What are you trying to achieve with Purecraft, as a business?
My role within it is just to look after the development of food. Purity beer is a great product, and this a collaboration with three people: Martin Hilton is the operations director, Paul Halsey does the drinks, and I try to add value to the food. It's simple, but it works.
When you say you add value, what does that mean?
Through experience, and knowing what works and what doesn't. I'm also instrumental in picking the chefs, but you've got to give them freedom. The core values of the business have to be reflected in the menu: wholesome food with provenance, with an element of beer, and a pub essence to it. But beer isn't the easiest thing to cook with; compared to wine, say. So it's developing those ideas with the chefs.
You don't have the same menu in both Purecraft bars…?
No, they are different. There are a few similar elements - we want to have some similarities, especially with the beer, as that's what we're becoming known for. But Steve Woods [in Birmingham] is a more classical type of chef.
Why do something pairing beer with food?
We used to do gourmet dinners at Simpsons with beer pairing rather than wine. And it was something different; a challenge for me as a chef. I like beer as a drink, and some of the elements were great combinations. It's just another avenue to expand your knowledge. I always said I'd love to own a big German-style beer house.
Have you got plans to expand?
Yes, but nothing concrete yet. We're just sorting out where. We were looking at Leeds, Manchester; maybe London or Bristol. We don't have plans for more than five or six to begin with, but definitely across the UK including London.
How much, ballpark, are you investing in each Purecraft opening?
We try to keep it to a minimum - but you're never going to get away from at least £300,000 to £500,000 on a building, whatever you do.
You started in Birmingham and now you're in Nottingham. How do you feel about the regional restaurant scene?
London obviously is leading, but if you look at the population [outside of London], they are as much interested in food in the regions as they are in the capital. It just so happens that London is a bigger marketplace.
You're originally from London and then moved to Kenilworth. Why not open in one of those places first?
We would love to open in London, but I am well-known in Birmingham, and [the beer brand] Purity is known there too, so the brand worked. We then just took a punt on Nottingham, as we had a good deal on the property. But going forward we maybe need to be a bit more strategic.
What sort of sites would you look for?
It could fit anywhere really ‒ in London, maybe somewhere in the City, Shoreditch or Spitalfields, but it could also easily be in Kensington or Shepherd's Bush. There is also logistics to consider ‒ literally getting the beer from A to B. It's easy in Birmingham as the brewery is down the road, but for Leeds or London, we'd have to think. It could even be easier, as Purity already goes to London.
Craft beer in general is growing within the UK. What do you see next?
I'm not a craft beer specialist, I'm a chef, but again, it's like the revolution within food. It's become organic, it's become about provenance, it's created by hand, not mass-produced. That's why I like working with it. The market is sufficiently big in the UK, and still growing. It's got a great future, and passion and energy.
What is it about Purity beers specifically that you like to work with?
I think it's the whole philosophy. They had a vision when they started. I think today's generation has more energy when it comes to concepts ‒ for me, when I started, cooking was a job, and your worked you way up through the mill. Now, there's a focus and creativity and I liked that.
Purecraft is a very different type of venture compared to Simpsons or The Cross. How do you balance the two?
We never wanted never wanted Simpsons or The Cross to be boring or stuffy, but Purecraft has a different energy, and I quite like that. It has the same basics and challenges, though. They all start with the people and a state of mind. None of my businesses are about me, I never wanted to have the name Antona above the door. They're all about the people.
You seem to create sites that work well for creative, young chefs. What was it about Andrew Smith at Purecraft Nottingham that you particularly liked?
We interviewed several chefs, but he's the one that showed the enthusiasm and who really "got" beer. He showed the passion, and understood beer. He’s got a real drive and ambition. Those are the important things.
You've got a history of nurturing talent in chefs. How important is that?
You can't be everywhere at once, so your influence can only be so broad. If they pick up on one or two of your principles, that's all you can ask for. I can't be at every site cooking, nor would I want to. But I am very keen on adding value, which is adding in expertise and trying to influence it that way rather than telling them what to do. I've never believed in that hierarchy system. The chefs’ ideas are fantastic and they work well with great ideas.
You started off as a chef, but now you're also an entrepreneur and businessman. How do you create a collaborative, good working environment?
I try to create a family feel. I think that always works. It's mutual respect and understanding, and if they're interested, then we're interested. If there's a bit of magic in someone, we try to take it further, nurture it, and set them free.