Chef Patron of The Art School is opening his second restaurant in Liverpool
"People used to come up and ask me, why do you want to open here Paul? It's a culinary desert. People just want a pie and a pint." It's fair to say that Liverpool has changed a fair bit during Paul Askew’s time as a chef here.
Tourism, food, drink, hotels, events - that's what we do in Liverpool, and we do it bloody well
"I wanted it to be the Gavroche of the North - I wanted it to be an institution for Liverpool. I wanted to prove that we could do capital city standards," Paul says.
"We got so much negative publicity when I came back from America in 1995 and there were about 73 registered restaurants in the whole city. Now there’s something like 2,773."
From washing pots and peeling vegetables in his early teens at Thornton Hall Hotel on the Wirral, to Chef Patron at The Art School for the last seven years, Paul is now one of the UK’s leading and most pioneering chefs.
As we chat in the cosy downstairs bar of The Art School Cellars and reflect on Paul’s 40th anniversary in food and drink, the last 18 months hasn’t dampened his spirit. In fact, it’s got him even more fired up.
"This is the ideal opportunity to recalibrate the industry correctly so that instead of just surviving, we can actually thrive and expand and grow," Paul says.
"The one good thing that's come out of the pandemic and Brexit is it's pushed hospitality into the spotlight. In Liverpool, as a great example, nearly 50% of the business rate payers in this city are either visitor economy or hospitality businesses.
"This city now revolves around the visitor economy. That's where our future lies: tourism, food, drink, hotels, events - that's what we do in Liverpool, and we do it bloody well.
"In the last 40 years, I've seen my industry go from being the servile wretch, into this new rock and roll, a new incredible thing that everybody wants to know about.
"It's something I fought for all my life. To make people realise that hospitality is a highly skilled, highly professional, massive opportunity sector that should be embraced and encouraged."
Born in Sunderland, Paul moved to Merseyside at the age of four and soon became an adopted Scouser. Seeking out the biggest challenges in his career, he worked for two years as a sous chef in Herbert’s in New York and later lived in Singapore.
After coming back to Liverpool, Paul worked in the Philharmonic as a chef and catering manager for seven years, before becoming founder and director at Hope Street Hotel and London Carriage Works from 2000 - 2014.
His career has brought him many magical moments, including cooking for the Queen and Prince Philip when they visited Liverpool Philharmonic in 1995, after the venue’s multi-million pound refurb.
"That for me was the turning point. It was almost like there was a different level of importance placed on us at that time, and it just started to feel like we were moving," says Paul.
"I felt that Carriage Works took it on to another level. I think there was a massive shift then. We weren't a culinary desert and people went, okay, this is what new Liverpool could be, and they started to believe in that.
"I think we've gone through decades of perception change and pushing back on Southeast journalists who are rather lazy and very rarely come out of London. And when they do, they tend to just want to give us a kicking and use the old jokes.
"You keep rising above and you keep proving it with your actions and consistency. The city has to show them what we can do, show them the quality, show them we can be qualified and yes, actually we do know what we’re talking about."
The truly pivotal chapter in Paul’s career began in 2014 with the launch of The Art School on Sugnall Street, where he and his team have shaped the beautiful and historic setting into one of the UK’s leading fine-dining restaurants.
But there’s one thing still missing in Liverpool - the elusive Michelin star. I ask Paul, does it matter?
"I still think the Michelin Guide is incredibly important and incredibly relevant," he says.
"A lot of people dismiss it and say it's had its time and nobody listens to that anymore. But they do, they really do. Especially within the industry.
We are aiming to tell the story of the city’s food and cultural odyssey
"I want it for Liverpool as a city, because I can't accept that it's never had one. It's absolutely wrong. And I do think it goes back to some of the things that I've said - that postcode snobbery. I'm determined that we can break a glass ceiling by achieving that standard, because I know that if that happens, others will come.
"I honestly believe that we can do that in this building, in this dining room, with the group of people that I've got. I'm still as determined as I was when I first started The Art School to get it. I always think I'll get there in the end - I know, at some point, we'll get there."
A fellow of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, Paul says that he’s lucky to have some brilliant young chefs on his team. Junior sous chef, Edwin Kuk, won the Young National Chef of The Year 2021, and Beth Disley-Jones won the Craft Guild of Chefs Graduate Award for Pastry.
"The future is bright because look at what the city is turning out," says Paul.
"We are the only city in the north of England that is allowed to have the badge of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts apprenticeship programme. It took me eight years of lobbying to get it there, but we've got it. Previously if you wanted to do that qualification you had to leave Liverpool to do that in London, and there was a huge skills drain."
Paul has plenty of exciting plans in the pipeline, including his inaugural visit to the Grand National at Aintree to create some very special hospitality in spring 2022.
But before that comes Barnacle, a brand new restaurant in Liverpool's Duke Street Market. The story of the region’s food provenance is being told by a collective of leading chefs - Paul Askew, Bone and Block’s Harry Marquart and local kitchen stars Kieran Gill and Jake Lewis.
Together they will set out to explore Liverpool’s culinary heritage from the past to the present through ingredients and ideas which have found their way here over the decades.
Paul says: "My dad was Captain Barnacle Bill Askew and he sailed the world on the Blue Star lines – it was his travels which inspired me when I was young for our project now.
"I think of barnacles on the hulls of the great ships which once sailed to and from Liverpool and brought beef from Argentina, apples from upstate New York, lamb from New Zealand and wines from France – all of this knowledge ended up back here in Liverpool.
"We are aiming to tell the story of the city’s food and cultural odyssey through its maritime history which has shaped it into the glorious place we know today.
"Myself, Harry, Kieran and Jake have worked locally and travelled the world and are bringing all of our experience into our new restaurant.
"It's a lovely story to tell, when you think of the impact that the sea has had on Liverpool. And I think this is a story that really needs telling."
Barnacle officially launches at Liverpool's Duke Street Market in December. For more information visit Barnacle Liverpool.
Read next: ‘Takes you away from all the brutalities of the world’ - The Art School, Sugnall St, reviewed
Read again: Video - Why Liverpool Loves The Art School
Don't miss out
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email.