Chef Glynn Purnell has spent lockdown charging ahead with plans for two new openings, one a major fine dining restaurant in a former monastery in Coventry, the other a bijou site in Solihull. Lisa Jenkins finds out why he's certain diners will congregate in the Midlands.
Glynn Purnell, the self-styled Yummy Brummie, has grown up.
The chef-proprietor and frontman of many BBC One Saturday Kitchen episodes may have been known for his vociferous responses to negative reviews on social media, but says he is "more mature now".
"I'm the same me, even though being in the media can change you, and I've seen some of that. I'm older and a bit more sensible. I don't tend to socialise with chefs that regularly any more, and that's the same for most chefs, I'd say. We're not smashing up hotels like we used to!" he jokes.
Purnell was born and bred in Birmingham, and was the first chef to achieve a Michelin star in the city (at Jessica's in Edgbaston in 2005). He is now chef-patron of the one-Michelin-starred Purnell's on Cornwall Street.
He spent the first 14 weeks of the first lockdown volunteering for the NHS, delivering prescriptions on a council estate where he used to live. "There are still loads of people there that I used to know from when I delivered their papers and pinched their gold-top milk."
He and his long-term partner Kerry are home-schooling their three children, aged 15, 12 and 10, and have enjoyed the family time while away from the restaurant. But he has also spent the time preparing two new projects.
The Charterhouse in Coventry is owned by the Historic Coventry Trust (HCT), which has invested £8m in restoring the building and surrounding courtyards and land, with an opening scheduled by the end of the 2021. Part of the rebuild is funded with a £4.3m grant from the National Lottery.
The 14th-century, former Carthusian monastery, founded by Richard II, is Grade I-listed and includes medieval and Elizabethan wall paintings of national importance. The building and its grounds form the centrepiece of the trust's major project, the creation of a new 70-acre Heritage Park and museum on the edge of the city centre, which also includes the Joseph Paxton Arboretum Cemetery and a large riverside area and woodlands.
Purnell and HCT founder Ian Harrabin have worked together with Birmingham-based architectural firm BPN on the plans, which will feature both a conservatory café and a fine dining restaurant.
"We're aiming to have the café open by Easter, including an outside pizzeria. Coventry is the UK City of Culture in 2021 and we need to take advantage of this."
Meanwhile, the 18th-century coachhouse (40 covers) and courtyard will have a "gastronomic essence", says Purnell. He doesn't want to label it as fine dining, but says it will have a "feel of Purnell's" with a nod towards the historical setting and location.
The site will also house a Champagne bar, and the chef is hopeful that the three different propositions will offer something for everyone.
Purnell says: "Back in the day there were 12 cells overlooking the courtyard, where the monks lived. You could drink mead and womanise, and the monks would pray for your soul. It's an interesting historical fact that we will enjoy sharing with our guests."
Archaeological digs on the site have revealed medieval walls and part of the monks' cells, including fragments of painted wall plaster and numerous broken glazed floor tiles.
"It's a unique project and a collection of beautiful buildings," he adds. "We'll eventually have a function room with 80 covers, and guests will arrive via the impressive gravel drive."
Purnell's other new venture is in Knowle, a large village three miles from the town of Solihull in the West Midlands. "This site should have been open by now, but with the lockdowns everything is bottle-necking," he says.
"Knowle will be a similar operation to our Birmingham city centre Purnell Bistro & Ginger Bar, and we are negotiating heads of terms now, with a view to opening as soon as we can."
This 40-cover site, also as yet unnamed, is in a desirable area, explains Purnell. "It's an affluent part of Solihull with a real buzz and lots of independent businesses. It's a cracking little place, and it will enable us to see if Purnell's can work outside the city.
"When I was a kid no one wanted to come to Birmingham – you just went through it. Now people drive to Birmingham. These days you don't get sent to Coventry, you go to Coventry."
Surviving the pandemic
During the pandemic, Purnell's Bistro & Ginger Bar on Newhall Street suffered from the open-shut Covid-19 closure strategies. When they could, the team opened for table service, and social distancing was relatively easy in the large restaurant, but when Tier 2 and the rule of no household mixing came in, "it just fell on its arse," says the chef.
"Arrears from the rent had kicked in (a private lease) and takings were down £2,000-£3,000 a week," Purnell explains. He streamlined staff and held off long enough to furlough most of them. "Some of the team have dropped out over the last year because I couldn't always give them back their original hours. Some of the younger ones on casual contracts went and worked elsewhere. The Bistro & Ginger Bar is shut right now and it's in the balance as to whether or not it will reopen."
If necessary, staff will be redeployed across other sites, including the new Coventry venture, and he hopes to recruit locally too. "If anyone sees this and is looking for a job, they can get in touch," he adds.
If anyone sees this and is looking for a job, they can get in touch
He's neutral about the handling of the pandemic. "It's difficult. In certain aspects such as furlough and the rates exemption, it's been brilliant. In terms of grants [from the council], my second round of grants, which I applied for in late December, have still not been paid, and we're now talking about a third set. I don't understand why it's so much slower this time round, and some small businesses are not getting anything."
Turning the page
But when the industry does emerge from the latest lockdown, Purnell doesn't doubt that his eponymous restaurant will be busy.
"When we opened back up in July 2020 it was unbelievable the way people responded. We even had people crying in the restaurant. I had loads of gifts bought for me and it took us all a bit by surprise."
