Pioneering master chef Richard Turner talks to David Johns about Michelin stars, flying Dutchmen, Villa pop-ups, and keeping the tablecloths
When someone is prepared to travel the best part of 300 miles just to have dinner, you know the cook must be something special. More so, when the diner is a Dutchman flying in from Amsterdam who has never eaten in Birmingham before but who has booked a table on personal recommendation.
The reputation of Michelin-starred chef Richard Turner extends far and wide across Europe where lovers of brilliantly conceived, flavoursome food are very familiar with Birmingham’s finest. “The chap from Holland just called up, he’s a completely new customer. He flew in and out in the day just so he could eat in the restaurant, which is incredible. We’ve got another guy doing the same thing coming over for France this month.” Unlike so many ‘celebrity’ chefs who no sooner gain recognition or appear on Saturday Kitchen than they’re off writing series of books or opening chains of restaurants around Britain, Richard believes in doing things differently. He’s very understated and single-minded, just like his intimate restaurant which has been at the forefront of putting Harborne – and Birmingham – on the culinary map over the past seven or eight years. Richard believes at all costs in “keeping things small and focused on the food”.
“I will never go down the route of opening bigger, grander restaurants, it’s not me. I’ve thought about going into Birmingham itself on a couple of occasions but dismissed it. I’d much rather grow in a different way such as extending the pop-up restaurant I have run a few times at Aston Villa on match days. That gives me much more satisfaction and is a challenge I enjoy.” And, after all, why change the recipe that’s earned Richard a Michelin star since 2009, as well as a clutch of other top national and regional awards? Born in Sutton Coldfield, Richard is pretty much self-taught, starting off as a dishwasher as a 14-year-old at Thrales in Lichfield before taking a Youth Training Scheme, staying at Thrales for another nine years and then spending four years at an eatery in Four Oaks. He took over and refurbished what was an old, rundown restaurant in Harborne and opened Turners in 2007. “One of my friends told me the place was available – it wasn’t planned,” he explained.
Together with Andreas Antona of Simpsons and Glynn Purnell, Richard became one of the original ‘big three’ Michelin-star chefs responsible for pioneering Brum’s rapid rise as a culinary capital in the UK. “The food scene in Birmingham has grown beyond recognition over the last 10 years,” he said. “And I don’t think I’m being over the top by saying that the three of us, and now with Adam too (Adam Stokes of Adams Restaurant), have put the city and its food onto a national stage.” Being at the heart of the community in Harborne is incredibly important to Richard, but it also brings with it some problems. “Birmingham is now recognised as a centre of culinary excellence which is great, but when people come to the city – particularly corporate visitors – they tend to stay in the city rather than venture into the suburbs. They don’t understand that Harborne is only five minutes from the centre, so we have to make big efforts to pull people out.” As previously mentioned, one of the options considered and dropped was opening a Turners in the centre. “One of the things which I treasure is that our restaurant is very intimate and is very personal both for the customers and me. No matter how good you are, if you have a place with 100 covers you lose that very close personal touch. You just can’t control it in the same way. “I’m here every day and that makes it like my home. For example, the other day a guy came in and was playing with his phone, and I asked him to stop playing with it because he was in my home and I didn’t like it. When you work this intensely for 80 hours a week, for seven or eight years, the restaurant is an extension of my home. “And being a chef isn’t a job, it’s a vocation. When I do have a free evening, I’m always out eating dinner somewhere with my wife to see who’s doing what, and what’s new. My wife says sometimes, can’t we just do something completely different? Can’t we have beans on toast for a change? No way!”
With such intense dedication, it’s not surprising that Richard has no time for those who don’t share his passion. “I hate people who just don’t care. Lots of people in this industry try so hard to achieve at all levels and I love it when people clearly care. I hate people who don’t care, who are just going through the motions to earn some quick and easy money. The people and places I mean are easy to spot, we’ve all seen them!” Richard’s love of the area means that he wants to put back as much as he can to help young talent get a start in the business. As a life-long Aston Villa fan (“I’ve been going ever since my granddad first took me – it’s in my blood”), he’s also a keen supporter of the club’s much-heralded VMF training restaurant which is helping under-privileged youngsters get into the food industry. “It’s a great things for these kids from deprived areas, giving them the opportunity to make something of their lives and show that they can earn an honest living.
KEEPING THE CLOTHS
During the riots a few years ago, one lad carried on working on the VMF allotments even though he knew all his mates would be out on the streets causing trouble. That’s why I want to do more stuff with them. Ultimately I’d like to take on a couple in my restaurant to inspire them and to show them they you don’t have to come from a privileged background to succeed.” Like everything else he does, Richard’s thinking is considered and for the long haul. His attention to detail even comes down to stuff like the tablecloths in his restaurant. “Fashion and food can be a dangerous thing. You have to remember what makes you unique – fashion comes and goes very quickly. For instance, today there’s a big trend to be relaxed and lose tablecloths – they’re not fashionable apparently. I say ‘great’ – let everyone else get rid of them. I’m not going to – and then that will make me different and unique!”
AT RICHARD’S TOP TABLE (Or the five things he can’t do without)
- Wife, Meena
- Nieces, Lily and Megan
- Dog, CoCo
- Aston Villa
- His work