Food Critic Richard McComb runs the rule over the two main contenders in the battle of Birmingham's new restaurant openings.
It promises to be a fascinating clash. In the red corner, from Essex, backed by a multi-million pound branding machine and a public affection close to sainthood, we have the Essex geezer, the ex-Naked Chef, the undisputed king of school dinners and champion of “my proper beef carpaccio with pukka olive oil and lovely rocket” ... the one and only Jamie Oliver.
And in the blue corner, from Chelmsley Wood, we have the Prince of Liquorice Charcoal, the original yummy Brummie, the cook with the kudos ... Glynn Purnell.
Two surreal worlds will collide when Purnell opens his second solo restaurant in Birmingham, just weeks before the official ribbon-cutting at the mega Jamie’s Italian in mid-October.
It’s local hero versus international superstar. Both are 35 and both are devoted family men.
Purnell and Jamie also share a passionate belief in promoting young talent, perhaps a consequence of the fact that success came to them at a precociously young age. They subscribe to cuisine with a conscience.
Jamie is famous for his crusade against crappy school catering and his Fifteen Restaurant concept, which operates as a social enterprise. Last year, he gave away £2.7 million in charitable donations, equivalent to 4.2 per cent of his wealth.
Purnell, as far as we are aware, is yet to make his first million but he talks of wanting to put something back into the city where he has made his mark. He hopes The Asquith will give the next generation of culinary talent both a grounding and a launch pad
Purnell is proud of his humble roots on a Chelmsley Wood estate and is blindly devoted to Birmingham City FC. In a fight, he’ll always be in the Blue-nosed corner.
In practical terms, the two dining propositions from Purnell and Jamie couldn’t be more different.
The Asquith, set in the suburban Edgbaston, will have only 34 covers. Jamie’s Italian, in the heavily branded Bullring, will probably turn over a few hundred on a busy day.
The businesses won’t be in direct competition but the timing of the two openings should make a fascinating sub-plot in Birmingham’s on-going gastronomic drama.
For Purnell, the devil will be in the detail. Fresh bread will be baked in-house and produce will be sourced to the same exacting standards as those he requires at Purnell’s, his Michelin-starred city centre restaurant.
But the biggest challenge will be for the chef to let go. He may be a super chef but even Purnell isn’t super human: he can only cook in one kitchen at a time. A young gun is being brought in as head chef at The Asquith and Purnell will have to trust him implicitly.
Purnell said: “You have got to grow up. I love cooking at the moment. All I am ever going to do is cook at Purnell’s for the rest of my life.”
But he accepts he is not going to develop as a restaurateur and an individual unless he branches out.
“It is going to be difficult for me, but you can’t go through life without taking a risk. It is going to be a big learning curve for me. I have got to let go sometime,” said Purnell.
Privately, he has long harboured a dream of a second restaurant, pitched not in competition with Purnell’s but aimed at a more informal level of dining.
I’ve had a sneak preview of some of the dishes he is working on and they sound like crowd-pleasers. There is a reworking an ox cheek Rossini.
The Asquith – named after the property’s popular local name, Asquith House – will be curing its own salmon to use with a classic mayonnaise-style sauce gribiche, with capers and herbs.
Another dish features a poached egg, chorizo purée, a salad of cauliflower and spinach and a foam of goats’ cheese. There will be fish dishes and a Sunday lunch service, which the chef insists will not consist of “overcooked veg and **** [rare Purnell expletive] meat.”
There will be a “really nice but simple” crème caramel with a pot of autumnal fruits and almond.
It will be less “fancy” cooking than Purnell’s but, Glynn Purnell being Glynn Purnell, it will be far from pedestrian. “We are going to be ambitious. If I make a cheese sandwich, it will be the best cheese sandwich you have ever eaten,” added the chef, with trademark under-statement.
The only downside to the venture is that it means the closure of Pascal’s, where I enjoyed eating on a number of occasions.
Sunday lunch was very good. Pascal’s was awarded a bib gourmand by the Michelin Guide in 2008 and 2009. It was the only Birmingham restaurant to get the accolade for “good food at moderate prices.”
I wouldn’t bet against The Asquith emulating this success, and doing so very quickly, but it is sad to see the closure of Pascal’s.
Purnell has the reputation to pull in the punters, even by association. Wait for property values in the B16 neighbourhood to soar.
So whose corner would a cowardly food critic rather be in? Glynn Purnell’s or Jamie Oliver?
Why Purnell’s, of course. I mean, he actually does box. Terrific body shots, by all accounts. He’d make mincemeat of Jamie, which would be ideal for one of the Italian food-lover’s Neapolitan sauces.