Glynn Purnell has mastered the impossible art of being in two places at the same time. Tune in to Saturday Kitchen and there he’ll be, cooking for an audience of millions with the best in the business.
Book a table for his cutting edge restaurant and you’ll see him through a glass wall, merrily rattling the pans and leading an exceptional team. Buy tickets for the BBC Good Food Guide and he’ll be leading the line on the chef demo stage. Purnell is as ubiquitous as a rock star. He is the culinary world’s Sir Elton John.
That simile is one worth running with, for Purnell’s reached a stage in his career when the hits are stacked up like gold discs in a rock star’s studio. Haddock and egg is his Candle In The Wind, carpaccio of Herefordshire beef is his Honky Cat, Burnt English Egg Surprise is his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, faux Canary potatoes is his Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me and his brilliant, life-affirming monkfish masala is his Rocket Man. Though those culinary hits were created some years ago, they never tire. Purnell constantly tweaks and innovates, re-imagining dishes that scored 10/10/10 on TV’s Great British Menu and made him a household name.
Yet despite the nation’s affection for the self-styled Yummy Brummie, Purnell remains the same Blues-supporting, merry-making, hard-working, joke-telling, pan rattler who became Chelmsley Wood’s most famous citizen after cutting his teeth at Simpsons, in Kenilworth and Hibiscus, in Ludlow. Winning Birmingham’s first Michelin star in many, many years – at Jessica’s, rather than Purnell’s – he is arguably the biggest thing ever to have hit the Second City’s dining scene. And yet, at the ripe old age of, erm, probably mid-40s, he remains thrillingly relevant.
Those who’ve retained a Michelin star for ten years, as Purnell has, are frequently overtaken by young tyros who bring new thrills to the table. And yet the man whose food was once lauded by the late George Michael on Sir Terry Wogan’s BBC 2 Breakfast Show continues to dazzle. There’s more fuel in the tank, more tricks up his sleeve, more lead in his HB pencil.
Youth and experience
Purnell isn’t the only star attraction at his eponymous restaurant, in the city’s Cornwall Street. He’s surrounded by a team who’ve stuck with him over many years. While many restaurant managers and head chefs move on to try their luck as a solo artist, or join forces with the next big thing, Purnell has retained his key players. Like Sir Alex Ferguson, he’s built a solid spine that combines the best of youth and experience.
So his restaurant manager is the brilliant, suave and debonair Sonal Clare, an honorary, well-travelled Brummie who moved to Purnell’s as a waiter after being dazzled by the chef’s work at his former one-star restaurant, Jessica’s, in Edgbaston. Like Purnell, Clare is an exceptional talent who in 2018 was named the UK’s Best Sommelier at the GQ Food & Drink Awards. The quiet, methodical perfectionist Luke Butcher is another stand-out talent, having formerly cooked at The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, under Tom Kerridge, before bringing his considerable talents to bear in Birmingham.
Purnell is not your average cook. The funniest man never to have graced the stage of a comedy club, his personality burns bright like magnesium. A practical joker, a teller of tall tales and a natural for TV, his personality elevates simple dishes into works of art. And it’s the Peaky Blinder’s personality that underpins every element of the restaurant. His front of house team are a mirror image: they are polished and professional, attentive and engaged – but also quirky and diverse, charming and entertaining. Dinner at Purnell’s is an experience to be savoured. There’s nothing remotely bland about the venue, the staff or the food – the only thing remotely vanilla is the small, aromatic seeds in the Burnt English Egg Surprise.
Picking out the hits
My partner and I booked a midweek table for an A La Carte supper. We were greeted by the dapper Sonal, a sartorialist whose tailor also deserves some sort of award. Over plump olives and glasses of fizz, we made our selections before being shown into the dining room.
First up were snacks: a brilliant chicken skin dish dotted with tiny flecks of Lincolnshire Poacher cheddar and herbs. It was Zadok The Priest on a plate. I half expected tiny Batman captions to appear as we crunched our way through it: Kapow, Splat, Bang. Small chickpea chips with dots of mushroom ketchup were as more-ish as a Lottery win, faux canary potatoes with chorizo mayonnaise were playful and dazzling, a small bowl of Brummie soup – beef consommé with barley, bone marrow and vegetables – was lip-smackingly intense.
We treated the evening as we would a gig, picking out the hits from Purnell’s Best Of menu. So she ate the carpaccio of Herefordshire beef with red wine braised octopus, bresaola, chive crème fraiche, onions and a small cube of corned beef that was the culinary equivalent of being licked in the face by a Charolais bull who’s just enjoyed a Bovril Jacuzzi.
My haddock and eggs – inspired by a dish Purnell ate as a teenager at home in Chelmsley Wood – was the acme of refinement and sophistication. Because, for all of his prowess as a TV star and personality, the thing about Purnell is this – he can really, really cook.
Her main, a meltingly pink breast of Creedy Carver duck, was served with spiced apricot, nasturtium and a nitro tart. It was a reminder of how far Purnell has come. His style is equal-parts classical, a la Michel Roux Snr, to equal parts 21st century boy, a la Heston.
My Brixham Cod masala with Indian red lentils, coconut, pickled carrots and coriander – a new twist on his famed monkfish dish – was the best curry in a city that’s built on rivers of, erm, curry. Actually, the rivers aren’t full of curry, but you catch my drift.
11 out of 10 for service
Desserts were sensational. She ate Purnell’s melba; lemon verbena poached apricots with vanilla, frozen yoghurt and raspberry. It was summer in a glass. I tucked into his still-brilliant Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, aka Burnt English Egg Surprise, the dish that scored his straight tens on Great British Menu in 2008.
Like Torvill and Dean’s perfect Bolero, it remains as relevant and impressive today as it did back then. An egg filled with creamy, dreamy, vanilla-rich custard and a beautifully delicate strawberry compote, glazed on the top like a brulee, was served with wild strawberry ice cream, crunchy honeycomb and a beautiful, buttery biscuit base. Service was 11 out of 10 throughout the evening as Sonal and his team made us feel like the only A-listers ever to leave Shrewsbury.
Birmingham’s very own Rocket Man has come a long way since his days at the city’s Metropole Hotel. He’s made an outstanding contribution to West Midlands cuisine and remains as daring, brave and creative as ever he was. He’s the sort of fella who’ll one day have a blue heritage plaque erected in his name. Funny, clever and with a fridge full of all of the best tunes; he remains the inspirational tyro who put a smile back on the faces of the Second City’s diners. Ten years after winning his Michelin star, he’s still standing.