After putting Birmingham on the culinary map, Glynn Purnell is thrilled to have his own place.
Expect risk-taking and food with a pulse
It's not often I interview a chef and wonder at what point he'll get his trousers down, but in the case of the so-called ‘yummy Brummy' Glynn Purnell, my mind kept wandering.
But I'll spare your blushes: it's not how it sounds. It was all in the nature of journalistic enquiry. For Purnell, as keen readers will know, is known not only for putting the city of Birmingham on the culinary map when he, as chef at Jessica's (along with his Edgbaston neighbours, Simpson's), won a Michelin star in 2005, but also for sporting a commemorative Michelin tattoo on his derrière. And naturally, I wanted to see it. "Who told you? Was it Claude?"
laughs Purnell, before – very obligingly – revealing all.
"Don't worry, it's not that graphic." Alas, it's not. It's just a jolly looking Bibendum with a star, and it's not on Purnell's backside, but on his thigh. For me, it begs the question: is this really the way to woo Le Guide Rouge?
"I don't know what Michelin's thought are, but I didn't do it to take the piss. I respect the Guide, it's incredibly prestigious," says Purnell. "We'd had a rough year, the pressure was on, and we'd had a lot of tough services. I said if we get a star this year, I'll have it tattooed on my arse. And I'm a man of my word." So off he went ‘between splits' to a bearded goth tattooist in Sparkbrook to make good on his promise. "The tattooist says when I get two, he'll do a massive one on my back."
Who can say whether that will come to pass? But the 32- year-old chef, who this July opened his first restaurant in the centre of Birmingham, is certainly off to a good start.
His new venture, Purnell's – a 45-cover fine-dining restaurant in a former furniture showroom builds on his success at Jessica's, but affords him the freedom that his deal (a 20 per cent share) at Jessica's didn't always.
He admits he's ‘relieved to be out of Jessica's although it's a huge part of my make-up'. From his point of view, at least, it wasn't an acrimonious parting of the ways, but he's thrilled to know that he (and his wife) can get stuck into making a success of their own business, rather than be a ‘money cow'
for others. "You can't go to bed and wake up a different chef, but you can wake up with more enthusiasm, more zest."
It's been a quick turnaround, from securing the site on a 15 year lease in May to leaving Jessica's in June and opening Purnell's just a month later, but Purnell's firing on all cylinders though he's still making do with non-stick pans and a PacoJet (on loan from Claude Bosi).
As chef restaurateur, he's got stuck in to every detail. As a proud Brummy, he's given the restaurant as much as possible a Midlands twist using local businesses. These include Little Red Hen for Schönwald tableware to local designers, Joseph & Satou, and furniture from Divindi.
Even the photographs on the wall are local, all taken within a mile of 55 Cornwall Street. Purnell characterises his food as "Birmingham cooking", influenced by his upbringing on a council estate in the city, where weekdays featured his mum's economical home-cooking and weekends meant Baltis on the Stratford Road or trips to the Bull Ring Market for winkles "we'd eat with a pin in front of the television", pig's trotters and exotic fruits like tamarillo and Sharon fruit.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to start on about picking runner beans with my grandmother," he laughs.
Instead, the influences are the prosaic ones most British kids from the 70s will know: Soreen malt loaf with lashings of cold butter "cement-mixed into a pulp in your mouth" or "handfuls of cornflakes whacked in your pocket while you're waiting for your dinner".
Unlike generations before, the current generation's palate has been given a strong multicultural dimension, thanks to various ethnic influences in the cities. Purnell's been in the industry since his part-time job at the age of 14, before doing an eight-year apprenticeship at the Metropole Hotel and going on to work with Andreas Antona at Simpson's.
"I was a scruffy-looking rogue, but Andreas sorted me out and gave me my first opportunity in this sort of cooking."
Antona was also the one who told him about "this French guy in Ludlow I had to see".
Purnell had just eight months at Hibiscus with Claude Bosi, but the ‘anything goes' attitude has stuck with him.
Thus on Purnell's menu, you can go from the fabulously kitsch Goat's Cheese Royale and Pineapple on Sticks to his take on kedgeree – Poached Egg Yolk, Smoked Haddock Milk Foam, Cornflakes and Curry Oil. Or from Salmon Cured in Indian Spices, Wasabi, Sakura Cress and Japanese Mushrooms, to Brill Cooked in Coconut Milk with Indian Red Lentils. Anything goes, so long as it's not what Purnell calls ‘coma cooking'. "You can expect to see a bit more risktaking in a few months. We want to do our thing, something unique, that's got a pulse," he explains. Subtle changes will be introduced over time. He's looking into getting a Clifton water bath for sous-vide cooking and has been shown ‘a few moves' on the Anti-Griddle by his buddy, Sat Bains.
Purnell agrees that moving into the centre and away from the suburbs goes against current wisdom that fine-dining and city centres don't mix, but he's confident that people are ready to come "to Birmingham, not through Birmingham."
It will change the customer profile, with more suits around to take advantage of the 12-cover private dining area and keenly priced lunch (three courses, £24.95), but with sufficient free evening parking to lure the destination diner.
"Over the last 12 months, I saw numbers dropping at Jessica's, although the spend increased," he explains.
"I felt I was missing out on the conference guests, passing trade and visitors to the city who didn't want to drive 20 minutes for dinner. They want to walk from their hotel."
"I would love to reach the point that when people mention Birmingham, they mention food, then my name comes up in the conversation," he says. "I don't want to be a Z-list local celebrity going to openings with newsreaders, but I'm proud to be the first restaurant of this calibre in the city centre."
Purnell's, 55 Cornwall Street, Birmingham B3, 0121 212 9799 purnellsrestaurant.com