‘Game-changing deliciousness’: Meet 2024’s Chef to Watch James Carn
Published 20 February 2024

Chef James Carn and his wife Sophia opened Lark in Bury St Edmunds in February 2023. Despite a shoestring budget (but generous friends and family) – initially having to borrow chairs from the nearby pub, and kitchen equipment from supportive chef pals – they found their feet.

In fact, they more than found them. Lark’s strong first year culminated in the restaurant being shortlisted in two competitive categories in The Good Food Guide Awards – Best New Restaurant, and Chef to Watch. James won the latter.

Game-changing deliciousness Meet 2024s Chef to Watch James CarnThe Bury-born chef and father of four young boys is just 34 but has already worked for more than half his life in restaurants, including at Tuddenham Mill near Newmarket, The Angel Hotel virtually next door, and latterly at high-flying neighbourhood spot, Pea Porridge, also in Bury town centre.

‘Game-changing deliciousness’ Meet 2024’s Chef to Watch James CarnLike many ambitious chefs, he wanted his own place, and when a tiny former floristry shop on the market town’s central Angel Hill came up for lease (the space was also a bus shelter back in the day), it felt right. Months of works led to the doors opening in February 2023 to reveal a tiny space – just 20 seats plus a couple of tables outside in nice weather – minimal décor, polished concrete floors and white walls. From the outside, its sky-blue window frames strike a bold contrast with the scarlet phone box just by the door. It’s an idiosyncratic spot, bringing what our inspectors described as ‘a welcome pop of urban cool’ and satisfying the appetite for something different in the town. The name? It's in honour not of the songbird but the river that runs through Bury St Edmunds.

Game-changing deliciousness Meet 2024s Chef to Watch James Carn

On the menu are small and less-small plates, plus a specials board, tweaked daily. Pies are of game-changing deliciousness, the trifle is glorious, and a short wine list put together in collaboration with the town’s independent wine merchant, Vino Gusto, is packed with discovery. The floor is run smoothly by restaurant manager Yann Aubourg, and alongside James in the kitchen is Freddie Footer who made his name not least in restaurant critic Jay Rayner’s effusive Guardian review. Rayner also named Lark his ‘restaurant of the year’ for 2023.

From its front window, Lark looks towards the ancient stone walls and the portcullised gateway to the grounds of the medieval Abbey that once dominated the town. It’s quite the view from the restaurant's two sunny window seats which were the perfect place for a catch-up…

Game-changing deliciousness Meet 2024s Chef to Watch James Carn

Congratulations on winning the Chef to Watch award! What does it mean to you and the team?

It was surreal to be shortlisted for two awards by a guide that we as a team hold in such high regard. To be awarded 'chef to watch' was a huge honour, being up against chefs that I look up to. We couldn't wait to bring the award back to Lark and share it with the team who deserve this recognition for all of their hard work and dedication since we opened.

You describe the early days of Lark as being really difficult. How did you keep the faith in your vision?

Having a great support network around us was key in the early days, being able to lean on others so we could focus on seeing the vision come to life was important.

You’re loyal to Suffolk, and specifically your hometown, Bury St Edmunds. What makes the town and wider region an exciting place to work as a chef/restaurateur?

We have some amazing produce in Suffolk as well as a lovely coastline. Bury St Edmunds is a quaint market town and we are lucky to be based here. Over the past few years lots of wonderful restaurants have opened in Suffolk, adding to what was already an attractive destination to be cooking in.

Pie love. Your oxtail-bone marrow-snails pie has been swooned over, not surprisingly. Is it a menu fixture as is, or can we expect changes?

This features on the specials board most weeks. There is some beautiful Suffolk wagyu beef available which I would love to source, so perhaps this will elevate the pie.

Oxtail & bone marrow pie, parsley and snails

You buy from the local wine merchant round the corner - what are your top two picks from the current list and what dishes do they pair best with?

(James) – the Rathfinny Blanc de Noir English sparkling perfectly complements half a dozen oysters.
(Sophia) – the Anthonij Rupert Wyne ‘Optima’ [a rich Bordeaux blend from the Western Cape, South Africa], delicious alongside the oxtail pie.

Times are tough, but what makes you optimistic about 2024?

Our regular and local customers who have been so supportive since we opened give us faith that we are going in the right direction. The success of our first year continues to bring in customers from all over the country and we are driven to keep working hard to improve our offering.

And finally…
A favourite ingredient?

Venison which we source locally from Lavenham Butchers. Gregg [Strolenberg, owner] has kindly taken me out stalking before. It’s such a versatile, sustainable meat. We serve the loin as a tartare and the haunch we roast and serve pink.

An ingredient that would never be on the Lark menu?

Out of season fruits, for example strawberries. When in season they are unmatched, so enjoy them then.

Whose cooking do you admire locally and nationally?

Locally, Justin Sharp at Pea Porridge. An unbelievable cook who has an ability to make anything taste incredible. Nationally, Nathan Outlaw [Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen and Outlaw's New Road, Port Isaac, Cornwall]. Pure, beautiful, simple cooking using the best produce from one of my favourite parts of the country.

Game-changing deliciousness Meet 2024s Chef to Watch James Carn
Pea Porridge

A cookbook you turn to time and again?

Bruce’s Cookbook [by Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce, London], a wonderful cookbook with so many great recipes.

Most exciting meal ever?

Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s restaurant in Wales. I couldn't name a single dish but I ate five of the best courses I have ever eaten, one after another as part of their tasting menu. Going back next month and I can't wait.

Go-to spot for a low-key lunch or dinner?

Butley Orford Oysterage, Orford. Simple dishes done very well, in particular the skate wing with brown butter.

Game-changing deliciousness Meet 2024s Chef to Watch James Carn