Before lunch service Glynn Purnell gusts into his refined restaurant, strategising noisily with a team of his staff and occasionally peppering the air with four-letter words.
This is a man who knows how to make an entrance and the rugged cut of his jib stands out from his pristine Cornwall Street surroundings.
Today is no ordinary day at Purnell’s. The chef is preparing for the official launch of his first cook book, an autobiographical tale documenting his journey from a council estate in Chelmsley Wood to owning one of the city’s most lauded restaurants (not to mention a Michelin star).
And he’s pulling no punches.
“I’m not going to bullshit anyone about sitting on my mother’s knee and podding peas,” he says, “because I’m from Chelmsley Wood.
“I’m not going to talk about the windy meadows of Warwickshire, I’m going to talk about the urban Bullring open markets.
“Food was always a massive thing in my house and food is still as important and as interesting to me as if I were brought up in Tuscany.”
Purnell’s story starts in his childhood home where he was the second child – and oldest boy – of four.
“I didn’t realise how bad my mum’s home cooking was until I left home,” he smirks, “but what was great about home was that the heartbeat of the house was the dining table.
“You always made sure you were back for dinner. That was the rule.
“I never went without but sometimes there wasn’t lots of it.
“So I’d be looking at my sister’s roast potato that she hadn’t touched, hoping she’d leave it so I could have it.
“We were always really grateful for what we had.”
While his mother, a dinner lady and cleaner, was responsible for serving up family dinners during the week, Purnell’s dad, a factory worker, would take to the kitchen at weekends to experiment with a cook book from one of the 1970s’ chefs du jour – Madhur Jaffrey, Ken Hom or Keith Floyd.
Purnell didn’t travel abroad until he was 19, spending summer holidays with his family in a caravan in Weymouth, but he still recalls the inspiration that came from watching a dickie bow-clad Keith Floyd cooking up a feast with the Mediterranean as his backdrop.
“I remember him cooking veal and langoustines in Italy.
“Dad bought himself a spice rack and started making curries on Saturday and bought himself a wok that couldn’t sit properly on the flat electric cooker.
“That was a massive inspiration for me and I would jump in and peel the potatoes.”
Aged 11 or 12, Purnell cut the apron strings and started conducting his own culinary experiments to feed his younger siblings.
Using tins from the cupboard he would give baked beans and canned soups his own slant, taking a little curry powder from the spice rack to give the beans a kick or thickening them with margarine and smothering them in cheese.
“I thought I was the Keith Floyd of Chelmsley Wood,” he laughs, “and sometimes they would taste delicious, sometimes horrible, but I wanted to experiment.
“I remember grating some cheese into a bowl, boiling some oxtail soup and taking some sherry from the drinks cabinet to add to the soup.”
He also recalls ripping a page out of a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room and stuffing it into his pocket.
Pulling it out at school the next day his teacher scoffed at the recipe for Paris Brest, a series of dainty choux pastries filled with Chantilly cream, which Purnell pluckily went on to produce.
“I used to get so excited about cooking at school,” he enthuses. “We had to cook for OAPs, writing down the nutritional value of whatever we made.
“Everyone was doing poached chicken and vegetables but I did a fish souffle with tinned pilchards, tuna and salmon.
“If you’ve not got much time left on the planet you don’t want to eat boiled chicken, do you?”
Despite knocking his mum’s cooking, the dishes of his childhood have stayed with him and are currently inspiring the tasting menu at Purnell’s, as seen in the recipe for ‘From Mum to Michelin’ (a dish of smoked haddock foam surrounding a poached egg yolk with baked cornflakes).
His sense of identity is strongly linked to Birmingham and he includes in the book a recipe for Birmingham Soup 1973, a reinvention of a dish made by the city’s industrial forefather Matthew Boulton, and served to his workers for a penny.
He got his first taste of a professional kitchen, aged 14, at the Metropole Hotel near the NEC (he was due to be at the NEC for work experience but caught the wrong bus, turned up to the wrong place and, seeing an opportunity to upgrade his placement, did some fast talking to persuade the staff to let him stay) before taking on weekend shifts and then evening shifts after school.
The hotel sent him to college on day release and he moved up to its a la carte French restaurant where he fell in love with the industry.
Despite doing brief stages in kitchens in France and Spain and working with Gary Rhodes at London’s Greenhouse and Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine, Purnell has never wanted to leave his home town and looks incredulous when asked about it.
“Why would I want to leave?” he demands. “Everything’s here. It’s the centre of the universe.
“If I go to London I’d have to catch the train to watch the Blues. What’s the point of that when I can park my car in Digbeth and walk down?”
Before kick-starting the city’s Michelin success in 2005 at Jessica’s in Edgbaston (when he had the Michelin Man tattooed on his leg), Purnell didn’t care that it wasn’t cool to be in Birmingham. The unfashionable factor may even have made the city appeal more.
He is clearly more comfortable as a lone wolf than a sheep.
After meeting and discussing food trends with one of his culinary heroes, Paris sensation Pierre Gagnaire, he had a quote from Gagnaire tattooed across his back and inscribed across the canopy in his kitchen: “To be the fashion is not to be the fashion”.
