Luke Tipping has just seen Simpsons retain its Michelin star for a record-breaking 20th year. David Johns talks to the super-chef who first put Birmingham on the foodie map – although he’s far too modest to admit it!
Luke Tipping is way too modest to admit that his kitchen is where Brum’s explosion onto the world-class dining scene began. Together with owner Andreas Antona, he propelled Simpsons to its first Michelin star back in the late Nineties. Last month, the super duo celebrated retaining that precious star for an astonishing 20th year in a row when the new 2020 Michelin guide was published.
In the guide’s latest edition, Birmingham now boasts six star restaurants – the most outside of London. The chances are that you’ll be familiar with the likes of starred chef Glynn Purnell, the Yummy Brummie of Purnell’s fame, who pops up on TV pretty regularly. Glynn is just one of the great chefs who were mentored by Luke and worked in his kitchen and now run their own highly-regarded, successful restaurants.
The legacy of chef director Luke and Simpsons lives on in the West Midlands and beyond, with other former chefs, including Adam Bennett, Andy Waters, James Cross, Marcus Eaves and Matt Cheal to name but a few. Luke, however, plays down his impact on our food scene. “Bringing through promising young chefs is really what it is all about,” he says. “It’s very important to me that they are given the opportunity and the right avenues if they have the potential and are good enough.” This passion to develop the next generation earned Luke a professorship of culinary arts at University College Birmingham where he places the utmost importance on training and mentoring young chefs.
Growing up as a child Luke was always around food, living above restaurants where his father Ted was a chef and his mother was also in the industry. But it wasn’t until he was in his twenties that he was bitten by the cooking bug. He describes his teenage years as ‘misspent’ and eventually his frustrated father got him a placement in a kitchen which led to enrolment in Halesowen catering college.
He formed his enduring partnership with Andreas Antona after they worked together at Birmingham’s Plough and Barrow restaurant before Andreas set up Simpsons in Kenilworth. They earned their first Michelin star in 1999 before the restaurant moved to its current home in Edgbaston. Luke became chef director in 2011.
“It’s just amazing where those years have gone,” said Luke. “In our business, it’s incredible for a restaurant to have been around this long and to have progressed, and continue to progress, like this.” He added: “I’ve always enjoyed working here. Andreas is such a great guy to work for and the beauty of it is that he owns it and I just run it for him. Of course, over the years I’ve had offers to go elsewhere but I’ve never wanted to leave.
“While it is every young chef’s dream to want his own restaurant, the reality is that it can be a bloody nightmare, from the financing to stuff like having to choose what knives and forks to buy and from where. Anyone who opens a restaurant in this day and age is a brave man, or woman. And anyway, I treat Simpsons as my own because that is the sort of relationship we have here.”
True to character, Luke doesn’t make a huge fuss about the Michelin star. “We didn’t go seeking the star,” he said. “We did what we want which is believe in quality. The star just came.” That modesty teamed with a superb talent for creating wonderful food means that Luke is hugely respected and admired by his fellow chefs. In what is an ultra-competitive, high-pressure industry, we can tell you – fact – that no one has anything but good words to say about Luke.
Always looking to explore new challenges and collaborations, it wasn’t a surprise when Simpsons won the accolade of being one of the top 50 vegan restaurants in the world by a panel of leading food experts. This followed being placed in the top 10 UK vegan eateries by animal rights organisation PETA. “We’re always looking to find new challenges, to improve, expand our horizons and offer the customer more,” said Luke.
The last couple of years have been especially memorable for Luke. This year’s 20th Michelin star was preceded last year by Simpsons celebrating its 25th anniversary. To mark that landmark, Luke teamed up with his namesake Birmingham-based clothing brand Luke 1977 in a collaboration that saw the seasonal worlds of food and fashion come together. He first came across Luke1977 when he purchased a shirt several years ago and began to use the brand’s logo as his Twitter icon. He was later introduced to the man behind the brand, Luke Roper by Roper’s cousin Matt who runs the Birmingham store.
Did we mention Luke’s modesty already? He’s never one to duck an issue if things don’t always go quite according to plan. He admits “we made a few mistakes” when talking about Simpsons high-publicised refurb a few years ago. “Changes to the menu and the setting didn’t go down well in some quarters so we quickly accepted it and went back. No problem,” said Luke.
Always up for trying different things, Luke has appeared as a guest on BBC’s Saturday Morning Kitchen and Yes Chef shows, but says (modestly, again!): “Sure I enjoy TV, but really I think it’s the kind of thing where they are looking for younger chefs.” Now, far be it for us to question Luke’s premise… all we would say is that at 54 he’s precisely one year older than a certain Gordon Ramsay!
Truth is, Luke is far happier flying under the radar, discovering and developing the young chefs that will carry Brum’s food scene on to even greater heights while also having time to visit vineyards and go truffle-hunting in Italy (a first!) – which is where he was heading shortly after talking to us…