Teaching an ‘old’ chef new tricks

The refurbishment of Simpsons last year helped to reinvigorate me as a chef but in recent months I have come to realise that it was about far more than breathing fresh life into the restaurant. Unfortunately, the period of refurbishment was such a painful few months that we were so relieved when it was over that we didn’t allow ourselves the time to take stock of what it truly meant for our business.

As with any major change the refurbishment didn’t please everyone and we lost a few customers along the way. I’m not sorry about this because from a creative perspective, it was the best decision we’ve ever taken. We didn’t get everything right from the start and we very quickly changed our minds about serving the tasting menus only. Now with the set lunch, à la carte and tasting menus we have a more competitive dining offer.

I’ve always been happier in the kitchen than in front of a camera or a crowd but having a restaurant that I love to look out at has inspired me to step outside my comfort zone.

When you have a passion for food inspiration is everywhere but sometimes it helps to take time out and that’s why I decided to spend three days at L’Enclume last month. It’s been a favourite restaurant of mine for some time but I wanted to see it from behind the scenes.

My wife Diane, questioned what a chef with my experience could learn but I actually learnt so much more than I ever thought possible. Having a week away from home and the restaurant gave me the time I needed to reflect and take on board some new thinking. L’Enclume is very different to Simpsons but what struck me was how everyone was absolutely clear about the ethos of the restaurant and where they wanted to take it.

I’m conscious that in the past Simpsons may have played it safe by offering crowd pleasers like steak and chips. Yes our Sunday roast might have been the best in Brum but it just isn’t what we should be doing now. Shortly after my stint at l’Enclume I came back to review a marketing email that was promoting a ‘fish n fizz’ night in our garden, thanks to this new found focus I knew instantly that it wasn’t right. We might have the most beautiful open space of all the Birmingham restaurants but that doesn’t mean we should be offering something that the pub opposite has on the menu.

Looking at what Simpsons is now from the outside helped me to realise that we are actually operating as a new restaurant. Not only is the design completely different but we’ve completely overhauled the menu, brought in a new team and moved from white table cloths to a modern, relaxed dining style. Our integrity and commitment to using the best ingredients and to mentoring and training our staff remains the same but we’ve evolved into something I’m truly excited about. I’m also motivated by the fact we’re attracting a whole new set of diners into the restaurant now. Brexit fears aside, I have no reason to believe that this won’t continue.

During my 24 years at Simpsons we’ve never stopped innovating but now we have the confidence, energy and vision to really take ourselves to the next level. In that past month alone we’ve ranked best in Birmingham in both the National Restaurant Awards and the Square Meal Top 100 so it certainly feels like we are going in the right direction.