And his plain-speaking style in his book (with tales of attacking a sous chef’s tackle with a lobster, having a pillow fight with Sat Bains, Claude Bosi and Tom Kerridge, and watching his kitchen team drop like flies with carbon monoxide poisoning) is as unconventional as a Michelin-starred restaurant serving posh cheese and pineapple on sticks.
“Food is very expressive,” he says. “It’s one of the first forms of art.
“Even when you’re cutting sandwiches into triangles you’re making little statements there.”
So what statement is Birmingham’s king of cuisine making?
“I’m just a person who enjoys cooking and I like people to enjoy that with me, while having a smile and a laugh along the way.
“For me, food is not fuel, it’s emotions.
“It’s fun, isn’t it?”
* Cracking Yolks and Pig Tales by Kyle Books is priced at £19.99. A book signing will take place at Purnell’s Bistro on Saturday from 11am until 2pm.
Glynn’s One-pot Pollack with Chorizo, Butter Beans and Goats’ Cheese (serves 4)
I love cooking but, like most people, I hate washing up. As a commis chef, if the porter didn’t come in, it meant that it was my job – moody, but that’s the kitchen culture. As a commis chef, if I was given half a chance to fuck about I would take it. Whenever I did, though, I’d hear Big Roger (the late Roger Kendrick, my first head chef) shout, in a bit of a stutter, ‘Glenda, I can’t hear you moving!’, and I would pop my head up and shout, ‘Yes chef!’ Washing up for this dish is easy, as it’s a one-pot wonder. Sorry, I can’t hear you moving!
4 x 140g skinless pollack fillets, pin-boned (see page 79)
25g plain flour, for dusting
splash of vegetable oil
400g can butter beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 Spanish cooking chorizo, cut into strips
200ml hot chicken stock
500g baby spinach
100g goats’ cheese
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
crusty bread, such as bloomer or French baguette, to serve
1. Dust the pollack fillets with the flour, shaking off any excess.
2. Heat a frying pan until hot, add a little vegetable oil and fry the fish fillets for 3–4 minutes until golden brown. Carefully turn the fish over and fry for a further 1–2 minutes, or until golden brown and just cooked through (the fish should be opaque all the way through).
3. Add the butter beans and chorizo to the pan, then the stock and cook for 4 minutes to heat through.
4. Add the spinach, goats’ cheese and butter to the pan and cook until the cheese is melted. Place each fish fillet in a shallow serving bowl and spoon the butter bean mixture around. Serve with some crusty bread.
Glynn's Short Rib of Beef with Mussels, Parsley and Wild Garlic (serves 4)
Surf and turf – it’s pretty old school, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Old school always comes back round as a fusion or a trend, and for me it never goes away, the classic being fillet steak and lobster or oysters. I’m doing a beef and mussels recipe here that I like to think is a spring-cum-summer dish, as it’s a lighter way of serving a slow-cooked piece of meat. The garlic and parsley really work with the salty ‘sea-ness’ of the mussels and make the dish come together, and the look of the whole thing is brilliant with the sticky brown beef and bright green sauce. Wow! Also, you get two dishes in one: if you want, cook the beef and serve with mash, then have the mussels in a bowl as a starter. It’s fantastic.
For the short rib:
splash of vegetable oil
2 short ribs of beef, soaked in brine
(see page 53) for 3 hours
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 celery sticks, peeled and chopped
1/2 bunch of thyme, chopped
2 bay leaves, chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
10 black peppercorns, crushed
1/2 bottle (375ml) of red wine
375ml beef stock
For the mussels:
knob of butter
2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
3–4 parsley stalks
1.5kg live mussels, scrubbed and debearded
glass of dry cider
For the garlic and parsley sauce:
1/2 bunch of flatleaf parsley, plus extra leaves to garnish
5–6 large wild garlic leaves
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
150g salted butter, softened
100ml double cream
borage flowers, to garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.
2. Heat a little vegetable oil in a roasting tin, or a flameproof casserole dish, over a high heat on the hob. When hot, add the short ribs and cook until browned and sealed on each side.
3. Add all the vegetables, herbs, garlic and crushed peppercorns to the roasting tin, then pour over the wine and stock.
4. Cover the roasting tin with foil and cook in the oven for 3 hours until the beef is tender.
5. Lift the beef out and leave to rest in a warm place. Pour the pan juices into a saucepan and simmer over a medium heat until reduced to a thick glaze. Set aside.
1. Heat a little butter in a large saucepan and sweat the shallots, garlic and parsley stalks over a gentle heat until softened.
2. Throw in the mussels and then add the cider and bring to the boil.
3. Cover with the lid to create steam and simmer for 3–4 minutes until all shells are open (discard any that remain closed). Strain off the cooking juices into a clean saucepan and set aside.
1. Whizz the parsley, garlic leaves and garlic clove in a blender to a pulp.
2. Beat the pulp into the softened butter.
3. Bring the mussel juices to a simmer, then whisk in the garlic and parsley butter and the cream until thick. Pass through a fine sieve. Add the mussels, in and out of the shells, to the sauce.
Place the meat on a plate and glaze with the juice reduction. Spoon the mussels in the sauce over the top and garnish with parsley leaves and borage flowers.