An Interview with Chef Anthony Flinn
By Matt Callard
If Leeds wants to be taken seriously as a genuine, international, 21st century city (and believe me, it does); a modern metropolis, capital of the north – whatever claim it’s currently in the process of making – then it needs restaurants like Anthony’s.
Like any successful city worth the cab fare Leeds needs its sporting teams, its shopping, its airport, its nightlife. But it also needs its world class fine dining restaurants. Yet while the recognition and awards have streamed in for Anthony Flinn, the brilliant and still fairly young head chef of the Boar Lane restaurant, Anthony’s is now the only fine dining restaurant within the city (See footnote – Ed.).
“When we first moved to Leeds there were two other fine dining restaurants,” Anthony tells us. “We didn’t come in here to say let’s clear them all out. I saw their existence as a positive thing for us and the city. The problem is people come to us, get back on the train and spend no more money in the city. From the city’s point of view that’s a shame because you’ve got quite wealthy people coming up, eating with us, then getting on the train and going home. If there was a fine dining scene they’d lunch, go shopping then stay for dinner in another restaurant.”
“I felt I could slot in quite quickly”
The low-key exterior to Anthony’s belies the reputation and importance so quickly bestowed upon the operation. Despite being voted ‘Restaurant of the Year’ by The Observer in 2005, the expected Michelin Star was bafflingly and controversially withheld. It’s only a matter of time, though. This isn’t Leeds-bias – the daring and consistently creative menu is everything the Michelin Star is intended to highlight. The train station and the airport regularly bring in foodie fans from across the globe who would concur. In fact, so confident is Anthony in his own abilities that the airport was a crucial factor in convincing him to make the move to the city five years ago.
“We thought Leeds would make perfect sense because it was an up-and-coming city. The airport was near. We started to scratch the surface of Leeds and found out there were other developments going on. It came down to Leeds or Manchester. Leeds is closer to family and it’s closer to other friends I’ve got who are also chefs. So if you look at it as a selfish support thing I felt I could slot in quite quickly. I could find out who was the best meat supplier, the best fish supplier and have a bit of camaraderie around what we were doing.”
The business remains family run, although with their fourth Leeds venture at the Corn Exchange in full swing it’s inevitable the tight-knit nature of the business may be loosened a little.
“I liked the industry, which was enough”
“There’s a good side and a bad side to having a family run business. The bad side is it’s difficult for other people to break in. You can get a manager on board who might come back to you saying they feel they can handle more responsibility. But just by pure design the family tends to just get on and do it all. Plus, there’s the trust side and the work ethic side.”
Work ethic isn’t a phrase you’d find Anthony Flinn shying away from. He grew up in Flockton, near Wakefield, and shortly after catching the cookery bug – something to do with a keen part-time teacher and fairy cakes – he went out of his way to pursue his goal of becoming a chef.
“I always wanted to be a chef. At school for work experience I asked if I could go to the Yorkshire Mining Museum, which was walking distance from my house, to see what it was all about. I ended up making sandwiches and working on the till. So I went back to school and I said, “I’m not doing that!.” I wanted to be a chef, not a sandwich boy. I didn’t expect to be cooking meat and veg, but I expected to be in the kitchen. So the school told me to find my own placement. So I did – working nine-to-five as it were. I didn’t learn a great deal there. The kitchens weren’t great. But I liked the industry, which was enough.”
“I just did the job and went home”
Naturally industrious and a quick learner – a couple of essential traits for any wannabe chef – Flinn spends three years at Huddersfield Tech before his first major break. Following a cooking competition at Birmingham NEC he is taken straight into a one-starred restaurant for being, he modestly explains, ‘an ok lad.’ An important spell in a notoriously hard kitchen in Barcelona soon follows.
“I left England thinking I’d worked in a high level kitchen – and I had. But the kitchen in Barcelona was just another world. The sous chef had a reputation, but all he wanted really were good, hard working people. So I just did the job and went home.”
The training in this restaurant provides such a steep learning curve that the two years that follows in the famed El Bulli, also in Barcelona, does not phase Anthony. “It was fantastic when I was accepted. But it wasn’t the biggest moment for me. Purely and simply because I’d worked in a very high level, hard kitchen prior to it.”
