Richard Turner is the chef and namesake of Turner’s at 69, Birmingham’s farm to table restaurant that serves British dishes with French technique. As the chef at a busy restaurant, he’s constantly thinking about providing the best service and food possible to his guests, how to best manage his staff and the future of his restaurant and work. On an afternoon in between lunch and dinner service, Turner talked to us about how his career started and the challenges of running a restaurant.
What does a typical Saturday look like?
We get into the kitchen about 9am to start prepping for lunch which starts at 12pm. So, those hours between 9-12 are quite an important time. Lunch service ends at approximately 3pm. After that we have staff meal and we all sit down together to eat and talk about the day. At 4:30pm we start prepping for dinner service which starts at 6pm. If everything goes well, we’ll have our last table in by 9:30 and we’ll be done for the day and have the kitchen cleaned up by 11pm. At the end of the night I sit down with the kitchen staff and talk about the night and go over menus and orders for the next day.
How did your career begin? What made you want to be a chef?
I’ve always had an interest in cooking since I was young. I took home economics in school and I was the only lad in the course. When my parents had dinner parties I would make quiche Lorraine for guests, I just always wanted to cook. I got a job at a restaurant washing dishes to make some extra money and I moved into the kitchen from there. I went to college and found it wasn’t for me because I really wanted to be cooking and the best way to learn to cook is to just work in a restaurant. So, I did my courses fast. I finished a three year course in 12 months. In those days it wasn’t set up the way that it is now and people didn’t really want to be chefs. Going to cooking school was almost like a last resort. It was something that I always wanted to do so I worked really hard to get out of there. For my test or practicum I did three recipes from a three star Michelin chef. My professor thought I was mad.
Where do you find inspiration?
What inspires me is good quality produce cooked well. At this present time, since we’ve just changed the restaurant a bit, I cook what I would want to eat in a restaurant. I’m not interested in following trends or fads anymore, really. I try to write a menu that makes me go, ‘I would order that.’ Our menu has six entrees and I would happily order any one of them, honestly. That’s what inspires me now. I want to make dishes that are timeless – things that are good. When you’re a younger chef you’re not as confident, so you copy styles or whatever. And there’s so much information available now. I can get info and pictures from all over the world of what other chefs are doing. That’s great but I think now we all copy and mimic one another.
So how do you add creativity and make dishes your own?
I would say attention to detail and the lengths that I go to to handle products well and simply is how I make dishes my own. It’s not that I don’t want to be creative, I just want to let ingredients speak for themselves. I go through such lengths to get these products, it’d be really silly to not treat them well. In the kitchen we rely on the product and our own skills to make it better. There’s always the temptation to add or do a little more but for me I let the seasons create the dishes. You won’t find out of season ingredients on my menu.
What is the biggest challenge the industry is facing and how does it impact your business?
Finding staff is the biggest challenge. The industry for the last 25 or 30 years has really been a barbaric, male-driven place and you can’t do that anymore. You can’t expect kids to work 18-hour days now. Part of it is that chefs are rock stars now. When young kids see Gordon Ramsay and his new car, they want that. What they don’t see is the years he worked for Marco Pierre White and the hard work and effort it took to get to where he is. It takes a lot of work and they only see the good part. I’m trying to make it easier for staff: they get a staff meal everyday and we don’t start work at the crack of dawn. I think the industry has to start thinking different about staff.
What trends/developments in the industry today are you especially excited about?
The fact that restaurants are trying to make themselves and their food more accessible. I feel like food as a whole is a lot less pompous and pretentious as it used to be. You can make really good food and not make your guests feel like they have to bow down to the chef or wear a suit or sit in the dining room in silence. Restaurants are places for people to eat well and enjoy themselves and I feel like today more restaurants allow guests to do that.
What is your best advice for aspiring chefs?
Learn to listen and try to learn as much as you can wherever you are. Even if you don’t work in a Michelin-starred restaurant you can learn something that’ll make you a better cook and really, a better person. If you work hard in this industry there are rewards but you just have to really want to do it. You’re going to make mistakes and get a slap on the wrist now and again and you need to be able to learn from that. Also, learn to enjoy eating. Have meals with your family and friends instead of sitting on your arse and watching TV. That will help you learn to love food and dining. It’s like life, you’ve got to give it 100% to get anything back. Try and be the best and don’t copy what other people you admire are doing. Find your own style and do that.
Photo courtesy of Turner’s at 69