The chef's special

Anthony Flinn, just 24, has gone from a provincial catering college to Britain's brightest culinary hope in short order, and Michelin stars are sure to follow. Paul Vallely watches as he creates heat in the kitchen
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's 10 am. Tony Flinn is mixing a fresh batch of Guinness and liquid caramel. And if that sounds odd, wait till you hear what he does next. He takes the frothy head from another glass of the dark stuff and whisks it in an electric mixer with melted gelatine. Then he spoons the creamy head into tiny beer tankards he has taken, frosted, from the freezer. The jellied froth sets instantly in the cold glass. Then he pours the caramel porter in and sprinkles a fine chocolate dust on the top. Behold, Upside-Down Guinness.

It's 10 am. Tony Flinn is mixing a fresh batch of Guinness and liquid caramel. And if that sounds odd, wait till you hear what he does next. He takes the frothy head from another glass of the dark stuff and whisks it in an electric mixer with melted gelatine. Then he spoons the creamy head into tiny beer tankards he has taken, frosted, from the freezer. The jellied froth sets instantly in the cold glass. Then he pours the caramel porter in and sprinkles a fine chocolate dust on the top. Behold, Upside-Down Guinness.

On a saucer beside the glass he places a spoon containing individual spheres which make up a raspberry, which his knife has unpicked with great delicacy.

Sounds bizarre? Well it tastes amazing. So does the product he next busies himself with. In a low oven, between two sheets of heatproof rubber, he melts sheets of caramel he made earlier in the day. (He's been in the kitchen since 7am). "They're not thin enough," he says, squeezing them further with a rolling pin. When he is satisfied he cuts the sheet into inch squares. Then from the fridge he produces a stick of chocolate mixed with olive oil and rock salt. He cuts this into tiny cubes and wraps the caramel squares round the chocolate, then sets them aside to harden into thin-shelled toffee bonbons. These he will serve on a pink duck breast with an instruction that diners should break the shell and watch the black chocolate oil leach out into the rich meaty sauce which accompanies the bird.

"It's an interactive dish," he says. "It's like the theatre. For me a good meal should make diners smile." He sets aside other bits of caramel to be curled, using a blow-torch, into garnishes for the black sesame seed ice cream which will top a warm chocolate fondant for desert. Next he tastes a sauce, made from red wine, in which roasted duck bones have simmered with a mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery. "Needs a little sherry vinegar," he pronounces, with an authority that belies his 24 years

So who is coming for lunch? Well, no-one at the minute. His new restaurant, Anthony's, opened in Leeds not two months ago. And at present absolutely no-one has booked for lunch today. He is not bothered. "Tuesday lunch is like that. Last week 15 turned up eventually."

He does not need to worry. Last week his restaurant, which only takes 25, was completely full on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Saturday they turned away 120 people. "We take more money on a Wednesday than a Saturday," he muses. "On Saturday they drink more wine, but on Wednesday they drink better wine. That's the foodies' night."

The truth is that every night is foodies' night at Anthony's. Though the restaurant is new, word is spreading fast. Since leaving Huddersfield Catering College eight years ago, Tony Flinn has worked his way up a ladder of Michelin-starred restaurants in Britain and Spain. He finished with two years in Feran Adria's three Michelin-starred El Bulli, near Barcelona - possibly the most talked-about restaurant in the world. News that El Bulli was coming to the UK - Tony Flinn is the only English chef ever to have been on the payroll there - spread even before his restaurant opened. Within days the first restaurant reviewer arrived. The esteemed Robert Cockroft of the Yorkshire Post, who wins Glenfiddich awards for his food writing, pronounced it among the six best meals he had had in 20 years of international eating.

Top chefs began to flock to Leeds. The day I ate there a couple of weeks later, the head chef from the Fat Duck in Bray - which was named the second-best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine last month - was there. So was the manager from the nearby Pool Court restaurant, which has a Michelin star.

"In the world of chefs," says Mario Wyn-Jones, the former chief inspector of the Egon Ronay Guide who now runs the BBC Food website, "Tony Flinn is flavour of the month." There are those who tip him to be Britain's next three-star chef, a rarified group of culinary heroes which includes Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal.

If attention to detail is the key to this kind of achievement, then Tony Flinn will succeed. Leaving the duck jus, he pokes at a plastic tray covered with clingfilm inside which something is bubbling. "It's yeast," he says. "I started it at home five months ago with a ferment of peaches. I use it to feed the mother-dough from which I make the bread." He was thinking ahead even as he and his family - father, also Tony, sister Holly and girlfriend Olga - were painting the restaurant, which was once a nightclub owned by Vinnie Jones. "I didn't want to have bread that tasted young when we opened. But five months is nothing. In Italy a yeast and mother-dough is passed down from grandfather to father to son."

It is 11.20am. Olga, who runs the front-of-house, rings down to say that they have a booking for two. Tony begins peeling Granny Smiths for his deconstructed apple tatin - a kind of tarte tatin whose constituents have been exploded across the plate in fragments of concentrated caramel and apple. Then he puts the bread in the oven. Until recently he was in the kitchen at 6am making the bread to give it time to prove, but he now makes it the day before and leaving it in the fridge to rise. "The bread is better. The gluten structure is stronger with a slow prove."

At 11.40am Olga rings down. Two more customers. Tony takes the fat he has rendered by slowly simmering Parmesan cheese in water and whisks it with butter. Using a spoon dipped in hot water, he shapes the mixture into perfect quenelles to serve with the bread.

It's 12.20pm. The first diners have arrived. "We have to be ready to turn people round in an hour if they want a business lunch," Tony says, "though 95 per cent of customers are here for longer."

