Andreas Antona’s Simpsons and Glynn Purnell’s Jessica’s both earned a star in the Michelin Great Britain and Ireland 2005 guide; both have first class, highly professional teams; both are located in leafy Edgbaston, a prosperous suburb of Birmingham; both have chefs who have worked together in the past and have high ambitions for the future.
But there are major differences.
Simpsons is located by a roundabout and traffic lights, being easily visible to motorists. Jessica’s is more secluded and difficult to find, with little chance of passing trade. Simpsons is a classically proportioned Grade II listed Georgian mansion. Jessica’s, which occupies the rear half of a solid red brick Victorian House. Simpsons is a “Restaurant with Rooms”; Jessica’s has no accommodation.
Inside Simpsons, the grander scale is immediately noticeable, from the elegant entrance hall, via the impressive lounge to the main restaurant in the orangerie. This is emphasised by the generous spacing of tables, glazing onto the lawn, views into the kitchen and striking wall lights. There is room for 70 diners plus 20 in the private room. The limestone flooring in the orangerie and the French style cherry wood chairs add to the sense of extravagance and luxury. This theme is continued upstairs where four luxuriously styled en suite bedrooms – French, Oriental, Colonial and Venetian – provide an indulgent resting place. The French room in cream and blue is the grandest.
The contrast at Jessica’s is considerable. A back-gate entrance with understated name plaque, both easily missed, leads to two small dining rooms, one of which is a conservatory looking onto a small garden with a walled courtyard, giving it a rural feel. There is no bar or lounge and space for only 36 diners. Pale wooden floors and French windows define the room. Some of Glynn Purnell’s paintings decorate the walls.
Most importantly, their food styles and philosophies diverge. Simpsons is essentially classical with lighter touches. Dishes evolve over time with variations on well established themes. This reflects a more cautious approach, matched with a desire for consistency. Jessica’s is more adventurous, involving more risk taking with flavour combinations in order to move the culinary frontiers forward.
What both chefs and their teams share is a passion for food which makes running a restaurant not a job but a way of life. Let us hear from Andreas Antona first…Michelin Come to Birmingham Part II covers Glynn Purnell intereview and food review is here:
Comfortable, confident but never complacent, Andreas relaxes in his lounge whilst giving an interview. He grew up in West London, leaving school at 16 to take a two year cookery course at the local technical college. Working in the West End did not appeal, as he lived and grew up in London. Seeking pastures new, he spent two years in Zurich and five in Stuttgart. What struck him most were the regional variations in European cooking – far greater than was seen in the UK – and the considerable pride taken in the profession. Returning to London, Andreas worked under Anton Mosimann at the Terrace, Dorchester Hotel. He then worked at the Ritz for three and half years where he remembers the rumbles created when Michael Quinn was the first Englishman to be made Chef de Cuisine. There followed experience at two country house hotels near Bath, before arriving at the Plough and Harrow, then the “Connaught of the Midlands”
Successive take-overs by large hotel chains meant the food element at the Plough and Harrow was neglected, leading eventually to his decision to open Simpson’s in Kenilworth, following good advice from food writer Richard Binns. A bib gourmand was earned form Michelin, followed by a star. A desire to expand, seeking sites between Kenilworth and Birmingham, eventually led to the present site in Edgbaston.
He describes the Simpsons experience “a little bit of country house feel in the middle of the city”; indeed, it is just a mile from city centre.
He has good advice for budding restauranteurs. They should avoid aiming too high at the start, be it with décor, crockery or an extensive menu. Once they have established themselves as a viable business, then invest serious money in the establishment. This includes sourcing the very best ingredients – it took Andreas 8 to 10 years to do this – but it is an essential prerequisite for success at the higher levels. “Best” might not mean local or even British. He visits Rungis market in Paris at least once a year, building up strong relationships with suppliers there, as he does with those in the UK. Scallops form Bruce Shellfish in Scotland, Mallards from Lancashire and ceps – in the week of the interview – came from Edgbaston!
Even at the successful stage, it is best to have a limited menu and cook a la minute to retain freshness. Having an amuse bouche can give the kitchen time to do this effectively.
Andreas defines his style of cooking as “classical with lighter more contemporary elements,” which has not changed significantly since the award of a Michelin star. His dishes look simple, with uncluttered plates and clean flavours, but they are complex and involve a lot of effort in the kitchen.
The menu features some well established dishes; others change with seasons. The signature dish for Luke Tipping, Executive Chef, is seared scallops, a dish which has evolved over time and he and continues to be a best seller. A foie gras and banana starter has also proved very popular. Head Chef Alan Bennett sees his chocolate delice as one of his best dishes. In all of this, due credit denied to major influences ranging from the Larousse Gastronomique to Alan Ducasse.
