The Caterer Interview: Andreas Antona, chairman of the Bocuse d'Or UK Academy

06 October 2022 by

The chef-owner of Simpsons restaurant in Birmingham looks back on 30 years of service and speaks ahead of the 2023 Bocuse D'Or World Final

You opened Simpsons in 1993, so next year you'll celebrate its 30th birthday. How has the restaurant changed since then?

Dining out has changed a lot. It hadn't really become a way of life back then, it was for special occasions. But I'm a chef by trade and, having started cooking in 1976, I have seen huge changes in food, too. In those days we were governed by the classics and had several soups on the menu, along with loads of fish dishes and duck, veal and beef. The menus were massive. I had a very classical background and there are few bastions of that style of service now, with floor service, banqueting, fine dining and a grill room. They were great training grounds as you had the chance to cover everything.

How does that compare to what your restaurants offer now?

Even compared to 10 years ago it's different. We don't have à la carte any more at Simpsons, it's just tasting menus. We had to change our business during Covid and we found a different way that is more focused. I think it's to the detriment of the customer as there's less choice. Instead of doing multiple tasks we condense it. Having an à la carte fridge is like having a juggernaut full of mise en place – now we can improve quality by preparing everything daily.

You opened the Cross in Kenilworth eight years ago. What was the original plan with that site?

There were no Michelin stars in Warwickshire then. Back then [chef-director at the Cross] Adam Bennett had done one cycle of the Bocuse d'Or, having had six months off to prepare, as I wanted to demonstrate that's what was required to succeed. After that, dining was moving away from formality and tablecloths, so we took on the Kenilworth pub. Adam got a star within a year, which wasn't quite the plan as we wanted to define our style first.

Both your restaurants hold Michelin stars. How tricky is it to maintain that standard for so long?

It was never an ambition to hold stars – I just wanted to make money. I opened at the end of the 1990s recession on a failed site, where there had been eight restaurants in 12 years. We then moved the restaurant to Birmingham and haven't looked back.

It's all about maintaining standards and you know when they slip. We're never stagnant in style, either. But I've been blessed that I've been able to work with Luke [Tipping, Simpsons chef-director] and Adam. Some people are here as fixtures and for others we're a stepping stone. We want people to progress. I like to think many will go onto bigger and better things. Everyone has contributed to the success of Simpsons over the years.

We need a winning mentality. We want to prove to the world that British cooking is up there with the very best

How big is the business now in terms of turnover and employees?

Simpsons is around £2.5m turnover and the Cross a bit less, but I never worry about turn- over. I remember it was Peter Allen, who is still our butcher, came to do the specs three days before Simpsons opened, and he said to me: "Remember one thing: full restaurants make money, empty ones don't." So I aim to get the restaurant full – and the balance right with our sums – and the rest takes care of itself.

Birmingham hosted the Commonwealth Games in the summer. What difference did that make to business and the city?

We had an exceptional week during the games. There was a different vibe in the city too. From a business perspective the legacy is what I'm looking for. Can the city and the people that brought us this opportunity build upon it?

I believe that we can cement our place as an international destination. Whether we can bring investment in from abroad is another thing, but I think there's a workforce here that's ready for it.

Is it more difficult than ever to do business or has it always been this challenging?

There's a cliff and we're all standing on it waiting to fall. I hope we don't get a Japanese-type recession that turns into a depression as it could happen if we're not careful. For us it's staff and investment. Britain PLC is at a crossroads and I find it hard to understand any long-term vision post-Brexit.

Restaurants like ours are a barometer of the country. When the economy suffers our restaurants become empty. We need to be real about how we develop business. I still think we need to bring VAT down to closer to 5% on food, like the rest of Europe has. That would be such a boost. We'd be able to invest in our businesses and future businesses.

Having introduced the Antona at Home meal delivery service during the pandemic you have now launched Soko – an artisan pâtisserie business. How has the retail side of the business gone?

The patisserie business was borne out of boxes at lockdown as we had loads of stock ready for Mother's Day. We sold 200 portions in a weekend, but after a while it got out of hand. So I approached the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and moved our Antona at Home brands into their banqueting kitchen.

Since then we've moved to an industrial unit in Solihull and started working with Bake Off: The Professionals finalist Bharat Chandegra on a new brand called Soka. It's artisan chocolates and we're selling them to other restaurants. We're working with Fullers too, so it has real potential.

You've thrown yourself into the Bocuse d'Or and shining the spotlight on UK talent – including funding Adam Bennett when he competed. What drives that passion for the competition?

It's not about money. You need a vision to create something with a legacy. Most teams around the world are sponsored by arms of the government, but we're not. We did launch the Bocuse academy in 2017, hoping that some MPs would think it was a great initiative to support.

We want to work with colleges and inspire the next generation of British chefs. It's about creativity, research and development. What goes on in Bocuse will turn up on tables a few years later.

What goes on in Bocuse will turn up on tables a few years later

You've built a strong team for next year's Bocuse d'Or final. Is it taken seriously enough here?

In Lyon it is shown on the big screen and across the country on live TV. You can go out to Norway and they all know about it. It's just here we're a bit apathetic. But we now have Simon Rogan as president and an academy including John Williams, Brian Turner and Adam Bennett. We are building up a team of people who understand the competition to support Ian Musgrave next year too.

Where would you like to see the Bocuse d'Or in terms of support?

To get us to where we want to go, the support from government would be a drop in the ocean. But they don't necessarily see us as an industry to invest in. They don't consider us the same sort of industry as science but we are about creativity and development.

I want to get to the stage where we have a documentary series on TV and for our team to be coached by someone who has already won it. We need a winning mentality. We want to prove to the world that British cooking is up there with the very best.

How are preparations going for next year?

We're ready but we don't know anything until we get the technical file. We might not have the funding of other nations but we will compete. It's all about inspiring the next generation.

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