Restaurateur Andreas Antona talks to Food Critic Richard McComb about training the next generation of kitchen talent in Birmingham.
I am sitting in a restaurant that specialises in steak but I don’t have to see the steak, let alone taste it, to know what it’s going to be like.
That is because I have just seen the chips and the chips tell you everything.
Before sitting down, I had asked myself: will they be Jenga chips, death-by-chips, those foul building-block potato constructions that were fashionable for three days in 1993 but have become the default chip for try-hard restaurants?
Or will they be proper chips, crisp and salty, like the French and the Belgians do, and like Brits used to do before the dark coming of the Jenga Years. Because if they’re Jenga, I tell you, I’m walking. I don’t care if the bloke sitting next to me owns the place. He’s not known for his meek demeanour and can trade expletives with the best of them, but the chips are the thing. Without good chips, you may as well bag up the steak and take it home for sarnies, however good it is.
Fortunately, the chips are good, just like they should be. We’re in a Land Before Jenga.
“It’s going to be fine,” I tell the boss, who smiles like the gangsters do in the Goodfellas, just before they get you with the cheese cutter.
My lunch companion is Andrea Antona, the boss of Simpsons restaurant and the founder of modern gastronomy in Birmingham.
Blimey, that’s a bit of a claim, isn’t it? Well, it is. And it’s true.
Antona, who learnt his craft under Anton Mosimann at The Dorchester and The Ritz, has schooled a golden generation of kitchen talent and inspired countless cooks. Other chefs are better known but have achieved far less.
Here are just a few of the leading professionals who have come under Antona’s wing and flourished: Luke Tipping, executive chef at Simpsons; Glynn Purnell; Marcus Eaves, of London’s Pied à Terre and his brother Jason, of The Asquith; Andy Waters, formerly of Edmunds, now of The Queens in Belbroughton. More recently, Claire Hutchings, a finalist in the BBC’s professional MasterChef competition, cut her teeth at Simpsons’ kitchen on Highfield Road.
Antona, who worked at the Plough and Harrow on the Hagley Road in its distant heyday, has been a tireless driving force in cooking advances in the city. If chefs haven’t worked for him, they have either been inspired by his example or have had to up their game to compete with Simpsons and the success stories its alumni have spawned.
We meet for lunch at his newish restaurant, a steakhouse, called Beef (what else?), in Kenilworth. It was here in north Warwickshire that Simpsons was founded by Antona before he relocated the Michelin-starred restaurant to Edgbaston. Beef opened last year and does what any number of new retro steakhouses have failed to do – it cooks very good steak. The place conveys a stripped-back Alpine ski-lodge vibe with hints of cowboy Montana: it’s St Moritz meets Brokeback Mountain.
Antona has ordered a couple of prime USDA steaks from Black Angus cattle. While we wait for our American steaks, a platter of steak tartare on toasted sour dough arrives. It is simplicity itself and very well done. I have already checked out the steaks in their raw form and marvelled at the marbling. When they arrive, the texture is superlative, the taste exquisite. Forget the cowboys, if you want real steak seek out somewhere like Beef. Please come to Birmingham. Soon. Please.
The fact that an Antona-run restaurant turns out great food isn’t a secret. Less well known is 54-year-old Antona’s roll in education. He has now been a governor of UCB, formerly Birmingham Food College, for 25 years. When he’s not pushing standards in his own kitchen, he is pushing standards in the training kitchens at Summer Row. It’s a challenge he relishes, but why does he do it? Quite simply, it’s a cultural obligation.