Pea Porridge restaurant in Bury St Edmunds was awarded One Michelin Star in the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland 2021, having held a Bib Gourmand since 2010. We had a chat with chef Justin Sharp, who owns and runs the restaurant with his wife Jurga.
How did you celebrate winning a Michelin Star?
Well we couldn’t go out for dinner! It was all very surreal to be honest because we had held a Bib Gourmand for almost ten years to the day, so when I was asked to appear on camera for the online launch event, I thought it was to say a few words about that. There was no champagne on ice, put it that way!
Your phone goes crazy and you’re trying to keep up with it all but you can’t. Then it’s a case of trying to answer everybody who’s sent you positive vibes and thank them for it. What a four weeks it’s been! But certainly, those first few days were just like, ‘Wow! This is just incredible.’ It’s a fantastic achievement and I’m really proud. It makes 30 years of sweating over a hot stove worth every second.
What has been the reaction of your friends, family and team?
The response has been great in terms of all the well wishes and words of support from friends and neighbours, regular customers, and just the whole town in general – it felt like everybody was right behind us.
To be the first restaurant in Suffolk to win a Michelin Star is a wonderful achievement. It’s a great springboard to promote what our county has got to offer and will hopefully get more people to come and visit Bury St Edmunds and Suffolk, so other local businesses will benefit too.
I didn’t tell anybody that I was going to be appearing on the award ceremony so none of my family were watching it. After I’d embraced my wife, I rang James, my right hand man in the kitchen, and then Facetimed my parents. I said we had something important to tell them and of course they were over the moon but I do think for a minute they thought we were going to tell them they were going to be grandparents again!
Of course, they are very proud of what we’ve achieved; my Mum went to the local newspaper up where they are in Scotland and also put it on the local Facebook page. They can’t go for a walk at the minute without people stopping them to say congratulations! So that feel-good factor has come from all around: from friends, family, neighbours and regulars, to the whole county of Suffolk and further afield in my home town up in Scotland.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Like many boys, when I was young I wanted to play football. Then when I was fifteen, I got work in a hotel about 50 miles away from where I lived. I would finish school at 3.30pm on a Friday and my father would drive me there. It was a three hour trip for him and then he’d come and pick me up and drive me home on a Sunday. The sacrifices my parents made for me back then helped set me up in my career and I really appreciate the support they gave me.
When I was 20, I moved to Wales and took a job as a chef de partie at Llangoed Hall, which at that time was owned by Sir Bernard Ashley and had One Michelin Star. It was very rural though and eventually, the bright lights of London beckoned. Seven years in the city followed, during which time I took my first head chef position and also met my wife.
After a stint in the Caribbean we took our first job as a couple in Hertfordshire. We then travelled for a bit, and worked in private villas in Majorca before settling back home. We opened Pea Porridge in August 2009 and haven’t looked back since!
When we gained a Bib Gourmand in 2010, I truly thought that that was the finest achievement I could ever hope to gain in my professional life, in terms of the style of things we do here. We’re interested in ingredients and in good, simple, hearty cooking – in maximising flavour without being too fancy. We focus on simplicity, produce, flavour and consistency.
How did your cooking change during lockdown?
We changed things quite a bit during lockdown and our cooking now has more of a Moorish influence, focusing on flavours from North Africa and the Middle East… Lebanese, Turkish, Spanish, Sicilian… and we even travel across to the Levant region as well, so Greece, Cyprus and places like that. It’s all about ingredients and flavours that we love.
I’ve always introduced new dishes into what we were doing at Pea Porridge but then lockdown came and shook us all up. We didn’t immediately do any sort of takeaway; instead we used the time to reassess our business to see where we were at and see what we could potentially change. Working within these four walls for ten years – I wouldn’t say we were getting stale but we wanted to move things forward and reenergise ourselves. Lockdown gave us time to engage our minds a bit more.
Obviously we like that style of cooking and the ingredients. So we read a lot, we researched a lot, we tried a lot; we were constantly trying to find different ingredients and flavours. Also my colleague James came back to join us: he was my right hand man several years ago but then went off to do other head chef jobs elsewhere. When I told him what our plans were, he was keen to come back and get involved, which in turn has enabled me to be more creative.
