Despite having been based down south for five decades, Halifax-born celebrity chef Brian Turner is still all Yorkshire at heart. He may have trained at Claridge’s and the Savoy in London’s West End, been awarded a Michelin star in the capital and gone on to become one of the most popular culinary experts on our television screens, but he loves nothing better than to come home.
“Sadly, at my time of life,” says the 73-year-old, “you come up more for funerals (and the odd christening), but I do get quite a bit of work up there too.” When he does set foot back in Yorkshire, he says he enjoys having a stroll around Leeds market, chatting to the traders and checking the latest prices (that is how you can tell he is a true Yorkshireman).
He also can’t resist one of the mainstays of Yorkshire life. “Whenever I’m up in that part of the world I like to organise a bit of time so I can have some fish and chips,” he confesses. And Brian will have ample opportunity to sample the best that Yorkshire has to offer in May, when he appears at the Whitby Fish and Ships festival.
Nay lad, it makes me brass does this accent
The event to celebrate Whitby’s rich fishing heritage will take over the entire town for the weekend of the 18th and 19th May, and is completely free of charge. The organisers have planned art exhibitions, films, craft, talks, live music, children’s activities, animation workshops with one of the animators of Wallace and Gromit and a whole deal more across the two days.
But it is the food that will excite many visitors to the North Yorkshire town over that weekend. Many of the eateries on the Whitby Seafood Trail will host demonstrations, you can learn about fish filleting and cooking seafood on a barbecue, and Brian is appearing as one of the headline chefs with Jean-Christophe Novelli.
The Yorkshire coast holds a dear place in Brian’s heart. “When we were young, we used to go every year to Scarborough, Filey or Brid for holidays,” he recalls, “and that A64 has never got any better! But it’s nice to go stand on the top of Scarborough and look out over the two bays there. It brings back so many memories, it’s fantastic.”
Brian will be appearing at the festival on the Saturday, putting on two demonstrations featuring four different fish dishes in total. He is looking forward to getting in front of the crowd, sharing some anecdotes and talking about his love of Yorkshire and of seafood. “We hope to inspire people to a) buy more fish and b) to just think about doing it slightly different to the way they have done it in the past, but that is still simple and tasty,” he says.
And simplicity is definitely the key for Brian Turner. “Someone once took over a television slot from me and produced a dish for Sunday lunch and it was red mullet with olives,” he laughs, “and I don’t know anybody who is going to say to their kids ‘guess what we’re having for lunch on Sunday – we’re having red mullet and olives’!
“What you need to have is something that is achievable to be made by people, that doesn’t frighten people off, and that when they taste it, the kids and the family say ‘eee, that’s grand, I didn’t think I was going to like that, but that’s lovely’.”
Brian certainly thinks that many of the new generation of chefs don’t realise this key point. He recalls talking to a friend who is an executive chef at a top London hotel and who had invited a number of young chefs to submit a course each for a recent event. The feeling was that the food on offer was more about style over substance.
“He told me ‘Brian, we are not of their age. They are a lot younger and they don’t understand’. My food and his food is simple and perfectly executed. I judge many competitions where they’ve tried so hard to make people say ‘wow’ and to admire the skill that has gone into it, but there’s a balance somewhere. Yes, we want to impress people but the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ is an apt phrase.”
He talks about people visiting expensive restaurants and feeling compelled to heap praise on them because they spent £300 on something ornate but not particularly tasty or filling. “The reality is they’re only saying that,” he insists, “the answer is they’d like a bag of fish and chips.”
Which brings us back to the Whitby Fish and Ships festival. The event is not just about cooking and eating fish, though. It is also meant as a celebration of the whole process of bringing seafood from the waters off the Yorkshire coast to the plate. One of the activities over the weekend sees two local fishermen at Whitby Library recounting their tales of life on the high seas.
“It’s good to recognise these chaps,” says Brian, “a lot of them risk their lives, or used to do anyway – I imagine modern technology and bigger ships makes it a bit easier for them, but nevertheless – there are some days when I look at the weather and think, ‘I wouldn’t like to be going out to sea in this’ and these guys go out in whatever to risk life and limb to make sure we get good, fresh fish.
It’s not as if they get out there and they can say ‘actually, I don’t like this, I’m going back’, they’re out there for five or six days. I’m sure they’ve got some great stories to tell and some great stories they can’t tell!”
He certainly feels that those in the fishing industry deserve greater recognition. “Sadly, people see things in the shop and they buy it and think ‘that’s blooming expensive’. They don’t think about what it has taken to get it to that stage because we are just so used to it. We complain if it’s not there.”
Brian may have not lived permanently in Yorkshire for 50 years, but he has certainly not lost the accent. “Nay lad, it makes me brass does this accent,” he jokes, “every morning I get out of bed and say ‘Billy Bremner, Don Revie and Geoffrey Boycott’.” The Yorkshire outlook remains strong too. He credits his upbringing with instilling that philosophy of simplicity and hard work in him. His dad was a cook and was, in his son’s words, “a simple, stoic Yorkshireman who didn’t let me get too big for my boots.”
However, when asked whether there will be any rivalry between him and Jean-Christophe Novelli over who will draw the biggest crowd in Whitby, he says confidently, “Jean-Christophe is a man I’ve known for a lot of years, and he’s a lovely lad, but we’ll be fine. They used to say to me on Ready, Steady Cook ‘do you go there to win?’ and I’d say ‘absolutely not, but I don’t go there to lose, that’s for sure’.”
You can take the boy out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take the Yorkshire out of the boy.