“What qualifications did you leave school with?” I ask Andreas Antona.
“Oh, f*** all,” comes the honest answer.
The chef, who has just sat down to lunch in his new restaurant doesn’t mince his words.
He could teach Gordon Ramsay a thing or two about swearing and whatever topic you throw his way he’ll find a way to bring it back to politics and football.
“I hated school and school hated me,” he says, “although I enjoyed Wednesday mornings when we’d get to kick a ball about.”
Nearly five decades later he still recalls his school master telling him he wasn’t good enough to take his 11-plus.
But this uninspiring education didn’t stop the teenager pursuing his dream.
Raised in Chiswick in a Greek-Cypriot family, Andreas learnt his trade in the restaurants of his dad and uncle (which he describes as “traditional English eating houses”) before taking a two-year City & Guilds college course.
“That was what I really wanted to do,” he recalls, “it was everything I didn’t find in education.”
After qualifying he worked in Zurich for a year before spending three years in Stuttgart.
Returning to the UK, he landed a job at the Dorchester, as saucier (which he compares to wearing a number nine shirt) under Anton Mossiman, one of the leading lights of that time, and by the time he left, the restaurant had been awarded two Michelin stars.
He moved on to become a sous chef at the Ritz, where he met his wife, Alison, a commis chef specialising in patisserie.
Alison, from Kenilworth, brought Andreas to her home town in 1985 to start a family – not an easy move for a boy from Chiswick (one of perhaps a few Kenilworth residents to be supporting plans for high speed rail).
“I’m a city person,” he says, “and Kenilworth’s as far into the countryside as I want to get in life.”
Andreas landed a job at Birmingham’s Plough and Harrow hotel. It was then Egon Ronay Hotel of the Year and he still laments its demise.
After three years as head chef he branched out alone, opening his own business in Warwick Road, Kenilworth, and naming it Simpsons after his father-in-law’s pharmacy that once occupied the site.
“It was the greatest thing,” he recalls, “because you felt the shackles were off.
“It was my business and I could do what I wanted to do.”
The restaurant bagged a Bib Gourmand (a Michelin accolade for good cooking at moderate prices) within a year and a Michelin star within five years before moving to Edgbaston in 2004 where, alongside Glynn Purnell, Andreas became the first Birmingham restaurateur to be awarded a star.
“When I started cooking you didn’t hear about Michelin unless you went on holiday to France,” he says.
“Now it has become a byword in England for excellence and it’s every chef’s dream to have one.
“Michelin by tradition used to be about truffles and oysters and I grew up in that world. That’s how I trained.
“But that world has disappeared and Michelin has done a good job to keep up with the pace of change.”
With more Michelin star venues than any other city outside the UK’s capitals, I ask Andreas whether Birmingham should now be hoping for a Bib Gourmand to give a more affordable entry level to the fine dining offered at its four one-star restaurants.
But he wants to up the ante, saying it’s time to see the city’s first restaurant with two stars.
This isn’t a man who likes to stand still. After five years of success in Edgbaston he returned to Kenilworth in 2010 to open Beef, the Midlands’ answer to a New York steak house.
Three years on he’s just opened a second Kenilworth venue, The Cross, as chef patron, while former Simpsons head chef Adam Bennett has taken charge of the kitchen.
At Simpsons, executive chef director Luke Tipping and new head chef Matt Cheal are now leading operations while Andreas spends most of his time at The Cross, where he flits from table to table, meeting and greeting.
He knows everyone and everyone knows him.
These new ventures are the chef patron’s way of passing on his legacy and rewarding his team.
And as a governor at University College Birmingham, he’s taking a different approach to his own school teachers and championing better training for the new chefs about to come on to the scene.
“I want to put something back,” he says, “and walking up the stairs at UCB as a governor, you know the decisions you make are affecting young people’s lives.
“They are at a stage where they’ve got the whole world in front of them and anything’s possible.”
But he also has more experimental projects in the pipeline, proving the 56-year-old is still positioning himself at the cutting edge.
