You reopened with a new dining room late last year – how’s it going?
The idea was to draw in a younger crowd with a more contemporary look. It’s worked, but it has alienated a handful of older customers. They’re annoyed we’ve ditched the tablecloths, among a few other things. But we had to move forward because we were becoming dinosaurs. The Birmingham food scene has changed so much over the past decade – we’re now one of five Michelin-starred restaurants in the city.
Has the food changed too?
It has become more ambitious and modern. We originally went tasting menu only but ditching the à la carte didn’t go well. It was good for purchasing but the logistics were a nightmare. We have a 75-cover dining room and there were just too many plates coming out of the kitchen to manage. We were serving desserts at 12.30am, which wasn’t good for the staff or the customers. We’ve now reinstated à la carte alongside a tasting menu and it’s working much better.
You recently did a stage at L’Enclume...
My wife thought I was bloody mental at my age (50) but it was incredibly worthwhile for Simpsons and for me personally. I picked up lots of little operational things that may have been missed by a less experienced stagiaire. But, most importantly, it has made me focus on what is important at Simpsons. After the excitement surrounding the reopening, business dropped off a little so we started working with a PR agency to get people through the door with gimmicky stuff such as fish and chips with a glass of champagne in the garden. But after seeing how single-minded the team at L’Enclume is about food, I’ve put an end to anything like that.
Which brings us to Eureka…
It’s an initiative that fits with our ambition to be a serious restaurant. It actually came from Adam Bennett (chef-patron of The Cross in Kenilworth, sister venue to Simpsons) who devised Project Night, which sees the whole team create a special menu of brand new dishes on a Monday night. Mondays are up and down and this helps with that but this is more about getting the whole team thinking about development rather than just myself and Nathan (Eades, head chef ). We put a whiteboard up three months ago and we’ve been working on the dishes since then. There was a great sense of energy and excitement in the kitchen. We did 48 covers.
What was on the menu?
There were 11 courses in total. These included facto-fermented carrots with raw monkfish; 35-day aged lamb served raw with a take on mint sauce; and grouse two ways. The breast was cooked sous vide then held in brown butter and garnished with wild mushrooms and a mousseline made with the offal and served with a selection of bitter herbs and leaves.
There was also a curry ice cream and pineapple dessert that I tried putting on the Simpsons menu back in 1995, and it went down like a lead balloon. Too soon, I guess. The feedback was much better this time round. Some of the dishes will eventually find their way onto the menu.
What other events are you working on at the moment?
We’re doing a dinner with Sticky Walnut (in Chester). It’s a brilliant local restaurant. Everywhere should have one. The night sold out in a matter of hours, which proves that people will come to Simpsons on a Monday if there’s a good enough reason. Gary Usher’s (Sticky’s chef-patron) popularity on Twitter probably helped too. We’re still ironing out the details but it’s probably going to be a total kitchen takeover. We’ll take them out for a curry afterwards.
And you’ve just appeared in a new BBC cooking programme…
It’s called Yes Chef. Basically, it’s Michelin-starred chefs mentoring enthusiastic home cooks through a series of challenges. Those who are left compete in a final. It was interesting and I was in good company: it’s judged by Pierre Koffmann and the other chef mentors include Nathan Outlaw and Michael O’Hare. It does highlight the gap between a home cook and a professional chef. It took me out of my comfort zone as I haven’t done much TV before. It’s not something that really appeals to me but it’s good for the business.
How long have you worked with Andreas Antona?
I first worked for Andreas (the owner of Simpsons and The Cross) at The Plough and Harrow hotel 25 years ago when it used to be one of the best places to eat in the Midlands. He’d come from The Ritz where he’d been cooking under Anton Mosimann. When The Plough changed hands we went our separate ways but I started working for him again when he opened Simpsons in Kenilworth in 1993 (the restaurant has since relocated to Edgbaston). I left a great job in a five-star hotel to work in a tiny kitchen alongside three people but the energy was incredible. Since then a lot of high-profile people have passed through our kitchens including Glynn Purnell, Andy Waters and Marcus Eaves. Leaving that hotel turned out to be a great decision because I’m still here two decades later.