Having been closed for a period of time during the first lockdown meant that this was the best time to make a change because it almost felt like we were starting afresh – and people just embraced it from day one. We’d had ten years of what we’d been doing; we had a really good customer base and lots of regulars. Lots of good reviews, good write ups, great accolades so you ask yourself, why would you risk changing that? But it was the right time to do it and it’s paid off fantastically well.
I think the skill in what we do is primarily in the sourcing of the produce. We spend a lot of time sourcing the right ingredients; ones we feel comfortable using, from the salt to the coffee and everything in between. We're small, we're individual, we’re unique, and we work with like-minded people and hopefully when people come in and eat with us, they can feel that we are serving produce that we are 100% happy with.
Where do you get inspiration from when you're creating new dishes?
I think every chef looks at what other chefs they admire are doing and also I'm always on the lookout to do something that nobody else is doing; to give us a point of difference. We have always been a place where you're going to find ingredients that you might not find elsewhere…like whelks for example. Nobody really eats whelks in this country so they get shipped abroad. I source my whelks from Felixstowe, which is half an hour away.
There’s a perception in this country that seafood, for example, is quite expensive to get – Scottish langoustines and shellfish and the like but there are plenty of cheaper products as well that we should be embracing – and that’s what we try to do here. We can introduce people to ingredients that they might not see every day, so that plays a big part in how we think about new ideas. We also scour around us; we might, say, get half a mutton from a smallholder ten miles away. We will take it, work our way through it, and that'll be it. Then we'll move on to something else.
We work very closely together; me, James and my wife Jurga who runs front of house. She's got a better palate than me and James put together so anything that gains her seal of approval gets a thumbs up from all of us. She's ultimately the one that's putting the plate on the table so again, if we're not happy with something then we won't put on it on the plate.
What dish most represents you and your style of cooking?
Before the first lockdown, I would have said roasted bone marrow with snails, garlic butter, bacon and parsley because for ten years we never took it off the menu. But we’ve changed our cooking a lot and have only really had four or five months of trading, so I’d say we’re still developing our new style.
Having said that, we’ve been working a lot with goat meat – again from a really sustainable source. Basically what happens is the guy who rears these goats takes on dairy billy goats that would normally be euthanized at birth. A male goat is no use for the dairy industry but he rears them, gives them a great life and gets them prepared for the table.
Working alongside him has been great and also goat meat tends to lend itself very well to Moorish-influenced food as it takes on those flavours really well…things like kibbeh and tagines and also flatbreads with spicy goat mince on top of them like a Turkish lahmacun.
Where do you like to eat when you're not working?
There are a lot of restaurants in and around Bury St Edmunds that, like us, close on Sundays and Mondays, so getting a chance to try those places is quite difficult.
I sometimes get in the car and nip to London on a Sunday. Brawn on Columbia Road in London is probably my favourite restaurant. I love its simplicity and I love their ethos when it comes to produce as well, which is similar to mine; they don't muck about with things too much. Ed the chef there is probably my favourite chef; he understands ingredients so well.
I also like The Ninth on Charlotte Street. Jun Tanaka is cooking French/Italianesque dishes and I think he's got a lovely touch in the kitchen: very subtle flavours, and again he manages to maximize the produce to its best.
What plans do you have for the next few months and for when lockdown lifts?
‘Get My Goat’ is the Moorish-style heat-at-home goat feast that we’ve been offering as a takeaway at weekends. But I’ve put a pause to that now we know what date we are working towards.
We don't have any outside space here so that rules out April – but we'll be focusing on getting ready and open for the week of 17th May. We've never taken online bookings before, so we will use the time wisely by improving our website and making it possible for people to book online.
Foodwise, we are going to focus on more of the same. We want to continue what we’re doing and hopefully showcase it to wider audience. One of the main things I'm looking forward to is wearing my Michelin badge with pride; it's going to be wonderful to be able to reopen as a Michelin-Starred restaurant.