The Caterer Interview – Andreas Antona

18 June 2014 by
The Caterer Interview – Andreas Antona

Chef-patron, restaurateur and mentor to Bocuse d'Or finalist Adam Bennett, Andreas Antona is set to expand his business with casual dining bar Pure Bar & Kitchen. Katherine Alano talks to the godfather of the Birmingham restaurant scene

There's no secret. It comes down to who you are as a person. If I am going to get out of bed, I might as well do the job properly. I only open restaurants to make money doing what I love, which is to cook. As with any business, you have to make a profit to survive, and it's as basic as that. Getting the basics right is so important. You have to work to a high standard and be consistent. Restaurants need to be properly funded, have the right cashflow, and have good staff and a good accountant. If you don't, that's when you get in trouble. You also have to surround yourself with the right people. When I was sous chef at the
Ritz in London, Michael Quinn asked us to write a new menu. At this point, only the head chef wrote the menus, but he said that five brains are better than one and that is still true today.

You now have three businesses. Can you tell us more about them?
They all offer something different. Simpsons is our long-standing, fine-dining restaurant, which is looked after by chef director Luke Tipping. The Cross at Kenilworth, headed by Adam Bennett, offers a more relaxed dining experience. Our new venture is Pure Bar and Kitchen, which offers something completely
different. There are three partners: Paul Halsey, managing director and co-founder of Purity Brewing Co, Martin Hilton, a former Mitchells & Butlers director, and myself.

Pure Bar and Kitchen hopes to tap into the popularity of craft beer. We offer a range of Purity's Warwickshire-brewed ales, such as Pure Ubu, Pure Gold, Mad Goose and the recently launched Saddle Black and Longhorn IPA, alongside nearly 100 bottled beers.

The kitchen is headed by Steve Woods, formerly head chef of Bank Birmingham. He and his team will create British dishes with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. The food, which will include traditional and forgotten Midlands treats, such as fidget pie, faggots with peas and white ladies pudding, will be given a modern twist. The long-term plan is to roll-out more Pure Bar and Kitchens.

How do you manage your time?
Every member of the team has a duty. With Pure Bar and Kitchen we all have specific roles and we respect each other's skills in that area. I also make a point of empowering the management by leaving them to get on with their businesses - I can't be at all three at once.

How has the role of the chef changed?
I started cooking professionally in 1974, and before that I was cooking in my dad's restaurant, so it does feel like a long time! Over the years I have seen the craftsmanship of the trade become far better than it was and chefs' respect of the produce is greater. The average British person now goes out to eat a lot more than they used to, so chefs have to understand their expectations. The market has grown beyond recognition - a customer has so much choice now, from the corporate high-street eateries, such as Nando's and Giraffe, to higherend places for special occasions, such as Simpsons or the Cross.

I come from a background of haute cuisine and Park Lane hotels, and I can't get my head around street food. But that is what young kids today are doing. It is so focused, and that is what I love about the street food scene: a chef will focus on one dish and put their heart and soul into it.

Is the standard among chefs higher these days?
I am not too sure it is; sometimes I think that training has been bypassed and the vision of how to cook has waned. However, that said, the focus of some chefs these days is incredible. At the top of the pile is Simon Rogan - his focus is amazing.I would go to L'Enclume at the drop of a hat. I love the farm, the produce and its quaint execution. It's one man and a vision and that is fantastic. We didn't have that in my day. You became a chef de partie, a sous chef and then a head chef - and you didn't want to end up being a breakfast chef. When I started out, cheffing was a working-class profession.I grew up in
London, in a working-class family, and all I wanted was a job. You climbed through the ranks and that was all there was to it.

Is it harder now for chefs to make a dent in the industry, given the amount of information the consumer has on food from TV shows such as MasterChef and Great British Menu?
The way I look at it is by using a football analogy. If you interview Alex Ferguson and he says you don't know what you are fking talking about, it is because he is a professional and you are not. I think the same. I am a professional and I embrace opportunities and want them for my profession. I do think it is harder for younger people to be different, but I put that down to training. If you train at Pitt Cue Co, that is all you know. If you train at the Dorchester, you learn everything.

You are an advocate of training and mentoring. Why is it so important?
When I was younger I looked up to Paul Bocuse and Alan Hayden, who was my lecturer at college. Hayden was one of those unsung heroes that helped me believe that I could achieve. Once you start believing, you start to do things differently, and from there I went to Hotelympia in 1976 and entered two
competitions, and won the golden trophy for my hot chocolate soufflé with chocolate sauce. During the competition, I aways looked up to the judges and I thought that was what I wanted to be. Thirteen years later, I got to judge at Hotelympia, and that was a milestone for me. I believed in my mentor, so I believed in myself, and from there on I wanted give something back to the industry.