This year he’s lending his weight to a new venture focused on craft beer, one of the fastest growing products in the British and American food and drink markets.
Teaming up with Warwickshire-based Purity Brewing Company, Andreas will be leading the food output at Pure Bar and Kitchen, a venue opening this spring, between Birmingham’s Victoria Square and the cathedral.
He says: “Have you been to Munich? It’s fantastic.
“I’ve got this vision of bringing a typical German beer hall to Birmingham. This country would be a better place for it.”
He also hints at potential projects focusing on street food, another sector that has boomed over the last 18 months.
But his biggest victory of recent years has been driving support for Team UK in the Bocuse D’Or.
At the Olympics of the culinary world, held every other year in Lyon, Andreas says international competitors regard British chefs in the same way other football teams regard Millwall.
But he’s determined to turn that around and last year, after Andreas granted him a four-month sabbatical to train, Adam Bennett achieved Britain’s best ever result by finishing fourth, as well as producing the best meat dish in the qualifying European round and the best meat platter in the international final.
“That’s a legacy,” grins Andreas, grabbing a bit of green cabbage with his fingers and popping it into his mouth.
He’s quick to knock Coventry City Council, struggling to think of an eaterie in the city where he’d dine, and to lambast “interferring” politicians in general, questioning David Cameron’s motives for appearing at the last Curry Awards.
But he claims Birmingham City Council has been unusually “forward thinking” in promoting diversity (despite bemoaning the abysmal public transport system that makes it easier for him to get from Kenilworth to London than to his business in Edgbaston).
He wants more support from the council and wants Birmingham’s chefs to collaborate and act as ambassadors of the city’s food scene, as Lyonnais chefs have done in the home of the Bocuse D’Or, now considered one of the world’s food capitals.
He says: “When I started in Birmingham in the mid 80s it was a provincial town, before Broad Street, before the Hyatt and the Bullring and other developments.
“It has become an international destination now and what’s happening to promote the food scene is fantastic but it should be more of a priority.
“I feel like sometimes we, as chefs, are all too worried about running our own businesses but if we were more united we could really achieve a lot.
“I would like to put out a call to my fellow chefs to get together and be more forward thinking for the sake of the city.
“I genuinely think we’ve got an important role to play.”
It’s about bringing out the flavours
Adam Bennett is a true Cov kid.
Hailing from Willenhall, it seemed the former Binley Park and Henley College pupil was representing Coventry rather than the UK at the Bocuse D’Or culinary Olympics when he fronted his kitchen with the sky blue Coventry City FC flag.
Bennett, like Andreas Antona before him, worked at the Dorchester for 18 months under Mossiman.
At an opportune moment, when Bennett found himself stagnating in another job, Andreas contacted him offering him a position at the original Simpsons’ in Kenilworth, before moving to the Edgbaston venue, where he spent nine years.
Now, the pair have returned to Kenilworth with their new venture, The Cross, where Adam as head chef is bringing his own style and personality to the menu.
He says: “I’m nearer the reins than I’ve ever been and I’m finding it more invigorating being at the heart of it. I really want to establish a clientele and set of staff that come up with the goods consistently.
“One of our ambitions,” he adds, “is to have a farm – to acquire a patch of land and employ staff to grow vegetables, bring them in and cook them freshly.
“Le Manoir (Raymond Blanc’s Oxfordshire restaurant with its own kitchen garden) is beautiful and exceptional but it’s not a full two-acre plot. It’s more of a garnish.
“I think it’s a really exciting concept for chefs at the moment and something we might be able to do here.”
Bennett, who lives in Chapelfields, Coventry, with wife Nibedita and four-year-old daughter Asha, wants his restaurant to be known for those signature dishes that give top quality ingredients the chance to shine.
He says: “The dishes that really amplify the style we want to be known for are the sea bass with potato scales on top in red wine sauce, the cod served with coco beans, chorizo and parsley and the venison with haggis and roots.
“They’re elegant and simple and really hit the spot.
“It’s all about flavour,” he adds, “not being too clever, but letting the food speak for itself.”