him. When he returned to our area, he always booked to dine at Pea Porridge. Sadly though, his latest booking was during the first lockdown in May 2020. For someone like Albert to return to us time after time, is some of the finest praise I could ever wish for. RIP Albert.
Winning a Michelin Bib Gourmand was a wonderful feeling and retaining it 10 times is special. (Just after this interview took place Pea Porridge was awarded a Michelin Star!)
Also it was pretty amazing being named Best New UK Restaurant in 2009 by the Craft Guild of Chefs. To be recognised by your respected fellow peers is a great feeling.
Have you ever cooked for a VIP or someone famous?
Several. Over the years I’ve worked in restaurants that have had many celebrity and famous regulars. Generally though, most prefer anonymity when they dine out with friends and family, and this is what we try to embrace. If I must name drop though… Tom Cruise. And recently Dev Patel came two nights in a row when filming nearby.
Who’s your favourite chef?
Pierre Koffmann. His approach to ingredients, passion, commitment and care is inspirational. Although our approach in the restaurant has focussed on Moorish influences since we reopened after lockdown 1, Pierre’s books are the most well thumbed in my collection… proper hearty, gutsy, bold, robust cooking with finesse and elegance. A bistro classic!
What’s your favourite type of cuisine to eat and cook?
The majority of the food we serve in the restaurant has gone through my “grizzly” charcoal oven, and these smoky flavours and Middle Eastern/Moorish influences are what is really exciting us at the moment. I also love eating this style of food too. Persian, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Levantine, Moroccan etc… Also, I think I’d struggle to get through a week without pasta being part of my diet.
What do you whip up for dinner when you’re tired after a day at work?
Well, I usually finish work after 11pm, so tend not to eat that late anymore, (I did too much of that in my younger years). But if I’ve been too busy all day to stop, I’ll maybe just have some cheese. Local of course…. St Jude being an absolute favourite.
What are your favourite places to eat in Suffolk? And any favourite local markets/ suppliers?
In terms of recent openings, I’ve been really impressed with Watson and Walpole in Framlingham. They serve real, simple, tasty and authentic Italian food, and it is superb value for money.
St Jude Cheese is definitely Suffolk’s finest cheese in my opinion. And I’ve been working closely with the fisherman from Felixstowe Ferry a lot in recent months through Mike from A Passion for Seafood.
Artefact Brewing is a newish project we have started working with who are based in Ixworth, five miles away. Their beers are tiptop.
What’s your favourite ingredient and why?
Saffron. I love the colour, flavour, and extravagance. We have been trying to incorporate saffron into all sorts of dishes. From ice cream to pasta…
What’s the best dish you’re serving at the moment?
We are particularly proud of our use of sustainable goat meat. We have been working with Cabrito goat meat for some time. It’s a wonderful story – Cabrito rear dairy billy goats for the table and give them a fantastic life (a male dairy goat would normally be euthanised at birth).
We cook the meat in various ways, with various cuts. My current favourite is tagine with bulgar wheat, apricots, pumpkin, pomegranate and coriander.
What dish are you most proud of creating?
Our first dish that we sold on the first service when we opened in 2009 was sauté of snails with bone marrow, bacon, parsley, capers, red onion and garlic butter. If there was a dish we could call a “Pea Porridge Classic” this would definitely be it.
Tell us your best ever cooking tip?
When making aioli, never use raw garlic, it makes it too potent. Roast the garlic until soft, then squeeze the flesh from the skin.