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Glynn Purnell Interview - Backstage with Birmingham's Michelin Star Chef

Glynn Purnell, Michelin starred chef of Purnell's Birmingham

Glynn Purnell is known to many as the pride of culinary Birmingham. The Michelin-starred chef owns the restaurant Purnell's, and last month he opened a second restaurant called The Asquith, on the site of the former Jessica's where he earned his first Michelin star.

He's also been one of my favourite chefs on the Great British Menu, due to his creativity and charm. I was lucky enough to talk to him backstage at Saturday Kitchen Live at this weekend's BBC Good Food Show (my very first interview conducted in person).

Listen to the first five minutes of our conversation here - the transcript follows:


You’ve been called the “Finest chef to hail from Chelmsley Wood” (by the Birmingham Post) as well as a “Yummy Brummie” (by Olive Magazine) – which title do you prefer?

I love people to know where I’m from because I’m proud of where I’m from, but to be called a Yummie Brummie is very flattering and also [gives me] the chance to fly the flag for Birmingham, so the second one probably.

How would you describe yourself given the choice?

Energy, funny, good company, mental.

The Asquith opened last month, but it’s been quite low-key with hardly any press – was this deliberate?

I’ve opened The Asquith as a bit of a project as well as to make money obviously. I’ve put a young team in there, some people who have worked with me before (including head chef Jason Eaves) and I’m giving them the opportunity to open and run a restaurant. I won’t cook in there. If they make a success of it, then I’ll give them shares.

Do you go over at all? You’re about 10 minutes away at Purnell’s.

I am there tomorrow lunch because I’ve got a party, but I tend to cook from Tuesday to Saturday at Purnell’s. I do spend some time [at The Asquith] but there’s no good me going there one day and it being fantastic and the next day it drops; it needs to start at a level and gradually progress.

Talking of Purnell’s – Purnell’s Tour sounds fabulous – there’s a lot of Great British Menu dishes eg Masala Monkfish, Burnt English custard in the egg shell – what else did you take away from making the Great British Menu?

The funny thing is most of the dishes that are on there I was cooking before the Great British Menu. I've always cooked that food; it’s all very unique to my personality and the Great British Menu gave me a great platform to show it all off. I mean I previously had a Michelin star in my other restaurant [Jessica’s] so I already had a customer base, but the Great British Menu has made Purnell’s more of a national restaurant, rather than a local restaurant in Birmingham.

For people to make a pilgrimage to. Do you think you’d ever move out of Birmingham?

London’s tempting, but I think I’d be like a fish out of water - plus I couldn’t come and see the Blues play every Saturday and then I'd be in the sh!t.

I was asked to ask that actually - "Why Birmingham City when it's obvious that Villa are better?" I don't really understand that question ...

The clue’s in the title – Birmingham. City. That’s it for me.

Glynn Purnell and his Masala Monkfish which won the Fish Course of Great British Menu 2009
The Masala Monkfish which won the GBM 2009 fish course (copyright BBC/Optomen)

So you’ve got dishes like “Poached egg yolk – smoked haddock milk foam – Cornflakes - Curry oil” – how do you come up with them? Are you being deliberately provocative?

Not really. I don’t cook dishes to make a statement or create a fuss. I do them because I think that’s normal. I’ve got my own very unique style and I just cook what I like to eat. A lot of it comes from my roots and the way I’ve been brought up, so that’s what’s influenced my cooking.

There are a lot of Asian influences which I suppose is unsurprising, but do any other foreign cuisines excite you – I understand you’re into kickboxing, so have you considered using Thai elements?

I kickbox and box, but that’s mainly to keep fit. But I basically use what’s around Birmingham really and what influenced me when I was growing up. We’d go for a balti when we were kids for our birthday parties – everyone else went for McDonalds, but we got taken for a curry.

Pretty open-minded from an early age! I also read that you grew up eating and now use cheap cuts and offal like pig’s trotters and ox cheeks. Why do you think that other chefs have been slow to embrace cheap cuts – is it maybe snobbery?