One of the biggest kicks I get is to see chefs go from the beginning of their careers to where they are now. Everyone who goes to college has an ambition. And if I can help one little bit, I have achieved something.

You were instrumental in getting a replica Bocuse d'Or competition kitchen at University College Birmingham. How did that come about?
I have been to every Bocuse d'Or since 1987, bar one. I was one of a handful of British supporters and I was always totally embarrassed that this was the best our country could do. I had the idea when we were travelling back from Lyon, when Simon Hulstone was competing in the Bocuse d'Or finals in 2011. I kept asking myself, why do the Scandanivan countries consistently hit the podium?

So I asked around and it became apparent that it was their support network. When it came to Adam's time to qualify and compete, I was happy to release him from the kitchen at Simpsons. Yes, there were issues over covering costs, but I thought b*ocks to that - we just had to go for it. I didn't want Adam to train at the restaurant so I asked the college (where I am a governor) if we could build a replica kitchen. Everyone from the principal to the other governors embraced the idea, and we had it built at a cost of £200,000. We have been lucky as our suppliers, such as CCS, Bunzl Lockhart, Clifton Food Range, Thermomix, Big Green Egg, All Clad, Robot Coupe and Heritage Silverware, have provided the kit. The kitchen is still used for training purposes and student competitions.

How difficult was it to cover Adam's absence from the restaurant in the run-up to the final?
Every kitchen has a back-up system. Everyone was very happy to be part of [Bocuse] and it was never an issue. The first year, Adam trained for about five months, and in the second, about two months. Bocuse is bigger than us, and it's a privilege to be part of it.

Would you like to see Bocuse d'Or in London?
Bocuse d'Or in London would give us as an industry platform. It could become a national event, such as the FA Cup, and be seen as an event for professionals by professionals. We have a lot of TV chefs and cookery programmes, but it would be great for the public to see what cheffing is about at this level.

What would that mean for the industry?
We believe London is the culinary capital of the world. Having Bocuse d'Or here would rubberstamp it, endorse it, and make the rest of the British public believe it.

You've been involved in many organisations,such as the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, the British Culinary Federation… I like to be involved in what is happening around the industry. I think it's ludicrous that we have TripAdvisor judging us. Doctors or architects or solicitors don't have its equivalent. And why? Because they have governing bodies that represent them. Chefs are divided and in their own fiefdoms, so they miss the bigger picture and that is to be professional. I would love cheffing to be elevated to a profession.

Do you think that might be a deterrent to encouraging young people into the industry?
No, I think young people don't even know about all the organisations and associations - they come into it for the love of cooking. In the earlier days, the organisations were a great way of bonding with other chefs at the various salons and competitions. I believe that every student that enrols into college should
automatically be a member of a national chefs' association and be part of a governing body. Only then can we control their apprenticeships and have a proper exam like in Germany, where students sit a recognised exam to become a cooking meister and then train their own apprentice. That is the downfall of the modern apprentice. Who is training them? In my day you had to be a master craftsman to train someone.

A lot of chefs have gone on from the Simpsons stable to have successful careers - how do you structure your training and mentoring?
I have no structure at all! I have a keen interest in people, especially people that work for me. They are on the journey - they do the work, and if we think something needs picking up, we talk about it. I provide a platform and let them get on with it. It is up to them to buy into it or not. Those that find it difficult, don't last the distance. We all have a space to fill and we all know our role. I am interested in all our staff, from the head chef to the apprentice.


Date opened 1993
Address 20 Highfield Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3DU
Chef director Luke Tipping
Head chef Matt Cheal
Typical dishes Duck egg, salsify, white asparagus, artichoke, peas, truffle and hazelnuts; beef, cheek and fillet, bone marrow, asparagus, Parmesan and olives
Covers 72

The Cross at Kenilworth
Date opened September 2013 following a three-month refurb
Address 16 New Street, Kenilworth CV8 2EZ
Head chef Adam Bennett
Typical dishes Smoked chicken and duck liver terrine, sea buckthorn, celery salad and watercress; Creedy Carver duck confit, peach, fennel, almond couscous and ras el hanout
Covers 74

Pure Bar & Kitchen
Date opened
March 2014
Owners Andreas Antona, Paul Halsey, Martin Hilton
Head chef Steve Woods
Typical dishes Traditional UBU glazed pork pie; faggots and mushy peas in UBU onion gravy; Dunkel BBQ beer-glazed chicken
Covers 80

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