During the restrictions and lockdowns, a limited number of staff have been creating food boxes, which has kept head chef Luke Butcher and his team motivated.
With regards to the industry's bounce-back, he says everyone needs to be mindful of the fallout from being shut down for so long. "There will be casualties and some of the smaller independents will fall on the wayside," he says.
As the industry returns to a semblance of normality, Purnell is focusing on supporting education. A visiting professor at University College Birmingham, he says he will be devoting more time to students to help them catch up on their lost education. "We all have a responsibility to do this so that our future team members don't have big gaps in their learning," he says. "We need to support the students and apprentices more than ever and devote much more time to training."
This includes chef competitions, he adds, but some of them could do with a bit of updating. "I think a few of them have lost their edge and credibility."
Coming out of the pandemic is an opportunity, he says, "to look and start afresh, to look at the mistakes of the past. That's exactly what I'm doing with all my businesses, with all my staff, turning the page and starting with all of the positive things – the same should apply to competitions and training, if we can all spare just a little bit of time."
For those businesses that do survive, he believes the return to restaurants will be euphoric.
"People will have saved up for celebrations and special occasions; they will have had weddings and holidays cancelled – they'll want to do something special with that money."
Reflecting on a life in hospitality, Purnell is grateful for the joys his career has brought. "I've had such a wonderful experience," he explains. "I've met the Queen, for god's sake.
"One of the most wonderful days I've ever had in my life – apart from all the obvious successes – was escorting Barbara Windsor to the Great British Menu banquet in 2011. We had the best day together. And I've kissed Shirley Bassey! I was at a Golden Jubilee dinner and she was talking to chef Atul Kochhar. I was completely star-struck and told her that I used to watch her on Live at the London Palladium, and that she was smoking! I asked for a kiss on my cheek and turned just in time to get a smacker on the lips.
"I've also hung out with some of the best chefs in the world, such as Heston Blumenthal; I've done a stage at Aubergine with Gordon Ramsay; and Pierre Koffman has eaten at my restaurant."
What's left on the bucket list? "Well, I'd love to read out a story on CBeebies – that would be a dream come true. And I'd love to do Strictly – I love the idea of wearing sequins and Lycra – but I don't think I'm famous enough."
I'd love to read out a story on CBeebies – that would be a dream come true
If there is time, there are plans to write another book, to add to the three that he has already published: Cracking Yolks & Pig Tales (2014); Rib Ticklers & Choux-Ins (2016); and his third last year, There and Back Again: A Purnell's Journey, a limited edition coffee-table keepsake.
What's more, the chef (who also paints) has written a children's book about a dog who eats baked beans and farts (The Magical Adventures of Whoops the Wonder Dog) and has another on the way, called Arnold the Alpaca, where Arnold is bullied by the farmer's sheep, Cutlis and Shank.
"I'm a fighter," he says. "I still have so much passion, drive and commitment for this industry. My old man framed this old piece of paper that I'd written on – it's a record of achievements piece I did as a kid and it's framed and hanging in my hallway.
He reads the words: "‘When I'm older I want to open a restaurant in town where all the rich posh people come to and eat my food.' It's in French and English," he says proudly.
"When I don't feel like that any more – that's the day I'll stop."
Purnell on the minister for hospitality and coronavirus
"It's been interesting watching the momentum behind this campaign. Considering the amount of money we make for the economy, someone should be flying the flag for us. Not necessarily so we can get everything our own way, just so we have a say, to be heard.
"I do feel we've been used as a scapegoat. Other sectors have spread the virus just as much and we very strictly followed the rules and paid a lot of money to implement the safety protocols.
"Only 3%-4% of the infections have come from hospitality compared to much higher numbers in schools, universities and other sectors. It has been demoralising at times."
A life in restaurants
Purnell first started working in hospitality as a weekend job at the Birmingham Metropole hotel aged 14, mopping floors and progressing to making salads and flipping burgers.
After finishing school, he joined the hotel as an apprentice and worked for six years in every department, from banqueting to the à la carte Terrace restaurant, where he discovered his passion for fine dining.
In 1996, Purnell joined Simpsons, Andreas Antona's Michelin-starred restaurant in Kenilworth, as chef de partie. With Antona's support Purnell travelled all over Europe, completing stages with the late Gary Rhodes, Alastair Little and Gordon Ramsay in London; the Pourcel brothers in Montpellier, France; and at Zaldiaran in the Basque country of northern Spain.
During his time at Simpsons, the chef achieved the Academy of Culinary Arts' Annual Awards of Excellence in 1996 and won the Rioja National Sous Chef of the Year in 2000.
In 2002 he joined Claude Bosi at two-Michelin-starred Hibiscus restaurant in Ludlow, Shropshire, as sous chef.
In 2003, after nine months at Hibiscus, he moved on to accept his first head chef position at Jessica's in Edgbaston on its launch by Keith and Diane Stevenson, where he achieved Birmingham's first Michelin star in 2005. Jessica's was also named AA Restaurant of the Year (England) that same year.
Purnell left Jessica's in 2007 and opened his eponymous restaurant Purnell's in Birmingham, where he received his own Michelin star in January 2009.
In 2010, the chef opened the Asquith in the premises of the former Jessica's in Edgbaston, but in April 2011 the restaurant closed due to a dispute with the building's landlord.
The Purnell Bistro & Ginger Bar opened in September 2013.
Portrait photography by Lucy Rebecca
Food photography by Michelle Martin
Purnell's photography by Aberration Films Ltd 2015
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In