Richard Turner, Turners Restaurant, Birmingham

The  Staff Canteen

 Richard Turner runs Turners, his small, self-titled restaurant in Harborne, Birmingham.

He opened the restaurant in 2007 and it won a Michelin star after just two years. Surprisingly for a Michelin chef, he is self-taught, having gained his experience locally. The other thing which he believes sets him apart from other Michelin chefs is his focus on flavour rather than gimmicks.

“To me it’s all about the flavour on the plate, which ultimately comes from quality ingredients, and respect in the kitchen,” he says. His restaurant style is attentive, friendly, and welcoming to seasoned food-o-philes and newcomers alike, and his food is described as ‘Modern British with French influences’ largely from Richard’s forays into France. Like many chefs, Richard’s first experience in the industry was as a dishwasher. One day his boss, James Thomas, the owner of Thrales in Lichfield at the time, asked if he would like a go in the kitchen and that was his start. He took a Youth Training Scheme and stayed at Thrales for nine years before moving to a restaurant in Four Oaks for four years until finally opening Turners. Richard has also appeared as Head Chef on ITV's 'Britain’s Best Dish' and on stage at the region’s food shows.  

Richard Turner, first and foremost thanks for inviting me in. My pleasure. I understand you had a traumatic time over Christmas with your house burning down literally just a few days before resulting in you and your wife being effectively ‘homeless’ over Christmas – tell us what happened and how you dealt with that?

Yeah, that was certainly traumatic. I was on service just before Christmas, and a neighbour called to say my house was on fire, I thought he was joking, but he was nt. We lost almost everything and spent most of Christmas in hotels in the City. I even spent one night sleeping on the floor of the restaurant in my whites – it certainly focusing the mind and makes you appreciate what you do have.  It’s given me the focus to change a few things, and go back to what is important. Amongst other things, I’m re-introducing the original a la carte that gained us our Michelin Star 4 years ago, and will be holding a charity event in the Spring for local home-less people. We have also even had a rebrand and new website re-launch – I think the phrase is out with the old in with the new! (laughter)

Richard, Give us an overview of Turners, how long you've been here, your food style, just a brief overview of Turners.

We’ve been open fo just over four years we were originally going to be a little local neighbourhood bistro but we changed it. Stick me in the kitchen and the thought of doing ruddy Steak Frites all day would drive me up the wall

Would your bank manager have been happier if you were doing it that way?

Well no to be honest we've only got 24 covers so to try and get the amount of money would have been tough… So you have to maximise the space. You’d have to turn the tables over three times a night. Okay fair comment. And that's not really what I wanted to do. So we've evolved into what we are now. We bought the restaurant and now you couldn’t buy a semi-detached house for what we paid for this and we inherited a lot of the stuff and we've kind of evolved.

Was it a restaurant when you bought it?

It was a restaurant before but it had horrible quarry tile floors. It was one of the only restaurants I'd walked into where I wiped my feet on the way out. It was minging. So we cleaned it up. We've had a carpet put down, we've got Villeroy and Boch cutlery, crockery it was very much an acorn and it’s hopefully blossoming into an oak tree but we are a little local restaurant… we do what we do and we're very conscious about the fact that it is the food that's the main thing here. I never wanted to go about a restaurant where people felt like they felt uncomfortable, because there's this misconception that when you start cooking at this level the chefs are God. I always say that if someone comes in and gets drunk and falls off their seat we’ll always pick them back up. It’s that kind of environment..

You have been incredibly successful, Michelin star but one of the points you made there 24 covers, does 24 covers at a point become restrictive because you know at the end of the day you can only sell so many tables. Yes you can upsell them another bottle of wine, you can upsell them more water.

I mean yeah it does become restrictive because I could probably do another 15 covers with the same amount of staff that I've got.

That's my point.

By the time you take the food and liquor costs off it then obviously the majority of that would be profits but in reality we're looking at moving at the moment to possibly another 20 covers with a private dining room, that's in the pipeline but it’s served a purpose for us. We do what we do, customers seem to enjoy it. I enjoy it

If  you  had to pigeonhole the genre of your food style what would you say? I know no one likes doing that but…

Well I am, you read the Michelin guide it says I'm a classically French trained chef and I am.

And there's nothing wrong with that at all.

We're starting to embrace new cooking techniques and we use water baths now where if you’d told me that two years ago that I'd be using a water bath I'd have told you fuck off out of it

I've only just got here (laughs). 

The food is modern English with a French twist. I am a firm believer in cooking with the seasons. Saturday nights we just to do a tasting menu. So Saturday night the meats we had on were venison and we had all the truffles on, we had pears on, quince on, figs, so it is based around the seasons because I fucking hate going to a restaurant where they serve you asparagus in February or raspberries in November.

Give us a dish that's on the menu right now then that typifies you and your food style.

We've got terrine of foie gras at the moment with quince, pear, little meringues with some Szechwan pepper on the top, some brioche on the side and some foraging with all the salads, rather than using peaches and everything else.

Has foraging become the new chef bandwagon?

No I think it’s like anything in life isn’t it a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing, the same thing with the water bath, kids nowadays just think you throw everything in a water bath. Hey presto there you go.

65 degrees, 15 hours and everything’s cooked.