Andreas and his team are sceptical about culinary fashions such as fusion, reviving British dishes with a twist, or molecular gastronomy. Nor is he keen on the current trend for a meal comprising a succession of small dishes: Spanish Tapas and Greek Mezes are, in his view, the only two cuisines that lend themselves to small courses, not haute cuisine.
Moreover, food is not the sole part of the restaurant experience: the ambiance and interaction are also important. He does not like stuffy restaurants, dispelling the myth the eating out experience has to be “posh”.
This love of French cuisine is sustained by his connections with Lyons, fostered by the Midlands Association of Chefs which he chairs. Andreas raves over its food markets, where even bulky produce is higher in quality than its UK equivalent. Smaller items are much better than found in the UK, he claims. Respect and tradition infuse the quality of the whole restaurant scene, be it boucherons or haute cuisine. Successive generations of the same family are involved in the restaurant trade in France, often maintaining consistently high standards of the same cuisine. This is so unlike the UK,which is more prone to changes in fashion, and where there are few well established families in the trade. There areexceptions like the Roux brothers, hence it is no surprise that the Waterside Inn at Bray is probably his favourite restaurant.
So would he like his own children to enter the profession? Andreas will support them if they so decide, but they will have to serve their apprenticeship and would not receive preferential treatment. Like himself, they must see it not as a job, but a way of life.
How does he and his team create a new dish? Evolution rather than revolution is the response. A scallop dish with sauce epices is taken further by Luke Tipping with the addition of sesame seeds to add texture, and given balance by an endive marmalade that cuts through sweetness. The team try not to be too adventurous outside their established repertoire. Whilst he concedes that while chefs can be influenced by each other’s dishes, the aim is not to replicate in its entirety. Andreas is an unashamed Mosimann disciple, with the influence of Italy, Japan and Switzerland.
His view of food critics is dismissive: the industry is a weak one for allowing them too much influence – and they make too much money off the backs of restauranteurs. Ultimately all reviews are subjective, but if some objective standards were introduced for both operators and customers this would be a step in the right direction.
As Godfather of Midland chefs, Andreas is rightly proud of the success of his protégés, notably Glynn Purnell of Jessica’s, Andy Waters of Edmonds in Henley in Arden and Luke Tipping, Executive Chef at Simpsons. The greatest godfathers, he claims, are the Roux brothers, and he is delighted to be compared with them. His protégés are passionate about their craft, the best in Midlands, and all were with him in Kenilworth. Luke has been with him 15 years and has developed into a “master craftsman”.
And what of the future? What Andreas certainly does not want is chain of Simpsons – “a one off is best.” Chains of restaurants drive down standards and “rule by fear” He agrees there are dangers to over expansion. Nevertheless, he wants to move forward, aiming possibly for inclusion in the Relais Gourmand group. His cookery school will expand and diversify: he sees a growing corporate market for his day course (demonstration, short activity such as wine tasting, and hosted gourmet lunch) being part of an entertainment package, and might move towards a series of more specialist courses with guest chefs. On the accommodation front, he aims to raise the occupancy rate, through natural, not forced growth.
But ultimately the aim must be for more stars. Although he does not cook for the guides, increased recognition from the ultimate arbiter a restaurants’ position would make him a very happy man.
Review of Simpsons Restaurant
Amuse bouche: Tronconnnettes of native lobster, coconut basmati rice, apples, sultana, red pepper, curry sauce. All the flavours were well defined, the beautifully soft crustacean being enhanced by subdued spicing in a broth-like sauce.
Seared scallops with a sesame crust endive salad and marmalade, lemon confit and sauce epice. The sweetness of the hand dived scallops contrasted well the bitterness of the endive. The sesame crust gave added texture and flavour, whilst the sauce provided a gentle lift. Like the lobster dish, the foundation was an impeccably fresh main ingredient.
Mini Baked potato and caviar – a decadent luxury but a perfect match!
Roast loin of Finnebrough venison, chestnut pasta, parsley root puree, savoy cabbage and truffle jus. This was a brilliant marriage of autumn flavours. The perfectly timed venison was not as gamey as other varieties, but the better for it. The chestnut pasta and accompaniments added to the robust earthiness to the dish.
Blue cheese foam, poached pear, walnut nougatine with classic taste combinations, this dish is a must for those who cannot chose between cheese and pudding. Muchlighter than it looks, it has airy, soft and crisp textures.
A tasting of four – full portion – desserts:
Pineapple pavlova, with coriander ice cream: It was fortunate that the coriander ice cream had a muted flavour allowing the flavour of the fruit based meringue to find an outlet. Chocolate delice – an unctuous dessert, reminiscent of Alan Ducasse’s Louis XV with praline. Possibly the coffee ice cream which accompanied it was gilding the lily? Panna cotta, coffee granita looked like an old fashioned knickerbocker glory but tasted much better, with two textures and flavours. Fine Apple tart with caramel sauce. This had a crisp crust with caramelised fruit: a French classic – not needing to reinvent the wheel.