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The Interview - Paul Askew, chef proprietor, London Carriage Works

Published:  23 July, 2008

Paul was born in Sunderland, and moved to Liverpool when his father joined the Blue Star line as a merchant navy sea captain. He lived all over the world, as his father was stationed in various ports, then returned to catering college in the UK, followed by a spell working in the kitchen of a restaurant on the Wirral. After it was bought by the brewery Greenalls, he left to work in upstate New York for a chef agency. He came back to England for his first head chef position at Wincham Hall in Cheshire, and then became executive chef at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool in 1995. While eyeing up the London Carriage Works building he met the man who had bought it, Dave Brewitt, and joined as chef proprietor. They opened the restaurant and attached Hope Street Hotel in December 2003, and still retain control of the Philharmonic kitchen.
Suppliers include House of Townend, Boutinot, Rodney Densem, Laurent Perrier, Justerini & Brooks, Playford Ros and Inverarity Vaults.

How's business?

Well, I say to my staff that I'll either be carried out of here in a wooden box or we'll win a Michelin star. Liverpool, I'm ashamed to say, has never had one. We took a big gamble by opening before we knew the city would be the new European capital of culture, but there were a few Champagne corks popping when it was announced, and now we're considered a Beacon Business' or an Attack Brand', or whatever marketing speak they chuck at us.

Are gastronomic standards improving in Liverpool?

There is so much crap written about restaurants in this city. Most of the critiques I've had from local magazines and newspapers don't deserve a place in my loo. The classic is: My friend and I arrived, and we ordered the special of the day after a glass of sparkling wine, which was quite nice.' When you read that utter drivel you know that, number one, the person doesn't know what they're looking for; number two, they're on a jolly on company expenses; and number three, how dare they eat something that has taken us 14 hours to prepare and then say it's nice'. So we had a meeting with the Daily Post and Echo and brought Loyd Grossman along to give a few pointers. The two journalists didn't know what had hit them! We offered them the chance to work in the kitchen for a day, but they've never taken us up on it.

Do you enjoy being at the forefront of food in the city?

I've wanted to own a place like this since I was 16. My father was a merchant navy captain and he lived in Singapore for 14 years. I would go out there every summer, taking in the spice, fish, fruit and vegetable markets. The colours and the smells were amazing and that's how I got into cooking. The best food I have ever had was chilli crab off the hawker stand at Newton Circus in Singapore. I made my name in Liverpool at the Summer Pops festival, cooking at Albert Dock for an audience of 4,000 listening to Jos Carreras and Elton John. So when the Queen came here, they turned to me.

What did you cook for Her Majesty?

I was a bit naughty. The phrase Phil the Greek' sprang to mind, so I made a salad with feta, tomato and olives. It didn't seem to bother him. We'd sent the menus to the Palace for approval, and they told us it had to be light, with not much dairy content, so I covered those bases at least.

And you've cooked for Condoleezza Rice as well?

Yes, she visited with Jack Straw. They didn't want people to think she was staying here, so she was rushed out of the side door of the Philharmonic Hall after a concert, then driven around the city three times before being dropped at the restaurant, 150 yards away from the Hall where she first started. The poor woman must have been spinning - oh yes, there's the Albert Dock again, I remember that from five minutes ago'. Because of the anti-war protestors the security was amazing. We had the CIA, the FBI and MI5 all milling around. The Marine Corps squad were camped out on the third floor, taking up 40 bedrooms, and there were sniffer dogs and helicopters in the vicinity - I've never seen anything like it.

Which other celebrities have you fed?

Matt Lucas visited when Little Britain was filming in Liverpool, and Ewan McGregor and Cherie Blair have come in when they've been in town. All these celebrities are something I never expected. When Rafa Benitez signed his contract with Liverpool they brought him here, and since then every footballer he's signed has lived with us before being housed. There's something quite cold about Rafa though. When Liverpool won the European Cup they were celebrating in Istanbul until 3am, then he said, Right, that's it, the party's over, we need to plan for next year.' Can you believe that? If it was me I'd be ordering more Champagne and wanting to know if the hotel could accommodate me for the following week.

Talking of Champagne, your list could be better in the 40 to 50 mark.

I agree - it hasn't moved on because we've struggled to find a good sommelier. We'd been following Jeremy Cowan for two years, while he was at the Establishment in Manchester, and finally we got our man. But after he'd been working with us for three months I sent him to a Playford Ros tasting at The Ivy. I wanted to give him more experience, but he met Chris Galvin, who offered him 40K a year and that was it - goodbye. It's a shame, because he was perfect, he had such great presence on the floor. Now I'm back to square one.

London Carriage Works, Hope Street Hotel, 40 Hope Street, Liverpool L1 9DA

Tel: 0151 709 3000