I'm no legend, insists original celebrity chef Brian Turner
We start by talking about legends. It’s not a word that sits comfortably on Brian Turner’s shoulders. Nor is it one that he’d choose to use.
Yet it’s a word that’s entirely fitting for the Halifax-born chef who won a Michelin star in 1973, founded the Greenhouse Restaurant and became one of the UK’s original celebrity chefs.
More than most, the self-effacing, straight-talking Yorkshireman has helped to drive up standards in the industry while popularising it for new recruits and adding a touch of pizzazz to a sector that was once a little grey.
Still, legend feels a bit strong. “I say legend is pronounced leg-end, and that’s about right,” he says. Besides, Turner’s logic is that anyone who considers themselves a legend can’t be one. You have to have humility and grace, you have to put others first, being an industry leader is about helping others rather than helping yourself.
“That’s a phrase that someone else might use. But what’s it for? That thing doesn’t live on. My only intention has been to leave this place better than it was when I got here.”
The 75-year-old has his own heroes, of course, which includes the likes of Anton Mossiman and the Roux Brothers. “In my eyes, those are the real legends. I’m grateful and chuffed if people look at me in the same way, it’s nice. There’s a responsibility when people look up to you. You have to behave in a manner that doesn’t distort their view of who you are or what you represent.”
From the present, we go back to the past. Turner was born in Halifax and started cooking as a kid. Though the food writer and broadcaster Michael Smith has been listed as a mentor, his biggest inspiration was closer to home: his dad.
His father participated in the Second World War, where he was shunted into the Army Catering Corps. When he returned, he was full of beans for the catering industry. “The Co-Op had a café downstairs for the customers and the workers and he persuaded them to let him organise it. He made a name for himself doing that.
“After a while, it appeared he decided to buy a transport café where local people went for bacon, sausage and eggs, with pots of tea, or for roast beef or pies at lunchtime. There were four children in the household and he liked to get me out of the house as much as possible so my mum only had to three kids to look after. I’d have been eight or nine at the time. By the age of 10, my dad had made me head chef, not that we understood what that meant at the time.”
Turner was inspired by his work on the stove. He knew that if he followed it through, he’d get to wear a really tall chef’s hat. And he knew that if he followed that through, his hat would get even taller.
“I got bitten by the bug. When you are 4ft 6ins and 10-years-old and a lorry driver who is 6ft 2ins and 20 stone tells you how they like their bacon, you learn how to cook it the way they want it. I wanted to people-please from the start, through food, drink, ambience and good hospitality.”
Turner took domestic science in the third year at school and his teacher noticed a real aptitude. She encouraged him to get into catering, a profession that his father supported too. His mother was against the idea, believing the preconception that it was a dirty, unskilled trade. “She wanted me to be a lawyer, surgeon or doctor. She didn’t want me to be like my dad.”
And yet Turner was determined. He realised that if he could get on the ladder, wonderful things might happen. He developed a philosophy that’s seen him through life. “It’s this. You see an horizon and you steadily march towards that. But when you get there, there’s another horizon opening out before you.” So, in Turner’s case, he imagined a bigger and better transport café, then working in hotel kitchens, then cruise liner kitchens and beyond.
He spent a lot of time with his father, who was a hero to the fledgling kid. “I spent a lot of time with my dad. My next brother down got on really well with my mother. The twins, who were the youngest, loved everyone.”
His dad was a drinker, though never got drunk. He’d visit his son when Turner moved to London. “He’d see I was getting busy so he’d leave me to it and tell me to find him later in the Duck and Crown, a pub in Knightsbridge. I’d go in there after service and ask if they’d seen a Yorkshireman and they’d say he’d gone to the Dog and Whistle.” A game of cat and mouse would ensue as Turner tracked down his old man. Those bonds run deep, to this day. “He never talked to lots of people but he always talked to somebody. He didn’t impress himself on everybody. He was a simple, stoic man. He of course was very chuffed that one of the family was going into the business that he would have liked to go into. Look, you’ll have me in tears talking about him like that.”
Turner studied at Leeds College of Food before going to Simpson’s in the Strand, in London. He’d wanted to work at a sister restaurant, The Savoy Grill, but there were no vacancies. So he took a position at Simpson’s in the Strand on the basis that he’d eventually move to The Savoy. In 1965, he achieved the latter, staying at The Savoy for three happy years. “At Simpson’s, the food wasn’t great. It was big lumps of meat and 1,200 covers a day. It was a great experience but it wasn’t the height of gastronomy.”
He met his best mate, Richard Shepherd, at Simpson’s in the Strand before being inspired at The Savoy by plenty of young European chefs who were earning their spurs. Suddenly, a new horizon had appeared.