I think there has been a great deal of snobbery when it comes to restaurants. But the dynamics of the industry have changed. No one wants 15 waiters around them in dickie-bows. No one wants the menu written in French unless the chef is French. So I think it’s about getting real. And also, it ain’t great out there economy-wise. So if on your menu you can use cheaper and interesting cuts, it certainly makes the diner think twice when they’re ordering.

Glynn Purnell and Kenny Atkinson on Great British Menu 2009
Still my favourite image ever from the Great British Menu (copyright BBC/Optomen)

I’ve read the blog you had on the Sunday Mercury – you obviously write well, so why haven’t you brought out a book yet?

No one’s ever approached me. I write like I speak. It’s not the best grammar.

But it’s honest.

It’s very honest … and the spelling’s awful as well!

But that’s the kind of thing that’s appealing. Especially these days, people don’t want people bullsh!tting them.

Oh, I never blow smoke up anyone’s arse. I just don’t think we need it, to be honest with you. Manners cost nothing as well - that’s what I always say. So take the pickle out of your arse and embrace life.

So if someone comes up to you and says “Do you want to do a book?” would you say yes?

Of course I would, yes.

Are you on Twitter?

No, I’m not. (Laughing) I don’t understand it, to be honest with you.

See, we're all Twitter people (I'm gesturing to Edd Kimber aka @theboywhobakes who is there as my photographer)

Are you? I don't know, you explain it to me. I say I'm on Twitter and then what happens?

You have to start following people; they start following you. It's a conversation - it's not like Facebook where you just update your status, you get so many amazing connections.

Hmm. Well, I know people have set up appreciation websites for me (he seems unconvinced)

But you're obviously online savvy - you had a blog.

A little bit yeah. Enough.

Last few questions - what's the best advice you've ever been given?

My dad once said to me "You're going to be a chef. You're going to have to do it for forty-odd years. Why don't you shut up and try and be good at it and you might be able to retire a little bit earlier?". I thought to myself "He's got a point, I should stop f*cking about and carry on peeling onions".

You've got two little kids - have they started following in your footsteps yet?

I've got a son that's five and a daughter that's two and a bit, and I've got one on the way as well. They always want roast chicken on Sundays and I'm there all day Sunday, so I'll get them to peel the carrots, and I get them to look in the oven and the chicken goes in there.

So they're involved?

They're involved. If they want to be chefs then fair play to them. They love coming to the restaurant, they love doing that sort of stuff so if they want to, they can.

Last question - what's your favourite cake?

I used to love, love Madeira cake. I used to get it and cut it and spread butter on it. Absolutely delicious toasted or just with a mug of tea. And the tea has to be a teabag and a splash of milk.

It's so lovely when people turn out to be as nice as they seem on the telly. Also, somebody please give Glynn Purnell a book deal!

Glynn Purnell and me

Thank you to Ginny Braynsmith of Haymarket for arranging this interview at this weekend's BBC Good Food Show and to Edd Kimber of He-Eats for assisting


Kavey said…
S'good, that!
Emma said…
Great interview!
meemalee said…
@Kavey @fran39 @Emma - Thanks ladies! I was very pleased at how it turned out - glad I did the research beforehand!
chumbles said…
Bl**dy br*ll**nt! And that's five stars - like the interview!
lovely writeup. will have to take the inlaws to purnell while we're up here in brummieland

Brucey1 said…
Love it Mee... he seems as lovely as you!
May said…
He sounds so lovely. We'll have to go back up there to check out his restaurant.
meemalee said…
@chumbles - Thank you sir! It's easy when the interviewee is a gent.

@goingwithmygut - Oh do!

@Brucey1 - Awwww! Thanks x

@May - Yep, I feel another trip coming on :)
Excellent stuff, he does seem like a top bloke. And a very erudite final question if I may say so! :-)
The Grubworm said…
What everyone else said about the interview - nice one!

It's so good to hear from a good chef from outside the Big Smoke, esp Birmingham (I lived there for three years and always thought it was unfairly slated). There is so much in the way of different and interesting influences in Brum if you really look for it.

And yet, shamefully, i had never even heard of Purnell's. I'll be looking it up now.
meemalee said…
@TheFastestIndian - Clearly the best question - thank you for providing it :)

@The Grubworm - Shame on you. Though the table naans are an ample distraction.
Anonymous said…
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