Interview with chef Anthony Flinn

04 September 2008
Interview with chef Anthony Flinn

He topped the swearing poll on Great British Menu and counts Ferran Adrià and John Campbell among his mentors. Now, Anthony Flinn's restaurant empire is expanding into a new £500,000 development. Rosie Birkett visits the bullish Leeds chef

"I hope a family of otters doesn't jump out of here when we open it up," jokes Anthony Flinn as he looks down at a disused well in what is soon to be his brand-new brasserie. We're standing in the bowels of the Corn Exchange that, in two months' time, will reopen as a food emporium with Flinn fronting the main draw - over 13,200sq ft on the ground floor.

Surrounded by architects' drawings, workmen and laptops, Flinn's turquoise eyes dart about excitedly. "This is something we've been planning for years," he says. "Having everything together in one place."

In the central expanse, Flinn's 125-seat brasserie will serve classic British food, flanked by a café, a bar lounge and private dining space. In the units that surround the central space will be four food retail outlets, also overseen by Flinn - a bakery and pâtisserie, chocolatier, cheese shop and ingredients shop. At the back of it all, behind a glass curtain, will be the kitchen, plus rôtisserie section. It's an ambitious, varied array.

"We'll link with other people in the building, too," says Flinn. "If there's a butcher upstairs, we could well use that meat in the restaurant. If there's an olive shop, we'll supply them with fresh bread from our bakery."

It's four years since Flinn exploded on to the UK food scene, fresh from being the only Brit ever to work at El Bulli in Spain - and be paid for it. He opened Anthony's, a fine-dining restaurant, which referenced Ferran Adrià's molecular gastronomy to a level that surprised many for being in Leeds. It made his name, while also putting the Yorkshire city on the map. Voted Restaurant of the Year by Observer Food Monthly readers and critically acclaimed, Anthony's had made its mark.

Leeds association

Since then Flinn has opened another restaurant, Anthony's at Flannels, and a pâtisserie in the Victoria Quarter, and his name has become associated with Leeds in the way other chefs are taking over certain geographical areas in the UK.

He had planned to work in London, but his ambition was to run his own restaurant - and the two just weren't compatible. "I wouldn't have been able to finance a new place in London, so I set up in Leeds with my dad. The rates and rents here allow us to do that."

Yet there has been criticism, too. In March Jay Rayner, of the Observer, slated Anthony's at Flannels for lack of attention to detail and "trying to do too much for not enough money".

"It annoyed me," admits Flinn. "But I don't believe for a second that it was about the money - I can make fantastic dishes for pennies - it's just that on the day it wasn't up to spec. The whole brigade got a bollocking, and every complaint was addressed.

"I'm not upset by what Jay said. If he had a shit meal, he had a shit meal. Jay knows us well enough from Anthony's to understand what we're trying to do, and it was nice that he recognised that in the piece. But he had a bad meal, that's for sure."

Some would see Flinn's arrival as a huge gamble. Quite apart from Rayner, there's the average Yorkshireman who, confronted by a dish of "risotto of white onion, espresso, Parmesan air", might respond in a less-than-positive way.

"There are a lot of new people in Leeds, and the wealth here is bigger than ever," counters Flinn. "You've now got loads of young professionals buying £250,000 apartments - that isn't the flat cap-wearing crowd. The cranes show there's a future for Leeds."

Indeed, Flinn is the walking embodiment of the new Leeds, with his BlackBerry in one hand and his phone in the other, sharply dressed in a crisp, black suit. Raymond Blanc has opened a Brasserie Blanc by the River Aire there are plans for Jamie Oliver to open a Fifteen in the city Albert Roux is overseeing a restaurant in the Ellington hotel and Atul Kochhar is also rumoured to be coming to Leeds.

Flinn changes tack, seeing these not as good examples of Leeds's progress, but rather an indictment of the celebrity franchise. "People from outside Leeds see it as rich pickings, easy money. There's a hell of a lot of chefs coming from London. It's just a shame they won't actually be in their kitchens more than a few times a year."

But the same could be said of him, with what will be four projects by the end of the year. "No, that's not the case. Although I'll be based at the Corn Exchange during the day, I'll still be cooking at Anthony's every night. It will allow me to do things at the restaurant I wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. I've only got a five- strong brigade there, but I'll have a professional baker, pâtissier and chocolatier at my disposal."

Serious money

There's also the profit aspect, and Flinn makes no apologies for the fact that, because of the size of the new project, "this is the opportunity to make us some serious money".

"The credit crunch is a factor, but it will affect those who aren't good enough," he insists. "Other restaurants churning out the same rubbish year after year are going to the wall. I'm sure that with a project this size something will go wrong, somewhere. But while we've noticed that people are spending less, we're still up on sales. We're confident, in other words."

Flinn tends to leave the running of the business to his dad, Anthony Snr. So is that confidence or arrogance? Thanks to his track record, Flinn has more reason to be cocky than most. Before walking into El Bulli on the Costa Brava he had moved to Spain without a word of Spanish, cooking in what he describes as "a total shithole". He was too scared to try any of the major chefs, but he went for a meal at the then one-Michelin-starred Abac restaurant in Barcelona - it now has two - and realised he had to work there.

Flinn showed up at the restaurant with his CV in hand and a well-rehearsed speech in Spanish and demanded a job. "I'd have been screwed if they had asked me anything back." He got in, but recalls how his friend had to mime fish or pig movements in a farcical fashion behind the chef's back so that Flinn knew what to get from the larder. "It was tough, the toughest kitchen I've ever worked in," he says, "but it was all about flavour."

