Interview with Glynn Purnell
We were lucky enough to catch up with Glynn Purnell…
When did you first become involved in the professional kitchen?
My first experience in a professional kitchen was when I did work experience at the age of 14 at the Metropole Hotel at the NEC. I walked into the kitchen and saw all these giant chefs with massive chef’s hats and I was in awe from the first minute. After finishing my work experience, I then got a part time job in the kitchen there so I spent most of my weekends for the next two years catching the number 966 bus. When I left school, I then became an apprentice chef there, and I gained experience in every department from banqueting to the A La Carte Terrace Restaurant, which is where I discovered my passion for fine dining.
When did you realise that the kitchen would play such a major part of your life?
Well, I pretty much left school without any qualifications, hopes or dreams! But I knew that I was good in the kitchen, and every time I walked into the kitchen at the hotel, I knew that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When you’re 14, and you feel that buzz of the kitchen, I just immersed myself in it, and I wanted to be there all the time. It was almost on an unhealthy level; I just wanted to be there all the time. Nothing mattered other than being in the kitchen from the very first day. I was completely obsessed with it. From the level of the noise to the smell to the heat to the way it ran to just how exciting it was- it was just like “where the hell am I?!” I used to work there every hour I could, just because it was brilliant. Imagine being in school one day, and then the next day going into that. It was a no brainer for me.
I understand that you will be appearing with Tommy Banks and Michael Caines in two separate Michelin Star Challenges at the BBC Good Food Show Summer this June. Have you worked with either of them before?
I have cooked with both Tommy and Michael before, both times at previous BBC Good Food Shows. I went up against Tommy Banks in December last year, which was great fun. I didn’t realise how big he is! I’ve known Michael Caines for many years. We’ve done lots of different television programmes together- Saturday Kitchen, and a few different programmes for Channel 4 as well. It will be great fun to cook with them both again in June.
Am I correct that your last book was Rib Ticklers & Choux-ins? Have you any plans to write another?
My last cook book was indeed Rib Ticklers and Choux-Ins back in 2016. And yes- I have just agreed to do another one! I will be writing a book about my journey- from cooking in kitchens at the age of 14 right through to the devilishly silver fox look that I am currently rocking at 44. I believe that that’s 30 years in the making! It will be a very bespoke, hand-bound book, and I’m really excited about it.
You obviously enjoy writing about food, when did you discover that you had a talent for this as well? And you have since gone on to write a children’s book ‘The Magical Adventures of Whoops the Wonder Dog’. How did that come about and are you planning on doing more?
If you’re passionate enough about anything then the writing about it isn’t a problem. It naturally comes. Whether you’re writing about it or talking about it, it’s a passion, and that will come across in any form of communication whether it’s on television, in the restaurant or in a book.
I wrote my first children’s book last year. That was for my children and was about my little dog called Whoops. My daughter Esme asked me one day whether Whoops was going to die anytime soon. She looked at me with her big blue eyes, swelling up with tears, and I said, “Not for a while, Princess.” Then I decided to write a book, as I wanted to do something that would immortalise Whoops in fiction, for my own kids first and foremost. But as time went on and the illustrator came on board and the book came together, it seemed like it had potential to appeal to a wider audience. Most of us grow up with pets, and at some point, they inevitably pass away. This can have a big impact on children. I wanted to tell a story where Whoops had her own secret life when the family were all out at school and at work during the day.
Unfortunately, Whoops didn’t make it to see the finished book. Sadly, she died very suddenly in January last year. Thankfully it was very quick, with very little suffering. Whoops started showing signs of illness and discomfort on the morning, and she died later that night from a tumour that we didn’t know about. By this time, I was four months into the creation of the book, and I knew I had to finish it. It took on even more importance for me and my whole family.
I’m now working on my second children’s book which is about an alpaca called Arnold! That will hopefully be out for Easter next year.
How would you describe your cuisine?
My food very much reflects my personality. My cooking and the restaurant are basically me. It’s my personality both on the plate and in the dining room. It’s my own unique style of cooking and my own unique perception of food and how it should be served. There are a lot of French influences in there, as I did a lot of my training and early years of work in France. It’s very individual. Modern but with a classic root. It also has an enormous sense of humour. The taste is obviously very important, but so is the personality of the food. I don’t like to use the word, but people call it quirky! It has a serious edge, but also a quirkiness to it. You know it’s my food as well. If you put it in front of someone, they would know it is Glynn Purnell’s dish… you’d be able to pick it out of a line up! Not many chefs can say that. It’s vibrant, it’s tasty, it’s fun. It’s theatre as well. When you come to the restaurant it’s not just about three plates of food. It’s a journey, it’s entertainment, and you can even hear my dulcet Birmingham tones coming from the kitchen!