At El Bulli he learned from the master of molecular gastronomy, (that alchemic form of modern cooking that shreds the rulebook in a blender and reforms it as a Heston Blumenthal foam) in Ferran Adria. When he finally arrives back in Yorkshire, with a mountain of knowledge and experience, it must feel like the culinary world is at his feet. So began Anthony’s. Not that you’re likely to encounter smashing plates and the Gordon Ramsey-style culture of fear within his kitchens.
“I still like a piece of meat”
“Every kitchen is slightly different. Our kitchen is relaxed. We put the music on. I like having the music on. When you have your own kitchen you put in all the things you like. Some kitchens are all joking, screaming and shouting. But there are only five of us. Other comparable restaurants would have maybe 15 for the type of cooking we do. Heston’s got about 15, 20. It’s a small staff. But from a business point of view, that’s where it has to be.”
It seems a matter of course that Heston Blumenthal gets a mention somewhere when you’re talking about Anthony Flinn. So it’s something of a relief when Anthony mentions him first. Although he isn’t overly keen on the constant comparisons.
“It’s sort of annoying. He’s such a far better chef in what he does. He’s an alchemist. He has gone where I don’t want to go. That’s his style. He’s been doing that for 20 years. But it’s only now that through the industry he’s decided to do more TV work and people are finding out who he is. He’s always fascinating, but there are some things that go maybe a little too far. I still like a piece of meat, a piece of fish and so do the customers. It goes a bit too far for me sometimes. He has a fantastic imagination but the last time I was there an anchovy was the only piece of solid food we had. Everything else was either pureed or a jelly or had been manipulated in some other way. It’s a fantastic experience but I still like a piece of meat.”
“If I had a cow in the back garden, it doesn’t mean it’s the best bit of beef”
Anthony isn’t too enamoured with the aforementioned molecular gastronomy label either. When I ask him to describe his food he shrugs and says: “I would describe us simply as a modern British restaurant. Maybe I’d even take off the ‘British’ and just call us modern. I’m happy to take food from anywhere.”
In fact, the desire to do just that – take food from anywhere – stirred up a little controversy when Anthony represented the north of England on the BBC’s The Great British Menu.
“I look for the best. I said this on the TV and it caused a commotion. Immediately I got an email from a guy saying he was disappointed that we don’t use entirely local produce. But local isn’t always about being the best. There might be a better piece of meat fifteen miles down the road, a hundred miles down the road. If I had a cow in the back garden, it doesn’t mean it’s the best bit of beef. It’s about what you want to eat. Do you want to eat the best cut? The local thing is fantastic. It’s about supporting the local economy and we do that. I agree with reducing your carbon footprint and supporting local people and businesses. All our veg is from Leeds or Bradford market. But there are other things we get from France because it’s the best. Simple as that.”
Anthony admits the celebrity chef thing might not be for him (he agreed to participate in The Great British Menu because the programme was primarily about great, cutting edge British food) but it hasn’t stopped the offers coming in.
“I haven’t had a vacation for a long time”
“I don’t think the celebrity thing is my bag. I’ve been offered the chance to do recipe books but I’ve turned them down. I feel I don’t have much to write about yet. We were approached only four months after we’d opened. I personally thought we didn’t have enough to write about. Although I quickly found out you don’t really need anything to write about anyway! Go into Waterstones and it’s full of rubbish. Maybe twenty percent of the books in there are ok. I see writing a book as something that’s personal.”
There’s something refreshing in that. A food-comes-first defiance shoved in the face of our quick-fix celeb chef culture. When we say Anthony is serious about food, we mean it. He’s not holidayed in years. And when he does go abroad it’s always to source new ingredients or check out new suppliers.
“I’m looking for ingredients all the time. I haven’t had a vacation, as it were, for a long time. I’ve just had a weekend in Paris, which sounds romantic, but it wasn’t. I was working. I’ve a trip booked for Barcelona but I go on the Monday, visit a factory on Tuesday, come home on Wednesday. But I don’t want to sit on a beach in some holiday resort with everybody else from England eating rubbish.”
Amen to that. As healthy obsessions go, you can’t beat Anthony’s. Right here, right now – in our very own 21st century city.
Featured image: John Waite
Editor’s update: Since this interview all four Anthony’s restaurants in Leeds have closed down. Fine dining does survive in the city, however. The Man Behind The Curtain achieved its first Michelin Star in 2015.