Ahead of the publication of his first book, Birmingham’s Michelin-starred chef and TV personality Glynn Purnell talks to Schön! about sacrifice, systems and sous-vide cooking.
In 2011, the BBC raised eyebrows when it announced Birmingham as the foodie capital of the UK, but that was no fluke, because The New York Times subsequently named the city in its list of the world’s top twenty travel destinations, largely on the basis of its diverse cuisine. Britain’s second city now has four restaurants that can boast a Michelin star, and the jewel in its culinary crown is chef Glynn Purnell, who won the first.
“When I opened in Birmingham in 2003, it was a culinary desert,” he says, in the thickest of Brummy accents. “By the time I was 30, I had a Michelin star at Jessica’s, the first one in the city centre, a little house and a son. Two years later, I walked away from my Michelin star, remortgaged the house and put it all on the line to buy Purnell’s. We’re now nearly seven years old.” Purnell shows me around the kitchen ahead of a typically busy Saturday dinner service. There is a healthy level of banter, but none of the hypermacho plate throwing antics of gastronomic stereotype. Purnell may be the head chef, but says that “because the systems have been put in place since the day we opened, generally, it runs like clockwork.”
In person, Purnell is as engaging, funny and chaotic as his dishes are refined, elegant and rich. He’s becoming a household name, via The Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen, amongst other popular shows, and 25 years into his career, he’s written his first book. Cracking Yolks and Pig Tales contains over 110 recipes, punctuated with jocular anecdotes and high-definition food photography. “I was being courted by a couple of publishers, but then I met Kyle [Cathie, MD of Kyle Books], who was very, very interested in the way I cook, the way I think, and my stories,” he says. “I had a big input in the design and we had a fantastic team from the designers to the editing to the publishers themselves, so that’s another part of my life that can literally be shelved.”
Purnell introduces me to each station, whilst talking me through the journey a boat-caught monkfish makes from the waters of Brixham, Devon, to table six, in one day. Sous-vide cooking (a process in which the product is vacuum-sealed and cooked in a water bath at 63 degrees Celsius) sounds exhausting, but his simple explanation makes me question why people don’t use it more, in the home as well as in restaurants. “Sometimes on television I might do something simpler because I want to encourage people to cook and be a bit more adventurous, whereas in the restaurant I like to do things for people that they can’t do at home.
“What we don’t do is use a technique just because it’s fashionable. We cook in a way that we believe is getting the best out of the produce, so by cooking the monkfish sous-vide, we think it comes out a lot better than if I’d simply pan roasted it. The spices will scorch, it will overcook on the outside quicker, so by sous-vide- ing and salting it, the ingredients sing. If the modern technique doesn’t enhance the old technique, we stick to the old.”
A working class, six-foot-one Birmingham City football fan with a keen interest in mixed martial arts, Purnell applies the purées and garnishes to his plates with an inversely fine dexterity. His plates look like they were found pristine in the wild. “It’s nice to let the ingredient look like the ingredient, without too much manipulation,” he says. “If you just drop a piece of fish onto a plate and it falls apart, let it fall apart. If it wants to be there, it’s going to be there. Because it’s so natural-looking, it feels comfortable to eat.”
Perhaps what makes Purnell most special is his mixing of high and low cultures. From helpless giggles brought on by his rendition of a French classic, the ‘Remoulade 2012’, to gasps of awe at the presentation of his ‘Mint Choccy Chip’, his food is as full of humour, technical rigour and personality as he is. Every dish truly is Glynn Purnell on a plate.
Cracking Yolks and Pig Tales is published by Kyle Books, 2014
Words / Paul John Mendez Photography / Laura Edwards