A Jozi boy, born and bred. He grew up between Northcliff and the family farm out in Magaliesburg. Food was a central part of life from an early age.
He first learnt from watching his mum, Janet, an incredible cook and legendary woman in her own right. He recounts Sundays on the farm where the challenge was to prepare a meal for 6, using only that which was grown on the grounds.
After school James headed off to Stellenbosch and was set on winemaking. After a year James made the shift and enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA) Stellenbosch instead.
He spent the next few years working alongside some of the most noteworthy chefs in the country including, Bruce Robertson at the Showroom and celebrated pastry chef, Nicolas van der Walt. Also his mentor, who became a close friend – Richard Carsten’s pastry chef at Manole, where he soon transitioned to sous chef with the Manolo group.
James refined his management skills working in Johannesburg for a fine dining catering company and then spent two years at Pomodoro, a local Italian eatery.
Through his studies and his experience in fine dining, more focus was placed on cooking skills than the fresh ingredients available. In the end, skill seemed to outshine the ingredients, which wasn’t how he grew up loving and appreciating food. So he started longing for something different…
In 2009 while working in the city, James miraculously, landed a reservation at Andoni Luis Aduriz’s Mugaritz – An incredible fine dining restaurant in the North of Spain that only takes a handful of reservations many months in advance. James and his mum, who had very recently recovered from a serious car accident, committed to an intensive eating and drinking adventure through the Med as a build-up to this once in a lifetime reservation.
Roaring with laughter, he often recounts the haphazard way he and his mum journeyed through Spain and stumbled past some of the best bars and eateries he’d ever been to. From glorious Spanish wines at half price, to finding the family tapas bar where the Blanco brothers learnt to cook. James recalls how that trip solidified his appreciation of European style dining. Menus are limited, there’s no requesting to swap out ingredients or off-the-menu options. All dishes are prepared with only the freshest seasonal produce. If it’s not in season, it’s not on offer. Their trip ended off in the rural French countryside with delicious rustic peasant-style food and quality French wines.
As he enthusiastically retells anecdotes from their adventures, it becomes undoubtedly clear, what a fundamental impact that trip had on his life and would continue to have on his restaurants and ethos around food for many years to come.
Inspired by International travel while growing up, in particular this pilgrimage through Spain, his passion for provenance and sustainability is evident in his philosophy, the food and wine served in his highly-acclaimed restaurants which he opened between 2012 and 2018.
In 2020 Covid19 hits SA and the country is forced into a nationwide lockdown, where alcohol sales and in-restaurant dining becomes restricted. Douglas & Hale permanently closes it’s doors. Coobs moves to Parktown North. La Stalla opens as a small deli in Parktown North. Showing resilience during Covid 19, James stops taking a salary and spends the next few months doing anything and everything for his staff and businesses. From baking muffins for locals out on their 2 hours of exercise a day, to hand delivering pizzas off the back of his scooter. He also partnered up with other local businesses to create “date night boxes, selling ingredients and recipes for some of his best meals to be prepared at home.
There are so many businesses that were forced to shut down or are holding on by a final thread waiting for restrictions to be lifted again. Brightside group has weathered the storm through humility and the willingness to change direction and alter plans for the sake of the staff and the longterm survival of the farm. James recalls how in addition to not letting customers down, he has a large group of staff and an entire farm of animals that need feeding and depend on the wellbeing of the business to survive. There were no other options. No time to sit back and say “poor me”. And this approach worked, for the most part.
Coobs, the National, the Federal, Douglas and Hale (named after James’ two grandfathers), La Stalla, il Contadino – One family. One farm. One phenomenal story about finding your roots, sticking to your passions and being a force for positive change in the community.