He’s not just the funniest chef in the UK. He’s probably the funniest man.
Spend 10 minutes with Glynn Purnell and you’ll think you’re watching the world’s greatest stand-up. He’d have probably made a successful career on the stage if he’d not become the poster boy for this region’s food scene.
Lest we forget, 20 years ago, the West Midlands was derided as a culinary wasteland. Reviewers were shooting fish in a barrel until Purnell came along. Since then, Birmingham has become the UK’s most important gastronomic location outside London. A truly international destination that celebrates the cuisine of scores of nations, Purnell was the catalyst for change.
He worked in Shropshire under Claude Bosi at Ludlow’s two-star Hibiscus before winning his first star at Jessica’s, in Edgbaston, in 2005. It was named AA Restaurant of the Year in the same year. In 2007, he opened his own place, Purnell’s, in the centre of Birmingham. By January 2009, that too had won a star, which it’s retained for more than a decade.
There have been memorable TV appearances, including giant-killing acts on Great British Menu, irreverent gigs on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen and a 40-episode stint on My Kitchen Rules. He has become the 21st century Keith Floyd.
Purnell’s books have amused and provided sensational recipes in equal measure. Thirty-one years after he went to the wrong venue for his work experience, Purnell is chronicling his remarkable story in a definitive book: The Journey – There And Back Again. Funny, charming and moving in parts, it tells the story of success against all odds.
It also features a panoply of great recipes; reading like a greatest hits collection. His monkfish masala, haddock and eggs, beef carpaccio and octopus, cheese and pineapple, 10-10-10 burnt English custard and mint choccy chip, to name but six, are icons of our recent gastronomic history.
The Journey – There And Back Again mirrors the achievements of Purnell’s remarkable career. A huge volume, weighing 6.5kg and coming in at 384 pages, it features forewords from Sat Bains and Claude Bosi and matches the achievements of such peerless 21st century food books as Heston Blumenthal’s Big Fat Duck Cookbook, or Sat Bains’ multi-award-winning Too Many Chiefs Only One Indian.
Part autobiography, part cookbook, Purnell’s book retraces the inspiration for his classic dishes, while also writing a social history of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. A natural raconteur, Purnell’s funny bones came from his father.
“I was brought up in Chelmsley Wood, a council estate in Birmingham," he says.
"And though the streets weren’t paved with gold, I’m forever grateful to have been born there because that place was the making of me. It gave me so much.
“I took my dad fishing the other day and we talked about the old times over a pint. We were remembering what it was like when I was growing up and dad was reminiscing about the people he’d drink with. There were always a couple of blokes who’d go into the pub and ask dad outside. They’d open the boot of their cars and reveal trunks full of meat.
"Now, I’m not saying the meat was nicked; so let’s assume they worked for a butcher or knew one. Dad would take a look at what they’d got; there’d be a couple of legs of lamb in there or a joint of beef. Then they’d try and do a deal.
“Dad was a funny bloke – he still is – and he’d always upset one of the blokes in the car park. The guy would offer dad all sorts: steak, lamb, pork ... anything he might like. But our dad would turn his nose up at it and refuse to buy. After a couple of months, the bloke took Dad aside and asked him why he wouldn’t buy any meat. Dad told him because it was rubbish. He said he wouldn’t give the meat to a dog, let alone his family.
“I find that hilarious. I mean, how could our dad have known whether it was any good or not when he was just looking at the meat when it was night time and in the boot of a car. It would have been dark.”
Purnell would listen to cassette tapes of Keith Floyd as he fell asleep each evening, soaking up the TV chef’s wit as well as his technical expertise. Having cooked with Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes and Brummie Godfather Andreas Antona, Purnell cooked with Claude Bosi in Ludlow. It was a riotous time.
“Claude kept live snails in the cellar. They were in a box, nice and dark, and we’d cook them as and when we needed them. I remember him sending me downstairs once to collect the snails. He told me to be as quiet as a mouse when I bought them upstairs. I’d no idea why I had to be quiet with the snails; I just thought it was one of his loony ideas. So I went down to the cellar, like he asked, then I came back into the kitchen with his box.
"I shouted across to his: ‘Chef, chef, where do you want the snails’? His face went blood red. He stormed over. ‘I told you to be quiet’.
“I asked him what he was on about. Why couldn’t I speak normally? The more I spoke, the more irritated he became. ‘Shhh, shhh, shhhh’. And then I realised why he was being so precious. He was worried in case I woke up the snails. He said the snails would have been asleep in the dark cellar but if they woke up they’d start coming out of their shells and then they’d be no good to cook – you don’t want the snails poking their heads out when you blanch them in boiling water. It was funny that this mad French man was getting all worked up about a box of snails.”