"Two squabs; one duck, one rabbit," says Olga, crisply entering the kitchen. That means two starters of pigeon breast, on jabugo ham, with a reduction of meat jus surrounded by tiny tear-drops picked from the segments of a pink grapefruit. To follow, the duck breast with olive oil chocolate bonbons and a saddle of rabbit rolled in quinoa (a nutty Peruvian grain) with a mango and beetroot puree. The young chef, and his two younger sous-chefs, move with swift efficiency to their stations.

"Nick, the youngest, does the garnish and veg. Peter does the meat. And I do the amuses," Tony explains. Nick and Peter were both trained by the Michelin-starred chef John Campbell at The Vineyard at Stockcross in Berkshire. Tony went to work with Campbell straight from college after the chef spotted him while judging a student catering competition at the NEC in Birmingham. "He stood out because of his passion," says Campbell. "Tony has the capabilities to become a three-star chef."

It was at Campbell's restaurant that Flinn met Olga Garcia, a waitress on secondment from a catering school in Barcelona. His cooking skills were so great that when he returned to Spain with her he secured a job in the kitchen of Xavier Pellicer's Michelin-starred restaurant Abac, despite his lack of Catalan and Spanish. He then graduated to El Bulli, winning one of just 15 places from 500 applicants.

The amuses are a series of between-course tasters. First out of the kitchen is the Upside-Down Guinness, followed by a kind of rice-paper poppadam with sweet paprika that Olga brings back from Spain. Next, thin slices of confited duck terrine served with slivers of chocolate brownie and grapes pickled with cloves and juniper.

12.40. The second table is in, ordering starters of white onion risotto topped with a foam described as "espresso and Parmesan air". Along with the duck, they ask for sea bass with scallop tartar and oil that has been smoked by Tony at home in a hole in his garden. "I filled it with burning wood chips and used a damp cloth to create the smoke. In El Bulli we did it in the kitchen, but there's not enough room here," he says, looking round his tiny cooking area.

It was while he was at El Bulli that he received an unexpected offer from his father, Anthony senior, who had decided to retire early after 25 years running factories for Associated British Foods. He wanted to open a bar with his redundancy money and asked for help with the menu. As El Bulli closes during the winter, Tony said he would come back for six months. His Dad said it would take a year, to which Tony replied that they had better open a fine dining restaurant. They settled on Leeds.

12.55pm. Olga appears. "Two walk-ins," she announces. Tony adjusts the angle at which Nick has placed two roasted spring onions on the quinoa and positions the saddle of rabbit. The duck is waiting on the top of the stove, resting. "I'd rather serve it cooler but tender," he says, dotting hot sauce over the meat.

Olga reappears. Table two are ready for the amuse. "She is our eyes and ears," says the chef. "We depend on her to come in and say 'They're eating a little slow' or 'They're in a rush' or 'They're eating like animals'," he adds, somewhat indiscreetly.

1 pm. The walk-ins are having roast langoustines with fennel tea consommé, a salad of crab with green pumpkin seed praline and the rabbit. "We're deliberately keeping the menu not too adventurous," Tony says. "We have to build a regular local clientele and can't be too outlandish at first. We hope they'll grow with us."

Not too outlandish sounds rich from a man who has spent an hour filleting whitebait and removing the flesh from langoustine claws (most restaurants use them for stock). He laughs. "In El Bulli they take the bones from red mullet, throw the flesh away and serve the bones roasted." He starts on about black pudding. They make very fine ones across the Pennines in Bury, I say. "Oh we won't buy them. We'll make our own from freeze-dried blood. They'll be 10 times nicer."

1.25pm. The phone rings. Tony senior answers. It's a regular who has eaten with them twice a week since they opened. He's booked a table for six - can he bring two more? "No," says the chef. "We can't maintain this kind of quality doing more than six servings at a time. Sorry." He rings back. One is a Muslim. Can he have halal meat? "Fine," says the chef, and then looks at me and asks, "where on earth do I get that?" It's a revealing exchange. It seems Flinn is always up for a challenge, but not if it risks compromising the quality of his work.

It's 1.55pm. Two more walk-ins. One of them is a chef from Heathcotes, a Michelin-starred restaurant near Preston. They order from the set lunch menu - two courses £18.95, three for £22.95. Tony Flinn sends up Guinness cocktails for table three and a pre-dessert amuse of szechuan cinder toffee with yoghurt ice cream for table one. "Any amuses for the chef?" asks Olga. "You don't get amuses with the set lunch," says Tony. "Not even for chef." Turning to me, he says: "Inconsistency is one of my pet hates." It is not the only one. He hates service charges, preferring tips which reflect a customer's level of satisfaction. 2.05pm. The tarte tatin and a delicate cylinder of white chocolate filled with coffee toffee topped with foaming milk, like a faux cappuccino, are on their way up to table one. "And here's another pet hate. It's important that the set lunch menu should be of the same quality of cooking, even if you don't get the amuses. It always annoys me when you go to a two-star restaurant and order the set lunch and discover that the two-star cooking is only for those who order à la carte. We keep to the budget in the lunch menu but we strive for the same quality of cooking." He sends up a delicious-looking pig's cheek salad with celeriac remoulade and a velouté of potato with pan-fried salmon that looks like a miniature painting.

2.20pm. He is making the petit fours, with the chocolate, some caramel dust and a blow-torch. Such is the level of Tony Flinn's burgeoning reputation that the BBC rang him last week to ask if he wanted to do a celebrity chef programme. "I said no, of course. I don't want to be a bullshit TV chef. I've got serious work to do here." And so he has. At 4pm he and his team are washing up ("Why waste money on a pot-wash? I'd rather have a third chef") and cleaning before taking an hour's break before evening service. As I leave I realise that he hasn't eaten anything all day. And neither, I lament mournfully, have I. Next time.