He’s been branded one of the trailblazers of new British cooking, but at the heart of Glynn Purnell’s success is his refusal to take himself too seriously.
If he’s not cracking jokes and reeling off witty anecdotes, the ‘Yummy Brummie’ is referring to himself as the Roger Federer of Birmingham’s imploding culinary scene.
“Do you know what I mean?” he asks, with a cheeky grin.
“I’m always going to be remembered as something that broke the mould; the one who was awarded the first ever Michelin star in Birmingham [which happened in 2005, while he was head chef at Jessica’s in Edgbaston],” says the forward-thinker.
“I’m still in the mix, so I like to see myself as a Roger Federer: I won’t be No 1 all of the time, but it’s great,” the 41-year-old adds, chuckling. “Competition is great!”
And having achieved his childhood goal – “I never had any interest in passing GCSEs because I knew I was going to be a chef” – it seems Purnell, who today runs the Michelin-starred Purnell’s restaurant and Purnell’s Bistro in Birmingham’s thriving city centre, has plenty to smile about.
His latest venture is the brilliantly-titled cookbook Rib Ticklers & Choux-Ins, a follow-up to 2014’s Cracking Yolks & Pig Tales, and a tome he says was inspired by the more down-to-earth dishes served at his bistro, or “takeaway food at home”.
Written with trademark wit, chapters range from ‘This little piggy went to market’ to ‘A moment on the lips’. It’s infused with brunch, fish, meat and knockout dessert recipes, and peppered with yarns about perfecting his skills through years of reading women’s magazines at the dentist, and why he has such a vendetta against sprouts.
“It’s important as a chef to have your own personality, but then to be able to put that personality onto the page makes you different,” reasons Purnell, who credits his publishers with giving him the creative freedom to put out a book that “sounds as if I’m talking to you”.
“When I stop running restaurants, and when I stop doing what I’m doing, I want people to look back and go, ‘Oh look, that’s a Glynn Purnell dish’, or when they come to the restaurant and eat a dish, they know they’re not going to get that anywhere else in the world.
“It’s important to keep hold of your personality,” he continues. “I’ve been cooking in Michelin-star restaurants nearly all of my career, and chefs always want to perceive themselves as being a bit aggressive. I’ve moved on from that.
“I don’t need to push my chest out and act like some sort of big grumpy chef that throws plates at people, because times have changed. For me, food is fun; you should have fun.
“Some chefs should smile a bit more – it wouldn’t kill them!”
And a sense of joy is certainly a trait the father-of-three – Purnell has sons Oliver, 11, and Vincent, five, and eight-year-old daughter, Esme, with his wife, Kerry – is keen to encourage at home, too.
Residing in Warwickshire – “out in the sticks” – he fondly recalls weekends spent blackberry picking with his kids (and Whoops the family Jack Russell), to the slightly more obscure but spectacular tales of Esme requesting the “pretty” head of a dead pheasant to fashion a princess wand with, and Oliver’s award-winning show-and-tell session, in which he presented a boiled and bleached pig’s head.
His kids are foodies too, he states.
“They like the way it brings us all together. They love cooking and they’re pretty clued up as well. If we go somewhere, they’ll say, ‘Oh Dad, that doesn’t taste nice – there isn’t enough…’, and I’m just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve created little food critics!'”
Revered for his long-standing culinary commitment to University College Birmingham and their Young Chef of the Year competition, plus hosting duties on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen and ITV’s newly-announced Secret Chef, due next year, can he see himself finding time to expand the brand – perhaps for the Purnell juniors?
“I never say never,” he retorts with a glint. “I think other cities are quite daunting, because everybody knows of me [in Birmingham]. If I went to London, would I just get swallowed up?
“I’m going to keep moving forward and carry on being the chirpy Brummie I always am!”
Fancy dishing up some of Birmingham’s finest at home? Here are three recipes from Purnell’s new book to get stuck in to…
2tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cinnamon stick
1tsp black onion seeds
1tsp ground ginger
1 rack of pork belly ribs, cut into individual ribs
150g caster sugar
50ml white wine vinegar
50ml dark soy sauce
1tbsp (large) tomato ketchup
2 medium-hot chillies, roughly chopped
1tbsp chopped coriander
Squeeze of lime juice
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until softened but only lightly coloured.
Add the cloves, cinnamon, onion seeds and ginger to the pan and then add the ribs. Cover all the ingredients with two litres of cold water (or enough to cover the ribs), then simmer for 30-40 minutes until the meat is tender. Drain the ribs (you can reserve the cooking liquid to make a sauce for another dish).
Heat a large frying pan, add the sugar, vinegar and soy sauce and boil the mixture until reduced to a thick consistency.
Add the ketchup to the pan, then stir in the ribs, coating well with the glaze. Add the chillies, coriander and a squeeze of lime juice, then serve. The ribs can be served with egg noodles or jasmine rice.
A little tip – instead of ribs, buy pork belly on the bone. That way you get free ribs and probably the best part of the pig.
Cheese and potato pie gratin
200g clean, large-grained industrial white rock salt
6 medium-large baking potatoes, skin on, washed
Splash of vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
Knob of butter, plus 60g
310g hard mature Cheddar cheese, grated
100ml double cream
1tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp chopped spring onions
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
Sprinkle the salt onto a baking tray and place the potatoes on top.
Bake the potatoes for one-and-a-half hours, or until they are soft.
Remove the potatoes from the oven and leave to cool slightly, then cut in half, scoop out the potato into a bowl and beat until smooth. Reserve the skins.
Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole dish, add the onion and cook over a medium heat for two to three minutes. Add the knob of butter and cook for a further two minutes, then remove from the heat.
Add the potato, 250g of the cheese, the remaining 60g butter, the cream, milk, parsley and spring onions, then mix together and spread out in the casserole dish, smoothing the surface.
Cut the potato skins into strips and scatter over the potato mixture, then cover with the remaining 60g of cheese.
Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve with a salad or as a side dish for meat or fish.
White and dark chocolate cheesecake with banana ‘non’ ice cream
150g digestive biscuits, crushed
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
1/2tsp ground ginger
80g salted butter
400g soft cream cheese
50ml double cream
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways and seeds scraped out
150g white chocolate, melted
1 tablespoon brandy (or other brown spirit, such as dark rum)
150g dark chocolate, melted
For the banana ‘non’ ice cream:
3 ripe bananas
Splash of banana liqueur
1tbsp brown sugar
300ml whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks
Mix together the biscuits, cinnamon and ginger in a mixing bowl.
Melt the butter in a saucepan, then pour over the crushed biscuit mixture and mix together well.
Line the base of a 20-22cm flan tin with the biscuit mixture, pressing it down firmly using the back of a spoon, cover and chill in the fridge for two to four hours until firm.
Divide the cream cheese between two separate bowls.
Add the cream and vanilla seeds to one of the bowls and mix together, then fold the melted white chocolate into the cream cheese and vanilla mixture.
Add the brandy to the melted dark chocolate, then fold it into the other bowl.
Spoon the chocolate mixtures, alternating one at a time, onto the biscuit base, then take a spoon and swirl the mixture to create a marbled effect. Leave to set in the fridge for two hours.
For the banana ‘non’ ice cream, put the bananas in a blender and whiz to a smooth puree. Mix in the banana liqueur and sugar, then fold in the whipped cream.
Transfer the mixture to a lidded freezer-proof container and place in the freezer for about six hours until set. Stir occasionally while freezing.
Once both have set, cut the cheesecake into nice big slices and serve with a generous scoop of the banana ‘non’-ice cream.
Rib Ticklers & Choux-Ins by Glynn Purnell is available now.