Luke Tipping, Simpsons, Birmingham

The  Staff Canteen
Luke Tipping is the executive chef and recently promoted director of Simpsons restaurant, a Michelin starred restaurant with rooms in Edgbaston, Birmingham. Luke describes the restaurant’s French cuisine as natural, seasonal and free flowing, using nothing in his menu that is not in season. The restaurant also has three AA rosettes. Luke’s father was a chef and he grew up in and around restaurants. Besides a few stages in Chicago, Lyon and Holland, his career has mostly been focused in Birmingham, unusual when many of his peers often move to London after college. His career began with a placement in a kitchen arranged for him by his father and he supplemented this with a course at Halesowen catering college. He met the chef and restaurateur Andreas Antona while both worked at the renowned Plough and Barrow restaurant in Birmingham, which he started at in 1984. After long careers there, they both left the restaurant and Andreas set up Simpsons in Kenilworth, with Luke joining him. The restaurant won a Michelin star in 1999 and moved to Edgbaston in 2004, retaining its star ever since. He was awarded a professorship in Culinary Arts in 2010 by University College Birmingham. First and foremost Luke wonderful to come and see you in Birmingham. Welcome. Perhaps we can start by you outlining your role here at Simpsons, number in your team, your responsibilities, number of covers that type of thing, general overview of Simpsons. Well my role is executive chef. I've recently been made a director which is great"¦. Congratulations. "¦through my long service here at Simpsons. So you didn't get the carriage clock then Luke, you got a directorship? Yeah, which is probably worth a bit more to me in the long term, but yes so I'm more "Chef" then "Chef Director". I'm still very hands on in the kitchen, over seeing, the kitchen, I like moving round and I tend to operate the sauce section, which keeps my hand in, I'm certainly not one for sitting in the office, well not just yet!!! Simpson's has a team of 14 chefs in the brigade, that's includes some part timers, which are from the local colleges. So my role then, even though I'm predominantly in the kitchen, has been extended to look after the whole operation, supporting the great team we've got here at the Simpsons . So you look after front of house as well? We've got a great restaurant manager and an office team I'm quite interactive, with them and of course with the customers. Through my length of time here at Simpsons, I know what Andreas wants from the business and hopefully I can support the restaurant manager, Tony and the team.  Luke, I've always understood where Simpsons was located, I just hadn't quite got my head round possibly everything that was here. Just talk us through the operation. You've got a cookery school, the number of covers you do, that type of thing. We've got a cookery school or a demonstration school, which ever you prefer There's no actual cookers in there, but we're trying to reintroduce a hands on approach, so making pasta and things like that, tarts for desserts feature at the demonstartions. So that takes up the weekend for us"¦ Who is your market for that? Is it ladies that lunch ? Not really it's all sorts. It's very voucher orientated, It presents an opportunity for someone who's into food to have a great present or receive a great present. You could come for a meal, or perhaps buy them a book ? So it's very much led by people who've been to the Simpsons, and think, "˜Oh that's a brilliant idea we'll give it to someone as a present.' We've had people who've have been given a voucher for a wedding present. So it's not marketed at one single market. We also have so many young guys coming now, just groups of a couple of lads coming to the demonstrations, which is great to see I think the way food is going nowadays people they all want to part of that. People use the demonstration, as part of a day at Simpsons, they can come round, they have a show around the operation, they can go in the kitchen, have a chat with the chefs as they work, whatever. They can see what we do and just to see how we operate. The dems also involve wine tastings, and everyone goes away a little bit merrier than when they started. So it's all great fun really. Let's talk about the food here at Simpsons. It's kind of iconic in Birmingham, the name Simpsons, and as you say you've been here in this location 15 years? Well no not quite we've been running as Simpsons for about 17 I think now. We've been here"¦this is into our seventh year, we were previously at Kenilworth for ten years before that. So talk us through the food style how has that evolved and where would you say you are today with your food? I know no one likes to pigeonhole their food but how would you describe your food style? I suppose we're very influenced by current trends. I heard an interview by Liam Gallagher yesterday on Radio 2, which I thought was very apt, he said, "You know our music is"¦" I think that's amazing that Liam Gallagher's now on Radio 2. Well yeah exactly that says something doesn't it . He's obviously calmed down a bit. I thought what he said relates to us a little bit, he said, "I'd like our music to be listened to in ten years time but it could also have been listened to ten years ago," and I'd like to think our food's pretty much like that. I could really relate to what he was saying, we've obviously got a block of recipes that we've used, we look back at those and we take them forward where we can. So what he said in that Radio 2 interview I thought was pretty much what I could say for our food here in Simpsons. Give us an example of a traditional Simpsons' dish. What would you say at the moment on your menu says, "Yeah this is Simpsons?" Oh we've got"¦we do a dish, of Foie Gras and banana"¦ Really? "¦which"¦ Wow. Exactly and everyone says, "Wow, wow,". We recently went to dinner at Heston's and obviously Heston is into all this