Chef of the Week: Glynn Purnell, Chef Patron of Purnell’s in Birmingham
How long have you worked at your current restaurant?
I’ve been the Chef Patron at Purnell’s for 14 years now, since we opened the doors in 2007.
Where did your passion for cooking come from and where did you learn your skills?
My passion for cooking came from my mother and father. My mum was a staple, solid cook – she made things like liver and bacon, sausage and mash, cheese and potato pie, haddock and eggs… and then my dad was the ‘spice’ of the household! He introduced us to cooking fresh curries and stir fries. He bought a wok at one stage, which could never balance on the small electric cooker. He’d go down to the market and try lots of different ingredients that we’d never even seen before. He’d watch things on the telly like ‘Food and Drink’ with Keith Floyd, which he took inspiration from.
As for learning my skills, I started cooking with my mom when I was a little boy, and I cooked a lot at home. I got my first job in a kitchen when I was 14, on work experience at the Metropole Hotel at the NEC, where I was fortunate enough to carry on working after my work experience finished. That led to an apprenticeship, and the rest is history!
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
It means I get to live out my passion for food every single day. And for me, it’s the sheer pure enjoyment that we bring to our guests. That’s the whole reason I do it. And that’s why I’m going crazy at the moment. Dancers like to dance for people, singers like to sing, and chefs like to cook, and we like to serve, and bring people pleasure in that way.
Name three ingredients you couldn’t cook without.
Eggs, spices and meat.
Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you live without?
The humble paring knife. Give me a sharp knife and a keen commis, and I can do anything… I can take over the world.
What food trends are you spotting at the moment?
Takeaways. Boxed food with labels and cooking instructions!
It’s difficult to say when it comes to restaurants, as obviously it’s been a very difficult and restrictive last 12 months. The Scandinavian style has been very dominant for the last couple of years. The saying that I live by, though, is “To be the fashion is not to be the fashion.” I don’t really care about food trends. Good food is good food to me. And if it’s in a box with instructions, then even better!
What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
There are a few things really. As an older chef now, I’ve been in the place that a lot of younger chefs are in, and younger chefs can be too aggressive. And a bit too quick to judge. And also, they don’t eat their own food enough.
When I make a dish, I taste the puree and make sure it’s perfect, and then I cook the meat and make sure it’s perfect, and then I eat it all together and make sure it’s perfect. So many chefs miss out that stage of eating the whole dish together. Trying your own food properly and being self-critical is something that so many chefs let themselves down with.
Another thing is not having the mutual respect for the Front of House team. For me, that’s massive. I’ve always had a really good relationship with Front of House because I’m not an idiot and I understand that their job is just as important as mine. Otherwise, I’d be taking the food out myself, polishing the glasses and pouring the wine.
What is your favourite time of year for food, and why?
I like the autumn. You get the back end of the summer – the soft and stoned fruits – and it’s the start of the game season. You also get some veg which is bang in season and tastes ten times better than it normally does, like mushrooms. The colour of everything seems to fit in Autumn.
You can go out one morning and there’s frost on the ground, and then you go out the next day and it’s warm. It’s too warm for a coat, but it’s too cold not to have one! You start seeing seasonal ingredients like butternut squash, and everything is in abundance- there doesn’t seem to be any half measures with autumnal produce in this country! There’s so much variety in autumn.
Which of your dishes are you most proud of?
I’ve got lots of dishes that I’m proud of, and quite a few that have stood the test of time. But the dish that I’m most proud of is my Haddock and Eggs. I look at it and I take it for granted a lot of the time, but every now and again I’ll do one up, and I’ll eat it, and I just think it’s as near to perfect as anything’s going to be. It looks like an egg, but it tastes like haddock – what’s not to love?!
How do you come up with new dishes?
The first step is coming up with flavours that go together. I used to be a bit crazier with combinations, but not so much now. I also take input from my team. The team I’ve got around me is really good. My core four – Luke, Phil, Sam and Cheese – will all come up with different dishes; they all have different ideas, and then we’ll work together. It’s a team effort.
For me, my dishes that have become classics and signature dishes have all come from childhood memories and nostalgia… a bit of romance! I know it sounds flowery, but it’s true. You can’t knock nostalgia and romance! Everyone remembers the first girl or boy they kissed, after all.
Who was your greatest influence?
I think my mum and dad were my greatest influences when it comes to appreciating and respecting food. And then from watching food programmes on TV when I was younger – Keith Floyd, Madhur Jaffrey, and Ken Hom… those three were all massive influences on me. Ken Hom was the first person I’d ever seen cook Chinese food. Madhur Jaffrey mixing all the spices, rather than just having a packet of curry powder. And Keith Floyd was just flamboyant – he was the maverick of food, really.
Tell us three chefs you admire.
Swedish Chef from The Muppets. His food was so fresh it moved – he could speak four languages and talk to chickens!
Obviously, there are chefs I’ve worked for that I’ve got great respect and admiration for. Andreas Antona – he’s both a tremendous chef and an equally great restaurateur. He taught me as much about the restaurant as he did about the kitchen.
Claude Bosi – he’s probably the best chef I’ve ever worked with and had the pleasure to watch in the kitchen. Unbelievable flavours, techniques, combinations, knowledge… the guy is quite literally the Zidane of the food world.
And Heston Blumenthal – he was the curveball of the industry. He was one of the first chefs in the world to cook with liquid nitrogen, he was one of the first chefs to ask so many questions on the scientific front, but then he put it across in such a fun way. He’s a walking god.
What is your favourite cookbook?
White Heat by Marco Pierre White. The food in it is phenomenal. It had such an impact on me when I was 15 years old. I’ve still got the same original copy on my shelf. I tried to be like Marco as a kid- I never shaved, I grew my hair long, I swore a lot!
Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
There are some great young chefs in the Midlands, and across the country. Kray Treadwell, who used to work for me, has just been awarded the ‘Michelin Young Chef Award Great Britain and Ireland’. Niall Keating is undoubtedly one of the best young chefs around. It’s hard to believe that he’s still under 30 with the amount he’s achieved. And Stuart Deeley as well – I was lucky enough to eat his food for the ‘Chefs’ Table’ episode of Masterchef: The Professionals, and it blew me away. Once this pandemic is over, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of him.
What’s been your favourite new restaurant opening of the last year?
Kray Treadwell’s 670 Grams. Due to obvious reasons, there haven’t been many openings over the last year, but Kray was brave enough to open during these challenging times and it was well worth it – it’s playful, it’s got attitude… a bit like Kray, really!