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From the med to the midlands

After 20 years’ experience in top European kitchens, Midlands chef Andreas Antona is home to stay. He has settled down in a town outside Coventry after opening an upmarket brasserie a year ago.

His “baby” is Simpson’s, an 80-seat restaurant, which sits modestly in a row of shops in one of Kenilworth’s main shopping streets; the type of place most would love to have in their local high street.

Antona prefers to describe Simpson’s as a brasserie, but this description does not do the place or his cooking justice. He is a modest chef producing far more than run-of-the-mill brasserie food.

Serving varied dishes that are influenced by cuisines throughout Europe, Antona’s menu reads like his CV as it hints at his origins and former places of work. “My cooking has developed from place to place,” he says, “but I think it is much bolder and more contemporary. Now I feel I’ve found my feet as a chef.”

The menu always features 10 starters, main courses and desserts, plus Antona’s two favourite Greek dishes – grilled halloumi with olives and capers and kleftico (braised shank of lamb). “Kleftico is a dish I grew up with”, says Antona, “it reminds me of Cyprus.”

Despite his birthplace – Cuckfield, Sussex – and growing up in Chiswick, west London, Antona considers himself a Greek Cypriot. His family emigrated from Cyprus in the 1930s after the island became a Crown Colony.

At £14.95 for two courses or £17.95 for three, Simpson’s autumn menu is a snip and a clear indicator that its prices are more brasserie than restaurant. Dishes such as duck leg confit with red cabbage salad, pork rillettes with apple chutney and baked aubergine “imam bayeldi”, another Greek/Middle Eastern dish, made with olive oil, onions, tomatoes, garlic and flat-leaved parsley, are featured.

“I always prefer serving main courses with the vegetables as an integrated part of the dish. But most people still like them served separately,” says Antona. “If I am remembered for anything, it’s my crusade against vegetable side dishes – they’re an English disease!”

Simpson’s also operates a blackboard menu, where up to 12 dishes are offered daily. “We just buy the raw ingredients one day, then decide what to do with them the next,” explains Antona.

Having spent his career working in grand hotels, Antona is relieved to be “away from the stuffiness”, which he says was commonplace. “We’re not worried about clearing tables from the left or right at Simpson’s – as long as the customers are happy with the food and service, they will return.”

The restaurant is closed on Saturday lunchtimes and all day Sunday, and Antona says business is good enough to keep it that way. “I did consider opening on Saturday, but we all need time to recover. It gives me a chance to spend time with my family.” Antona has two children and his wife, Alison, is expecting another in spring.

Despite his apparent success, Antona admits he still worries about the bubble bursting. “I would be letting so many people down if the business failed, but it does keep my feet firmly on the ground.”

It was with family backing, that Antona bought the site in June 1993, and opened the brasserie that September. It was named after a chemists that was run on the same site by Antona’s father-in-law. “Putting the name Antona over the door suggests Italian connotations, and I didn’t want this.”

Apart from Antona and his wife, the restaurant employs a team of seven full-time staff. Like most chefs, Antona has surrounded himself with those who were former colleagues.

His right-hand man in the kitchen is Andy Walters, former sous chef from Antona’s days as executive chef at the Plough & Harrow in Edgbaston, Birmingham. “I could go three lifetimes without finding another Andy. He’s got the right attitude and we’re very like-minded. If we close at 1am and I say meet me at Birmingham market at 6am, he’s there.”

Luke Tipping was Antona’s larder chef at the Plough & Harrow, and most recently sous chef at the Birmingham Swallow.

Antona prefers not to give Walters and Tipping ranks or titles. “They can call themselves head chefs if they want to – that’s fine by me, but I can’t do it without them and they can’t do it without me.”

Other key staff are Jolie Craig, restaurant manager, and Mauro Vitali, who generally works in the kitchen, but is happy to work where needed. Although Vitali is not formally trained, Antona is investigating a suitable day-release craft course for him at Birmingham College of Food.

Having been born into the industry – Antona got his first job at the age of five washing-up for his grandad – he is concerned at the lack of people wishing to work in hotels and restaurants.

“I worry about the future of the industry, some young people just don’t seem to want to work,” says Antona. “Equally, pay and conditions are poor and there is no security. It is not an attractive industry to want to come into.”

After training at Ealing Technical College, Antona participated in a job exchange organised by the British Hospitality Association, then the BHRCA, for hospitality studies graduates.

So off he went to the Bahnhoffbeffet restaurant in Zurich. “It was an eye-opener,” says Antona. “After leaving college, it took me a few years before I came to terms with the rigours of the industry.”

Six seasons in Swiss and German hotels were concluded in the early 1980s when Antona took up the post of chef tournant at the Dorchester’s Terrace restaurant, under Anton Mosimann. “He was the first chef to really make me think about food.”

After a year he moved to the Ritz as sous chef to Michael Quinn. “Then, the country house scene blossomed and I got caught up in it,” explains Antona. He did a stint at Beechfield House, Beanacre, Wiltshire, before joining the Elms Hotel, Abberley, Hereford & Worcester, where he succeeded Murdo MacSween.

“From a professional point of view, I wished I’d stayed in London. I wouldn’t have the quality of life that I have now though if I hadn’t left.”

Antona returned to city centre hotels in June 1987, and for three years he worked as head chef at Birmingham’s Plough & Harrow, one of Crest’s flagship hotels.

He then spent two years as a consultant before seizing the opportunity to open his own restaurant.

Besides Simpson’s, Antona always makes time to “give back” to the industry through his posts at Birmingham College of Food and the Midlands Association of Chefs, where he is a governor and chairman respectively.

Antona’s other loves are golf and football – he’s a season ticket holder at Coventry City and virtually nothing will make him miss a home game. Does this have anything to do with Simpson’s not being open for lunch on Saturdays? “It might,” he concedes.

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