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Q&A with Paul Askew from The Art School in Liverpool

9 Sep 2015
Chef Profiles

Paul Askew has a lot to smile about. Recently his new Liverpool restaurant The Art School celebrated its first birthday and he has already bagged two AA Rosettes! So with a new autumn menu just about to launch, we wondered what he thought about Northern gastronomy, Michelin stardom and being touted as the ‘Mr Nice Guy’ of the cheffing world.

With the success of The London Carriage Works at the Hope Street Hotel and now with The Art School, you seem to be have been at the vanguard of fine dining in Liverpool for quite some time. What’s your secret?
The last twenty years in Liverpool have been amazing for the city in every respect, but particularly within the Visitor Economy and focussed even more so on food and drink culture. I have been a believer all my life that if you work hard, pursue quality and help others along the way you can build a lasting, favourable reputation. Also with fantastic local ingredients to work with I have been able to make dishes with integrity and consistency that my fellow Liverpudlians can connect with. So my secret is not really a secret. It’s working hard to keep a standard and loving my job which is also my passion and vocation.

The restaurant has recently been awarded two AA rosettes. Are you aiming to bring a Michelin star to Liverpool City Centre?
Yes, it has. I was really pleased with that after being inspected after only seven weeks! As we approach 11 months old I would like to push the levels once more to see what we can achieve. The priority is simply to have a happy, vibrant, busy restaurant serving great food and drink in a convivial atmosphere, the rest is a bonus, but of course we want to reach the highest possible standards. So of course we want to bring any notoriety and profile we can, but it has to be what Liverpool wants too.

Both Liverpool and Manchester are noticeably lacking in Michelin stars. Why do you think this is?
I think there is a misunderstanding about the desire for gastronomy in our great Northern cities. There is a belief that we may not be able to sustain or appreciate that level of food, service and wine culture. My belief is that if we are to grow to be a great Northern powerhouse then the food culture and standards have to be recognised and championed by all of our guide books. It is geographical and economical concerns, rather than belief that there is no desire or ability to deliver. In my opinion The French and Manchester House surely have to be very close now. In fact I expected them to succeed in January of 2015.

You are a fellow of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. What does this entail and how did it come about?
I was invited into the Academy some years ago by my peers, then became a fellow in 2013 and Joint Chairman of the North of England just after. The Royal Academy of Culinary Art is an amazing organization which focuses on people in the industry giving back to help everyone from primary school all the way through to Chefs, Patissiers and Waiters at college and in the industry to uphold and increase standards in the industry by mentoring, delivering apprenticeships to raising funds for our primary school sessions.

After 30 years in the business you are definitely the ‘Mr Nice Guy’ of the cheffing world. How do you keep cool and calm under pressure?
Haha, I probably haven’t always been “Mr Nice Guy” as all Chefs will tell you there are times when you need to make yourself heard and understood very quickly in a very high-energy, high-stress environment. However I am a great believer in empathising with others and being thoughtful and respectful of all people. At the end of the day it is my belief that it is my job to take on the pressure of service, so the team can perform and if I am stressed and shouting that does not help and probably means I have to work on preparation or presentation methods with that person if they are struggling. In short, I care about my brigade and hopefully in return they look out for my food, my business and me. This is a people business and we must not forget that. I believe I am “firm but fair and always helpful” and I build people not break people.

The Turkish Delight pavlova with white chocolate and pistachio sounds particularly sexy. You’re a pretty well-travelled bloke – where do you draw inspiration from?
My inspiration comes from many sources, but primarily from a love of ingredients. It began with me and my family going to live in London then to Dubai and Singapore when I was still in my very early years. I had 8 different schools and 14 different houses. Merchant Navy life was not easy, but it was really privileged in terms of food and cultural education. I fell in love with fish markets, fruit and vegetables and spice markets when I was 11 in Dubai and then at 14 in Singapore. After training to be a Chef at college and working for DeVere hotels, Thornton Hall, I went to upstate New York as a Junior Sous, then it all followed on from there. The sharing of a food style and repertoire was begun. These days I am a huge fan of the Basque country and draw huge inspiration from San Sebastian and Bilbao, but for me it all comes back to fresh, high quality, local, seasonal ingredients. That’s what inspires a Chef!

You’re well known for nurturing and mentoring up-and-coming young talent. What advice would you give to a 20-something budding chef?
I really enjoy mentoring and nurturing up-and-coming Chefs and professionals of the future. Not only is it hugely important to the individual to have a training support culture, but in our business it is hugely important. To a twenty-something Chef I would say work hard, be patient, be focussed, always pursue quality and don’t force things to happen, let them evolve naturally. Be disciplined, be respectful of your ingredients and most of all look out for your Chef mentor and what they need to help you!!!
In short, help us to help you. Oh, and keep your knives sharp.

The Art School has both vegetarian and pescatarian tasting menus. Was this prompted by a demand for meat-free fine dining?
The reason for these menus was simple: I was sick of restaurants not wanting to look out for Vegetarians and Pescatarian guests correctly. I think, notoriously, they are put to the back of people’s thoughts and not really treated with the same importance. For me great food is great food regardless of its animal or vegetable origin. They are hugely popular in The Art School and of course the demand for Vegetarian food continues to grow year on year.

We have visions of highly skilled chefs with their feet up tucking into beans on toast or spaghetti hoops on their days off. C’mon spill the beans (pardon the pun), what do you really enjoy when you get time to yourself?
The reality is when I get time off I am keen to relax with family and friends, who I don’t see enough of. So when we do we love to eat and drink together or entertain. I would normally cook some really lovely, simple, peasant food with great beer, wines and a good G&T every now and then. I love microbreweries, like Melwood who make my Porky’s Pale Ale and Art School Ale, and I love going to farm shops like Claremont and Vineyard Farm on the Wirral. Fill a basket and go and cook something. Last time it was Roast lemon, garlic and rosemary free range chicken with herbs and rocket from my garden, some new season peas, roast new potatoes in the skin and some fab asparagus from Claremont. All washed down with a bottle of really cold Verdejho or a Porky’s Pale Ale. But my secret passion when I need a Chefs snack is a good bacon sandwich on crusty toast with half a pint of Yorkshire Tea. One of my other passions in life is rugby and I still help coach my son's team on a Sunday morning, so a Sunday afternoon Guinness is often a nice treat … ssshh don’t tell the wife !!!

Liverpool has changed a huge amount over the last 20 years. How would you characterize the changes from your standpoint behind the pass?
Standing at the pass and thinking about the last 20 years of Liverpool’s food and drink development is nothing short of meteoric. When I came back from New York and started at the Philharmonic Hall, there were 75 registered restaurants on the books for Liverpool, and on TripAdvisor alone now there are 1600 and more opening by the day. It’s a bit like a new city of food has been built; Blade Runner but for great restaurants, bars and delis not robots. Also Liverpool is now the third most visited city in the UK after only London and Edinburgh.

And now to fantasyland, Paul. Sugarvine is going to send you on an all-expenses-paid trip to any restaurant in the world. Where would you choose and why?
Well this is so hard to answer as there are so many I would love to visit. I have been lucky to do Azurmendi, Mugaritz, Martin Berasetigui, Arzak, Waterside, Cellar Can Rocca ….. But the one I would love to go to right now is in New York and its Thomas Keller's PerSé followed by a trip to Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern. I love New York and have not been back for a long time, so that would be the icing on the cake. Also two great guys that used to work for me now run the Front of House at PerSé.

Liverpool Dining

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