One year on from Simpsons ambitious refurbishment we caught up with executive chef and reluctant TV star, Luke Tipping
In 2015, Birmingham’s original foodie destination and winner of the city’s first Michelin star took the bold step of a total refurbishment. The dramatic make-over included extending the dining area and introducing a fresh, modern vibe to the gorgeous Georgian building. It was a huge undertaking and despite no expense being spared it’s fair to say the new stripped back look divided opinions. Twelve months on Simpsons is better than ever, but ‘it’s been a funny old year,’ says Luke Tipping. TripAdvisor reviews such as, ‘it looks like IKEA. What have they done to Simpsons?’ smarted admits Luke. “The chairs and tables are handmade solid oak! I’ve learned to let it go and focus on what we do brilliantly, but it was hard at the time not to take it personally.” The changes were really important for Luke. While he was always immensely proud of what they were doing in the kitchen he started to notice parts of the décor beginning to fray round the edges.
Once finished, the stunning new dining room was on a par with the food and the team was hugely proud of what they’d achieved. “The food has never been compromised and the quality was never in doubt. I think ultimately people don’t like change, so it took a while to convince a few existing customers about the changes,” said Luke. He admits they made some mistakes, like introducing specials such as fish and fizz and Sunday lunch which detracted from what they were really about and put unnecessary pressure on the kitchen. They also scrapped the a la carte menu, but quickly brought it back when they realised it had been wrong to can it.
The turning point for Luke was when Tom Barnes, head chef at Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume came into the restaurant. “We got chatting and got on really well. I often encourage our chefs to spend time in other kitchens and we host chefs from other restaurants too. They gain experience, new ideas and it sparks enthusiasm. Rather than send one of the chefs to L’Enclume, I went up and spent a week there. I learned so much about the focus of the business and I brought that back with me.” With a clear focus and crucially a fantastic team including head chef Nathan Eades, Simpsons is riding high. It’s moved up a notch in this year’s Good Food Guide to 35th and positive feedback is aplenty. Collaborations with exciting restaurants from across the country have proved instant hits. An event in November with the Sticky Walnut sold out two months in advance. Eureka nights, where Simpsons chefs including the less experienced create new dishes for diners to test and rate, have proved a winning formula by giving diners an insight into the kitchen as well as some incredible food. Luke has also made his TV debut in Yes Chef of which he says: “I watched it through my fingers and got a lot of banter on Twitter! I’m not a natural but it’s good for the restaurant and I’d like to do more.”
Luke’s been with business owner Andreas Antona since joining Simpsons in its previous Kenilworth home in 1993 and together they’ve formed quite a culinary partnership. He wasn’t always so keen to wriggle into his chef’s whites though. He says: “My father was a chef, so we didn’t see much of him and I vowed never to go into a kitchen. I hear chefs saying that they knew at the age of 13 they wanted to spend their lives in a kitchen. Not me! I left school at 16 and had four misspent years before falling into it.” Having stumbled into banqueting at the Grand Hotel, Luke remembers his dad using a contact to get him into the kitchen at the Plough and Harrow – the place to be in the Eighties. The hours were a bit of a shock mind you. Luke remembers phoning his girlfriend (now wife) from the phone box at the end of the road. He recalls: “I said to her ‘they want me to work split shifts! What’s that all about?’ I just couldn’t believe it.” He got over the shock of the split shifts and found his foodie feet pretty quickly before joining Andreas. His dad wasn’t alive to see him get his Michelin star, but Luke knows that he knew they were doing great things at Simpsons. He says: “This has been 25 years of my life. I think my dad would have been proud.”