How did you enjoy in competing in Great British Menu? It was quite some time ago, do you watch it now when you get the chance? Would you like to mentor on it again?
I loved doing The Great British Menu. It was a fantastic journey and I met some great chefs- people like Jason Atherton, Tom Kitchin, Nigel Haworth, Danny Miller. We had an absolutely fantastic time. The first year I did it, I won, and I got to the banquet with three straight 10s. And then the following year I won and I got to the banquet as well. It was a huge success for me. I’ve also been a mentor on it a few times, which was great fun, and if I was offered the opportunity, I would love to mentor on it again. Sadly, I just don’t have the time to watch any television now, so I haven’t seen it for a few years.
You appear quite regularly on Saturday Kitchen and last year you presented My Kitchen Rules UK alongside Rachel Allen – do you have anything TV wise planned for this year?
I’ve got a few hosting dates and a few guest chef dates coming up for Saturday Kitchen this year, which is fantastic. The three months that I spent working on My Kitchen Rules with Rachel was just brilliant. We had such a great time, going all round the country tasting people’s food, and seeing how unique and diverse the UK is!
What advice would you offer a youngster wanting to enter the business?
When entering this business, you’ve got to understand that the hours are very antisocial. It’s a tough industry. It’s full of rewards. And at the same time as it being antisocial, it’s also actually very social- the people who work in the industry do all tend to want to have a bit of fun! You work hard and you play hard, and the reward is great. You get to please customers, and you get to work alongside a lot of young, enthusiastic people as well. If you learn your craft well, you will come back bountiful, but you’ve got to learn before you earn.
Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you be without?
Probably the kitchen porter! No-one likes washing up do they?! Once he walks out then someone’s got to do it. And a really sharp knife.
What are your favourite ingredients?
I’m a big meat fan. I also love squid. I think that the UK has got some of the best seafood in the world. The fish market in Birmingham is such an amazing, plentiful place, considering it’s in the centre of the country, and the universe! We’re just coming into a fantastic season for vegetables as well- we’ve got asparagus, we’ve got strawberries and raspberries on the way. The British larder is pretty amazing really.
Do you have a guilty food pleasure – I have interviewed many chefs and the contrasts are very interesting – from condensed milk to fish fingers….and yours?
Cheese. I try not to have too much of it because of my high blood pressure! I also like chilli sauce. I love a really big dirty sandwich with cheese, salami, lettuce, all piled up, so big that you can’t actually bite it. Load it all up, and finish it off with salt, pepper, mayonnaise and chilli sauce. Delicious.
If you could have famous dinner party guests who would you invite?
I’d need a really big dinner table! George Michael, Freddie Mercury, Jesus, Pierre Gagnaire who is Head Chef and owner of the 3-Michelin Starred Pierre Gagnaire restaurant in Paris. He’s a revolutionary chef at the forefront of the fusion cuisine movement. Who else… Eric Cantona, Russell Crowe, Gerard Butler… there’s a lot of testosterone around this table, isn’t there?! I’d invite the Queen. I’ve met Prince Charles a few times and he’s really good value, so I’d invite him as well. And Alex Ferguson.
Your favourite starter, main and pudding of all time?
For starter- it’s got to be squid, quickly flash-fried with chilli, garlic and lime, with a little drizzle of oil.
For main- Cote de boeuf with Bordelaise sauce, Pommes Anna and some crunchy green beans.
For pudding- I do like a crème brulee, but then again, I do also like exotic fruits. I had a ravioli of passionfruit and pineapple at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, which was delicious. When I worked in Lyon, we did a Paris-Brest, which is choux pastry with praline cream, caramelised on top. Very French! French puddings are the best, I think. I don’t like things like spotted dick!
Finally have you any wishes you would like to achieve in the next 5 years?
I would like Purnell’s to carry on going from strength to strength, and I want to carry on flying the flag for Birmingham. I would like to carry on enjoying cooking as much as I do, but also enjoy some more family time. And maybe be in the south of France for three months of the year- wouldn’t that be nice?!