He and Shepherd became the best of friends. They still speak twice a week and their careers became entwined. Shepherd went to France for a year while Turner went to Beau Rivage Place, in Lausanne, Switzerland. “It wasn’t gastronomically renowned but from a systems point of view there was a lot to learn. I missed my mom and dad in Yorkshire so I came back but then I realised I wanted to go back to London.” He was offered a job at The Ritz, which he turned down, before landing a post at Claridge’s, where he stayed for a year.
Two key chapters in his life followed; firstly at The Capital Hotel, then at his eponymous restaurant, Turner’s, both in London.
“By the time I was at Claridge’s, I’d taken steps forward. The quality of the produce had improved and the quality of the cooking skills had improved too, by watching other people and helping to organise them. I never made a retrograde step.”
Turner held the fort at the Capital Hotel while Richard Shepherd went to France to create a menu. They secured a Michelin star in 1974 before Shepherd moved on, joining Langan’s in 1977 then much later earning a CBE in the New Year’s Honours 2000 for his services to hospitality.
“Stars come a lot faster these days, I’m not going to say they come easier though. It seemed in my day to be more difficult because no English or British people had them. They mostly went to French chefs. So securing a Michelin star was a great achievement. From that day, the restaurant never looked back.
“We didn’t realise the day we got that star how important it was going to be in our lives because we had nothing to measure it against. Today, the people who get stars have history to measure it against.
“But a star isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. Getting a star had a certain amount of difficulty, maintaining it was even more difficult.”
Turner’s role changed and with Shepherd moving on, he was asked to lead at The Capital while also overseeing the launch of The Greenhouse then creating a wine bar, The Metro Wine Bar, which became the best in the UK within a year.
“All of that came in one period of three to five years. It was great, it was intense. We managed to have good teams around us. We were working extremely hard but then somebody whispers in your ear: ‘You’re making a lot of money for your bosses you should be doing it yourself.’
“Not everybody wanted to own their own restaurant but a guy I’d met said he’d do the organisation if I’d go and run it.” And that was it. A done deal. In 1986, Turner opened Turner’s Restaurant, in London.
The first day remains one of the happiest of his life. One of his American regulars from The Capital flew in from the States to toast his new venture. And after service, at 1am, Turner sat down, turned the lights off and listened to music to unwind. “We just sat there into the early hours and it’s still one of the most memorable times of my life. There was a sense of achievement. We’d done it, we’d got on that step where we owned our own place.”
A huge amount of determination and commitment had gone into creating the restaurant and at one point Turner was banned from the site for fear he’d upset the builders. “I used to use rather strong language because I was anxious to get it right.”
Turner’s stood for 15 years before the chef moved onto a series of ventures in Birmingham, London’s Mayfair, Windsor and beyond.
Along the way, he’d worked with some of the most influential chefs of his generation, including Gary Rhodes and Shaun Hill. “What never fails to surprise me is that I get people who say to me: ‘Remember me, chef?’ no. ‘I worked for you.’ Did you really? You forget because there have been so many. There are a number of people I turned down at The Capital. Apparently, I turned down some exceptional chefs because we didn’t have enough space in the brigade at the time.”
Turner wasn’t simply a good chef, a leader of cooks and a savvy businessman. He was also popular and charismatic and as TV and publishing began to take an interest in gastronomy, he found himself propelled into the nation’s consciousness, not least as a regular on Ready Steady Cook for 14 years.
“My mum used to think cooking was a dirty job but these days it’s cool. I like to believe, rightly or wrongly, that we had a hand in the evolution of the hospitality industry becoming a profession that was more respected.
“Before us, gastronomy seemed to apply to the top of the pyramid. It was for people who could afford to sit in expensive restaurants. But through TV, the majority of the population get interested. They learned how to choose the right produce at the right time of year and transform simple ingredients into something edible, tasty and nutritious.”
He published a slew of books, though it didn’t give him as much pleasure as restaurants or TV. “The books weren’t for me. My autobiography, A Yorkshire Lad, which was printed 20 years ago, was mostly for my kids. It was hard work but it was great fun. I did it because I wanted that record of what I’d done so that I could pass it onto my kids and grandkids.”
He has a string of associations, with the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, of which he’s been President for 18 years, in addition to UK Skills, Future Chef, Bocuse d’or UK and many more. These days, it’s all about giving back. “It just comes naturally to support new talent. We do that any way because we want to continue the work. To be able to do that is an absolute blessing.”
Honest and humble, gracious and self-effacing, not without good reason has Brian Turner earned the status of legend.