From Xavier Pellicer's place Flinn moved to El Bulli. He'd applied for a stage there too, and eventually they called him as he moved to a chef de partie role. Flinn started at a stage level and moved to sous chef.

"Ferran is so focused," says Flinn. "He's not the kind of person you'd ever see in the pub, or someone I'd ring for a chat. He's obsessive and constantly finding something new. I've seen him blowing up to the point that he'd have to sit down - but that was just his passion coming out. Half the time when he was yelling at me I couldn't understand a word of it anyway."

But is Flinn now trying to disassociate himself from molecular gastronomy? "I never said that I was part of that bracket, but we let it go because, at the end of the day, people will print what they want," he says. "I enjoy molecular gastronomy, but the term gets bandied around too much. There is one person who does it properly in this country, and that's Heston."

Plain speaking

One thing that hasn't changed is his reputation for plain speaking. Flinn topped the swearing polls on the BBC TV series Great British Menu this year, making even the potty-mouthed Glynn Purnell look like a vicar's son.

"I am not a TV-style chef," he says. "I'm not prepared to sell my soul for TV. On the Great British Menu you got what was me. I'm sure I'm not the easiest chef to work with," adds Flinn. "I'm not a smiley person and I don't jump around joking about."

He also lost out to another northerner, Nigel Haworth, in the heats. How did Flinn feel about that? He hesitates, before breaking out into laughter. "OK, I'm a passionate person, so it annoyed me big-style. I don't do losing very well. But there was no malice there. Nigel's a great guy."

Flinn may have lost on TV but, so far, he's winning over the locals. On my way back to the station, I glance back at the Corn Exchange, rising out of the cobbled streets. One might half expect to hear a pony and trap tottering past. It's a building that nods to the city's industrial past, but could be its culinary future.

Anthony's at the piazza

  • Designer Ward Robinson (previously responsible for Nigel Haworth at Northcote Manor, Blackburn, Lancashire)
  • Finance Backed by sponsors, RBS and the Flinn family business
  • Projected turnover of the Anthony's brand £3m
  • Components Brasserie (see below), café, bar, private dining, bakery, pâtisserie, chocolatier, cheese shop and ingredients shop

The Brasserie

  • Seats 125
  • Three-course supper £25-£30
  • Brigade 11 (prep and serving)
  • Chef Chris Kelly (previously at Lords of the Manor in the Cotswolds, the Vineyard at Stockcross in Newbury, Berkshire, and Anthony's at Flannels)

Career highlights

  • October 2008 Anthony's Piazza at the Corn Exchange set to launch
  • 2006 Opens Anthony's Pâtisserie in the Victoria Quarter
  • 2005 Anthony's at Flannels opens
  • March 2004 Launches Anthony's on Boar Lane
  • 2003 Returns to UK from El Bulli with plans to open a fine-dining restaurant in Leeds
  • 2000 Embarks on a stage at El Bulli on the Costa Brava, Spain, and offered another season as a sous chef. In the break between seasons, Flinn works with John Campbell - now at the Vineyard at Stockcross in Newbury, Berkshire
  • 1999 Works at Abac restaurant in Barcelona
  • 1998 Spotted by John Campbell at a cooking competition in Birmingham and taken on as commis chef at Lords of the Manor in the Cotswolds
  • 1996 Attends Huddersfield Technical College

Flinn on…

  • Free range "They should have given Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall the budget that the people he was approaching had to live on and asked him to shop organic on it. That would have made much better telly."
  • Michelin "I used to think that getting stars was the be-all and end-all, but not any more. If they give us a star, they give us a star, but I've never asked them why I haven't got one - I'm too stubborn."
  • Other chefs "I like food that challenges, such as Heston and Ferran's. Sat Bains and Glynn Purnell push boundaries."
  • Great British Menu "The final meal didn't represent what is exciting in this country. I don't think all the big chefs that came to the meal would have gone away thinking ‘Wow, we need to keep an eye on England.' It was old-school with a tweak - not great modern British.
  • Selling out "Not many restaurants have their own chocolate bar, and people who say you're selling out are the ones who haven't got the balls to do it themselves."

Taking over the local area

Newcastle: Terry Laybourne

Terry Laybourne is Newcastle's most renowned chef and restaurateur, with a total of four restaurants in the city and one in Durham. His resturant Café 21 won the region its first Michelin star on its first site in Queen's Street, before moving to Trinity Gardens last year. Laybourne has since opened the Jesmond Dene House boutique hotel and restaurant.

Perthshire: Tom Lewis

Since taking over his parents' B&B in the sleepy depths of the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, Tom Lewis and his siblings have built up an empire that includes a farm, fine-dining restaurant, chippy, bakery, tearoom and fishmonger.

Padstow: Rick Stein

Over the past two decades fish lover and TV chef Rick Stein has built a culinary fiefdom in the pretty harbour village of Padstow, Cornwall, making it a destination for tourists to eat at as well as a place for locals to go. He's opened four restaurants, a gift shop, a deli, a pâtisserie and a cookery school, and has 40 rooms available for guests.

The North-west: Paul Heathcote

Michelin-starred chef-proprietor Paul Heathcote has collected restaurants across major cities close to his Lancashire home. After downgrading his one-Michelin-starred Longridge restaurant, Heathcote now has Simply Heathcotes, the Heathcotes Collection and the Olive Press in Preston, Manchester, Liverpool and Bolton.

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