sort of old revivalising the old classics, but I found a foie gras and banana recipe in an old Larousse Gastronomique I've got which dates back to 1894, I thought, "˜Well that's got legs, I could work with that.' And it had a few other additions, truffles and things so we've sort of had it on a number of years, Glynn (Purnell) will remember foie gras and banana. It was a dish we first did back at the Kenilworth site, but it's evolved with us, and we've moved it forwards, we've worked on the banana purée and now we do it with some salted pecans. It's evolved from probably eight, nine years ago, it's been off the menu and on the menu and people, always comment "Foie gras and banana I've never heard of that"¦" Yeah absolutely. "¦but then everyone, well I think everyone loves it but that's sort of a dish that we work with but, I think now it might have reached it's pinnacle though, perhaps as far as we can take it. But sometimes that's the right thing to do isn't it? Sometimes there comes a point when"¦ You've got to know when to stop yeah. Yeah because I think chefs are continually saying, "What does it need? What does it need?" and sometimes it doesn't need anything. I think with our maturity now at Simpsons, I've worked here a long time, I think our maturity has helped to slow us down a little bit , our food here at Simpsons has got a lot simpler, even in the last two or three years, we ask ourselves what can I take away, far more than what can I add"¦ But that comes with confidence doesn't it? Exactly yes, and the confidence grows over time and we've got some great lads in the kitchen, you've just met Matt the sous chef and obviously Adam who you know. It's important we're singing off the same hymn sheet, we're going in the same direction, which, because we've been working together for so long now we support each other and we know when to stop. Let's talk a little bit about you then. So everybody knows you as chef/director of Simpsons or head chef at Simpsons, executive chef, but give us a little bit about your background, you're obviously a Birmingham lad, staunch Birmingham supporter when did it all start for you? Well it's a strange one really because I was brought up in restaurants. My father was a chef, bless him, he's no longer with us but I used to live above restaurants and my brother"¦ In Birmingham? In Birmingham yes. He was chef at the Plough and Harrow years ago The Plough and Harrow had a great reputation didn't it? It did yes...And he ran his own little restaurants around the city and so I was pretty much brought up in restaurants, I never really got to know him that well because because he was very work, work, work and he had to keep a roof over our heads and it was in the 70s when the Labour government and a three day week and miners' strike and"¦ Everyone in Birmingham was on strike. Exactly yeah and so it was very difficult time, for his restaurant, and he used to finish in the restaurant, and then go and work in a club to make ends meet and so it was very difficult period. But it wasn't really fashionable in those days either was it being a restaurateur? No, no, well I don't think it was very fashionable when I first started really. I first started in 84 at the Plough and Harrow and it wasn't, anything like it was now, you know you were a chef and that was it you just got on with it. So has all your career been based in Birmingham? Pretty much yeah, I've done various stages and stuff I did a little bit in Chicago, Lyon, and also in Holland for a little while. So just pretty much yes based here in Brum. But to go back to when I left school the last thing I wanted to do was become a chef, I thought, "˜Well I don't want to be brought up like that,' you know my brother was in the trade, he's front of house and still is. He works in Bath I'd seen, how hard my father had worked and I said, "˜Well if ever I grow up and have children I don't want to bring my kids up like this.' So that taught me a massive amount, in the way that I bring my kids up today. It wasn't until I was about 20 or so that actually my brother"¦ I suppose it's not what you know it's who you know, my brother got me a job at the Plough and Harrow as a commis chef there. So up until you were 20 then what were you doing just bumming around? Yeah pretty much so, which I don't regret at all, because I used to go to Birmingham City, home and away, and I had a good time. I had part time jobs to make ends meet. It's difficult isn't it as a young lad you leave school at 16, your mates are out drinking, socialising, chasing women, all those things that young people want to do and chefs are chained to a bloody stove"¦ Yeah how the young lads in the kitchen do it now I don't know, I think, "˜You should go out and see a bit when you're young,' do you know what I mean? My guys are there for all hours in the day, and so that sort of scared me a little, when I was there age, but I knew I had to catch up quickly, because I was 20, 21 and I thought, "˜Well I'd better get my arse into gear now,' so I was at, they say the best place in Birmingham (Plough and Harrow) which back then, everyone who's anyone who came back from London who'd been to the Savoy and the Ritz, The Dorchester, these culinary institutions, they all came back if they were from Birmingham, and tried to get a job at the Plough and Harrow because it was"¦ "¦it was the iconic place. It was yes. And so I thought, "˜Well I'll learn a bit from these guys, from what they had in turn learnt in London ,' I'd got a girlfriend here in Birmingham, who's obviously now my wife, well not obviously!!! But she is my wife and we've been married 18 years, and she's supported me all the way through. So I was  20, 22 and I was at catering college, I really was a late starter, but I thought, "˜ I really need to get my arse into gear.' So it was just a case of absorbing books, there was no internet back then. So it was classic books like the Larousse and the repertoires and just trying to absorb as