Glynn Purnell has won awards and accolades galore for his innovative and courageous cooking style. He says he’s achieved his childhood ambitions, but is now planning for the future on several fronts. We catch up with the “Prince of Birmingham” at his Michelin-starred restaurant to reflect on 2012 and talk about what’s coming next
It’s been a busy year for Glynn Purnell. The city’s most famous chef has had openings, a closing and rebranding, as well as numerous TV and media appearances to deal with this year. Crucially, Purnell has retained the Michelin star of his eponymously named fine dining restaurant on Cornwall Street, and has gained a number of other feathers in his cap along the way. He recently picked up the BMW Square Meal Best UK Restaurant Award, adding to the trophies already on display in his restaurant. The past year has seen Purnell make the transition from chef to restaurateur; he now runs two sites and employs 50 staff. There have been a few bumps along the way, from disagreements with landlords to potential partners not making the grade. However, he’s feeling positive about the past 12 months and is ready for more challenges next year. “It’s been a good year, although there have been some highs and lows. Having to rebrand The Asquith was a low but, over the last few weeks, Purnell’s Bistro has exploded,” he says.
SHRIMPS AND PRAWNS
Purnell is a regular on our TV screens and in the press. There are ongoing discussions with the BBC about new programmes and filming is underway for next year’s Great British Menu, where he will once again act as a judge. During a recent appearance, on the Great British Food Revival, Purnell told the country about the importance of the British shrimp and how it is under threat due to the rise of imported prawns and shellfish. All this seems a long way from where he started life, on a council estate in Birmingham. “I am really pleased with the TV work I have done – I have had some amazing feedback since I did the Great British Menu. Who would have thought when I was playing football on the back fields of Chelmsley Wood that one day I would be on TV talking to two million people about prawns!”
Purnell’s own social climbing has led to a desire to help young people develop their own careers. The chef is now working with the students at South & City College Birmingham, and will be bringing two apprentices into his business, as well as finding placements for others at restaurants in the city. “It’s up to people like me to get involved and do our bit,” he says. “If young people have enthusiasm, a good work ethic, a bit of a spark and start working with someone like myself then the sky’s the limit. They need to realise they can come from a council estate and do well.” Purnell says he wants to help educate the students on all aspects of the business, not just the kitchen. Like many restaurateurs, he says finding good front of house staff is a challenge, so he is also on the lookout for youngsters with good people skills and charm. Reflecting on his own life, it seems clear that Purnell knew what he wanted when he was a teenager, and is now looking for people a bit like himself to train up. “My Dad found my record of achievement from when I was 12. I wrote that I want to open a restaurant in town ‘where all the businessmen and the posh people would come to eat my food’ – I have fulfilled all of my dreams.”
Birmingham has been increasingly feted for its culinary quality and diversity and Purnell is proud of this. There have been mentions in numerous UK magazines, and international newspapers such as the New York Times have all hailed the city’s exciting restaurant scene. Recently, The Sunday Times included three Birmingham favourites in its Top 100 Restaurants; only London and Edinburgh had more. Purnell’s came top for Brum, while Simpson’s and Lasan also made the list. As it stands, the city’s top chefs are all “friendly rivals”, some of whom trained together, and they occasionally meet for a drink and a chat. Purnell will happily namedrop other good chefs such as Luke Tipping, Richard Turner, David Colcombe or Aktar Islam. “If we are full and a customer is looking for a fine dining experience then we will pass on contact details. We [the chefs] meet each other every now and then to have a drink together.”
As the first Brum-based chef to win a Michelin star, Purnell will forever be seen as a trailblazer in the Midlands’ food scene. Exactly who is the best chef in the region is a matter of debate, but surely Purnell is the most innovative. He reinvents dishes with flair and skill, while adding nods and winks from his childhood and upbringing in the city. He’ll use classic techniques, but also add Asian spices and flavours, referencing Brum’s Indian and Pakistani heritage. “Food is theatre. It’s an experience, and I have a unique style of cooking which includes lots of memories from growing up in Birmingham,” he says.
Purnell doesn’t rule out the possibility of opening another establishment, and is considering the idea of a fusion-style restaurant, taking in local Indian and Caribbean influences. He is also keen to front a TV cookery show set in the city, and is in talks with production companies interested in making it. “I’d love to have my own TV series and to have it set in Birmingham so we could showcase what a fantastic city it is,” he says. A passionate ambassador for Birmingham, Purnell provides a welcome antidote to the self-deprecation commonly expressed by the city’s inhabitants. As a result, he’s been described as both the ‘Yummy Brummie’ and the ‘Prince of Birmingham’ – monikers he happily accepts with a sense of irony. “I have been called the Prince of Birmingham, which is very flattering – I hope to rule forever!”