He opened Jessica’s, dazzling all-comers with truly inventive dishes. Purnell was part of a golden generation that included such luminaries as Blumenthal and Bosi, Atherton and Clifford, Bains and Kerridge. His restaurant was in the heart of Birmingham’s red light district, something he didn’t realise until he was up and running.
“It turned out we were slap bang in the middle of Birmingham’s red light district and all the young ladies who’d been waving to us when we were leaving work were actually prostitutes rather than fans. I didn’t realise. I’d seen all these cars pulling up but I didn’t know why.
"Every now and then I’d have a little sleep in my car, just to get out of the kitchen, and there’d be a knock on the car window. I’d open it up, y’know, after lunch, four o’clock in the afternoon. There’d be this girl, all high heels, mini skirt and fishnets, asking me if I wanted any business? ‘Not unless you can fix hotplates’.
"I’ve got to be honest, at first I thought they was selling cleaning products, but clearly not.”
Risk and reward has been the theme of Purnell’s career. He’s been unafraid to roll the dice. Having established himself with Bosi at Hibiscus, he decided to move. Having created Birmingham’s first new Michelin restaurant for a generation, Jessica’s, he again decided to move.
As fearless in business as he is in the boxing ring, Purnell is driven by self-improvement. The man who opened the door to a new wave of Michelin-starred chefs in Birmingham, he continues to lead from the front. He long since passed up on the idea of culinary perfection, preferring instead to be judged by his own standards.
“Have I ever done anything that’s perfect? I’m not sure. The haddock and eggs, I think, that’s nearly perfect but there still could be another twist in the tail. The cheese and pineapple; that’s on the edge of perfect. The monkfish dish is perfect. That’s one that can’t be improved. I would challenge other chefs to try and improve upon that dish. It’s got everything. It looks good, it tastes good, the texture’s right and there are different temperatures. It’s perfect, it doesn’t need changing – that’s my Rocket Man, all day long.
"When the young bucks come into our kitchen, I tell them to come back in 10 years having run a restaurant for as long as I have and then put their own best dish next to Purnell’s monkfish. I know I’d win because that dish is timeless. It’s not a trend, it’s not a fad, it’s as good as it’s going to get. I don’t know anyone who’s not liked that dish. You can’t not like it. That dish has made people cry. I’ve been cooking for 30 years – and that monkfish is perfect. I can’t big myself up anymore.”
He’s happy with the place he’s reached, where he’s got a loyal team, where he’s influenced others and where there are groups and groups of former Purnell’s chefs working at one, two and three-star restaurants around the world.
“I didn’t imagine even in my wildest dreams that I’d get to where I am; not with coming from where I’m from," he says.
"To have received a star, the first new one for a city that was classed as a hole and is now classed as one of the best gastronomic cities outside the capitals, still rocks my world. It always will. Nobody can ever take that away from me.
“Someone asked me when I was a 33-year-old man to tell them about my five-year plan. I told them I hadn’t got one because I’d already done all the things I wanted to.
“And now that I’m in my 40s, I’m not defining my entire career by whether a guide book ever awards my restaurant a second or third star. What we created at Purnell’s, as a team, is far bigger than any guide or any accolade – or, at least, it is to us.
"A trophy wouldn’t top what we’ve already built because the restaurant has created great characters and some amazing people. It’s made a difference to people’s lives. I love doing what I’m doing and I just want to carry on. There are other projects on the way, there’s other things to do and as a restaurateur I want to keep developing people.
“I also want to break the mould of what the industry is because it can be quite negative, quite sexist, quite punishing and quite brutal – and we need to change that.
“Yes, let’s have plenty of banter and fun. But let’s also focus on physical and mental health and look after people. We need to realise what a fantastic industry it is and we have to keep trying to change for the better."
He adds: “I don’t know how long Purnell’s will last, I don’t have a crystal ball, but as long as we’re here we’ll continue to evolve. I don’t think it’s in me to retire. I’d like to fish a bit more and spend more time with the kids, or go to the south of France, but I want to keep moving forward.
"So, apart from the monkfish, which is perfect, we’ve only got one dream left to live: to continue on this magical journey. We’re living the dream. We’re actually living the dream.”
Glynn Purnell’s definitive book: The Journey – There And Back Again, is available at purnellsrestaurant.com