much knowledge and trying to get my head down really. So that's how it started for me. Do you think then because you've always been based in Birmingham and here you are as a head chef of a Michelin star restaurant is there still a need for people when they come out of college to go to London? I mean you and I, I'm probably a bit older than you, but we were always taught you've got to go to London, is that the case now? I don't think so, no. I think I wasn't 100% sure whether it was when I left college. I never went and I've done okay so"¦!!!! Absolutely you've done very well whereas Adam obviously did the London thing. Adam (Bennett) did the London thing he was at the Dorchester, and of course Andreas who owns Simpsons was at Ritz and so I think the London thing is very"¦ well I wouldn't hold it against anyone who had done it"¦ But it's not a necessity. "¦I think it's good for probably the lifestyle and the culture and the speed and maybe the aggression because obviously in Birmingham and Glynn will tell you we're a much softer aspect. It's a different beast in London. Exactly yeah we're a softer more provincial bunch down here and life goes a bit easier, I guess it's horses for courses I think if you're into that, and a lot of people can be very successful, down in London, because that's where the money is, but if you can make it in your own way somewhere like Birmingham then I think it suits who you are. I mean Birmingham has obviously changed massively from the days your father had a restaurant here and as you've mentioned you've got Glynn you've got yourselves, you've now got the Asquith, you've got Steve Love, you've got Richard Turner, it's become quite interesting food-wise now Birmingham isn't it? Yeah, yeah. But it's also a massively diverse culture here isn't it as well? Oh it's huge yeah. Does that reflect in your cooking as well? Yeah we go through stages of it because Adam's wife's Indian as well so he's very switched up on that style of food"¦we did have a spell when we were very heavily influenced in sort of Chinese/Indian cultural cuisine, but then we made a conscious effort to go back to our roots I guess, back to a Frenchish way because that's where we are, as I said before, it was all driven by French classical base but yeah we dive in and out but we try not to mix and match it too much really. Who inspires you now as a chef Luke? I mean you mentioned earlier you went to dinner, who do you look at and say, "I really like that food I can take something from that." Who do you think is setting the scene at the moment? Obviously the Spanish guys they're very much at the forefront"¦but we're not that, you know, we're who we are, we're good cooks I think, we're not scientific in that way. Are we playing with food too much now? For me there's a market for it"¦ Sure. "¦but it's certainly not what my customers are looking for. Are we not in danger of the next generation of chefs wanting to come out and only know about spherifications and reverse spherifications? Well that's the worry isn't it yeah definitely. Everything cooked at 65 degrees for ten hours and"¦ Yeah there is a worry about this and there's the sort of art of cookery is lost but I think the percentage of that is smaller than the percentage of good honest cooking. It's all about ingredients for us and we work a little bit in innovation on cookery methods, we're not sort of slaves to the water bath. When they appeared we didn't buy ten and cook everything in one, but we use one and of course they have their place. So I think we're old enough and wise enough to find our own sort of way in how things are cooked. Again you take a little bit and leave a little bit. But equally you mentioned earlier you're doing a lot of things like slow cooking but you're cooking what I would take in a traditional way in an oven"¦ Yeah. "¦but slow cookery's nothing new is it? Oh no. We've been slow cooking for hundreds of years. Yeah there's the hay box method and things like this yeah cooking in a blooming big pot in the ground yeah it's nothing new but"¦ And this is like your banana and foie gras isn't it? You take something that's got a very, very original time band concept and you bring it into today's world. Exactly yeah bring it into today's world. Simpsons has been iconic here I mean where does Simpsons go now? What does the next five years hold for you guys? Well we've got a new book coming out which should be out in the summer. Andreas has just, it's in its infancy, but we've got a beef, steak restaurant at one of the old sites in Kenilworth. So we're working on that more than Simpsons. I suppose to coin a phrase it's business as usual at Simpsons, we do what we do and try and keep that running and progressing, keep evolving and taking it forward but the plans are to take beef forward . Beef is the name of the restaurant and it's nothing really to do with me or my role at Simpsons, Adam the Head Chef, it's his project, he's involved in that more than myself. But what about you then more press more PR, more exposure? Well we're looking at hopefully trying to get some TV work, I've got a few demonstrations coming up through the summer, to try and get a bit of filming going on, perhaps freshen up some of the old faces on the TV, but who knows I don't know if this face is fit for it really but"¦ A face for radio ((laughs)). Yeah that's it exactly who knows but yeah it would be nice to do a bit of that, you know, I don't wake up every morning thinking I want to be on the telly, I sort of cringe sometimes when I do see it and I thought well it might be good, it'd be good for the restaurant, but this is what it's all about for me, running Simpsons, and keeping this going and keeping the boys happy. Fantastic. Well listen it's been great to talk to you thank you very, very much. Thank you cheers Mark thank you. No my pleasure, my absolute pleasure. Cheers.
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th April 2011

Luke Tipping, Simpsons, Birmingham