I think it’s very much a case you have to find out what works for you. I think it’s too easy for everyone to buy the Noma cookbook and think they’re f***ing René Redzepi well they ain't are they, I can’t walk out of here and get a stone off the high street and serve them langoustines so I have to cut my cloth accordingly

You have to remember that you’re a 24 cover restaurant in Harbourne and you’re not in the centre of London and therefore it’s important also surely to give the customer what they want.

Well it is and I think that's probably one of our strengths is the fact that our customers have come with us. They trust me now I think, more than when we first opened. We put dishes on the menu that four or five years ago if you were trying to sell them people would have said, “Well I ain't paying money for…I’m not ready for snails with venison, “So I think the city is getting better and I think our customers trust us but it’s…I suppose I cook for myself and my customers because I know what I like when I go out to eat and I know what they like when I go out to a restaurant and I know what I don’t like.

What’s your background then Richard?

I suppose you could say I'm mainly self taught, I worked in and around the city and I haven't gone down the route of two, three stars and I've just really worked in small independent restaurants I did a small time at a place called Fawsley Hall

I know Fawsley Hall, Northampton. Who was the chef when you were there?

I was the chef. Oh you were the chef. I started off working for a guy called Jonathan Barron who now works for Wellocks And obviously Johnny worked for Marco at the Canteen and the Waterside. But I am really self taught. I do what I …

Okay who inspires you as a chef then?

Who inspires me? Well the first one was the same one as everybody else of my age and it was Marco. I mean as far as everyone else I mean I just…

But who now do you look for in books or internet or whatever?

The Square, Ledbury, people like that. That is Philip Howard to me is the epitome of what…very similar to what we're trying to do here, Phillip is certainly not a bad mentor. I always say if you want to see when something is first in season look on the Square website because he's the first one that has seeds on and he's the first one that has morels on, the first one that has ceps and that is what I try and do.

Philip has been doing what he does exceptionally well for a number of years and that's why the Square is such a bloody success.

But when you read his menus they’re interesting.

He's a cook, cook.

And it’s all about seasonality

Richard your business, your name above the door, 24 covers, how much of a businessman have you become?

I've been more of a businessman over the last six months than I did over the first four years.

Really what’s changed?

You have to be don’t you because you realise you’re working like a f***ing dog every week and you’re not making any dough out of it, it’s the bottom line,

Absolutely that's why I asked.

And chefs are I mean I was with Luke Tipping from Simpsons the other day Andy from Edwins, David from Opus and we all said the same thing. We're all very good chefs and not many of us are very good businessmen and you have to be…and it is when you open your own restaurant you stand in the kitchen for 18 hours a day thinking everything’s hunky dory and then you look at the books at the end of the month and you can see whether you’re making any money out of it, so you have to.

Has the recession changed you?

This year's probably been the most difficult year for us to be honest with you.

Have you had to change what you do?

No we went the other way and I put the bloody prices up months ago.

Did you?

Purely and simply, we were charging and there were certain quarters the city that have slated me for it but we were doing a dinner menu for £50 a head and I sat down here one night and worked out by the time I'd taken the VAT off it someone was basically giving me two £20 notes for working 18 hours a day, do you know what I mean I'm not in the business of ripping people off.

But if you want to survive you’ve got to make a profit. There's nothing wrong with making a profit.

Yeah and we use quality produce. We use scallops, langoustines, Scotch beef, and I think we've had to cut our cloth slightly different ways obviously on the lunch menus and you have to look at the cheaper cuts but at the end of the day you can't polish a turd can you. I mean you've got to buy…and the problem we have now, I put short rib of beef on the other day which used to be a cheap cut of meat and now all of a sudden short rib’s more expensive than a fillet.

Well this is the problem it’s supply and demand so all butchers are looking at other cuts and thinking we’ve got a big demand for this, they’re not buying fillet so I need to put the price up.

And the last year has been difficult and I don't think everybody necessarily realises it you know, 20% on VAT, I mean don’t get me started on that.

Yeah sure that must be a killer.

Absolutely ridiculous.

Because it’s difficult to pass that on isn’t it?

Well you can’t pass it on, I think we're probably at a ceiling level now where we've gone as far as we can. It goes back to the ethos of the restaurant the customer is king and we do whatever we can to try to make the customer feel welcome and we give the customer as much as we can canapés we do the amuse bouche, the pre dessert..

You were recently named personally in the New York Times top places to visit this year list, with Birmingham coming 19th – what are your thoughts on that?

It’s great for the city of Birmingham to gain more recognition for its culinary skills, we have some great restaurants and chefs around the City, but wouldn’t it be great for one of our fantastic Asian restaurants to gain some recognition, or even a second star from someone

Last question then for you Richard if I can, you've got a crystal ball where are you going to be in five years time?

I'd like to say lying on a beach in Barbados but that ain't going to happen.

I'd like to say I'd be lying next to you, not literally but…(laughs)

I need a wing man butler to put my suntan lotion on yeah. Probably in a slightly bigger restaurant, like I say with a private dining room and something that sets me and my family up for life I would have thought.

Well look thank you very much I wish you every success. It’s great to come and meet you. Thank you very, very much indeed.

My pleasure.

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th February 2012

Richard Turner, Turners Restaurant, Birmingham