In 2007 chef Andy Burns and his family swapped the Swiss Alps for the seven hills of Sheffield. He tells Jill Theobald how a ‘fortnight’s temping’ at The Forum turned into 14 years as the trailblazing executive head chef at True North Brew Co – heading up 13 venues, a team of 80 chefs and opening the first fully vegan restaurant in the city.
“I’ve always said I can work anywhere but Sheffield Marriott made it very attractive for my wife and family when we arrived in the city,” says Andy Burns, executive head chef at True North Brew Co recalling why he chose to move to South Yorkshire to live and work over other hotel destinations also requiring head chefs.
“We lived at the hotel for a month, they put us up for free and fed us, did our laundry while we got settled in. We knew it was a good company but the general manager (GM), the assistant manager and the F&B (food and beverage) man were all in touch with my wife and it looked like a nice place to go even though we didn’t know too much about Sheffield.”
In 2021 that nice place is home to Andy and his family, and professionally he has gone from working at hotels to ‘temping at the Forum for a fortnight’ which turned into 14 years as the trailblazing executive head chef at True North Brew Co.
Today he heads up 13 venues, a team of 80 chefs and recently opened the first fully vegan restaurant in the city.
When I was young in Glasgow, I was a wild kid – I made up my own rules, fell on my face, got back up and dusted myself off.
“I’m from Glasgow originally and left home at 16, and since then I’ve worked all over the place. I’ve worked in the northeast of Brazil and also Switzerland. I spent 14 years in Switzerland where I had a young family with three kids and owned two restaurants in the Alps.
“I had very successful businesses but unfortunately I am a fiend for physical work and by the time I got to 38, working 90-100 hours a week caught up with me. It resulted in my marriage breaking up because I worked with my wife as well and it was very difficult for me to stay in Switzerland as it was an amicable divorce that turned horrible.
“I made plans to go to the Republic of Ireland to hook up with a friend. I knew all the international funky places were already open in Dublin, so looked at Cork which was still a little old-fashioned. I thought I could jump on that bandwagon but in between waiting to leave I met my second wife. She was at hotel school in Switzerland, and I waited a couple of years for her to finish studying before leaving.”
The pair married and in 2003 moved to Cork “but it was very different – it needed to catch up with the times and property was very expensive.
“Me and my wife decided to start a family and she fell pregnant very quickly. And in Brazil where my wife is from families are very tight. After our daughter Gabriella was born my mother-in-law came over to Cork to look after my wife and the baby and stayed for a few months. I always knew it would be a difficult day when she went back to Brazil and sure enough, we drove her to the airport said goodbye and drove home and my wife said, ‘I want to go home’.
“So I said I’m a chef and I can work anywhere so take the weekend to think about it. Ten minutes later she was on the phone to her family saying we’re coming home! We ended up in Salvador da Bahia and started working for Marriott Hotels and Resorts at a resort of five five-star hotels. I was in the kitchens and my wife was front office manager.
“We stayed almost two years there, but I was finding it difficult because I’d always told my children in Switzerland I would always only be a flight away but actually I was quite far away, and I was losing touch with them.
“When I was young in Glasgow, I was a wild kid – I made up my own rules, fell on my face, got back up and dusted myself off. So Switzerland taught me a lot about the values in life of order, discipline, regime and respect which is fantastic for someone who has never had that before and for me in my profession. So to go to the north east of Brazil where it’s chaos was very difficult. After a couple of years my wife saw how miserable I was and said ‘let’s leave’.
“At this point I speak obviously English, fluent French and conversational Portuguese. My wife spoke fluent English and Portuguese and conversational French so English was the common denominator and we looked around Great Britain and logged on to the Marriott Hotels recruitment web page to see what jobs were available around the world. There was three – Norfolk, Edinburgh and Sheffield.”
I had heard a lot about veganism and how it was going from strength to strength with beers and wines as well as food.
After moving to Sheffield because of the warm welcome and family feel, six months later the Marriott Hotel was “sold to a group of investors and shareholders and they didn’t care about staff or customers really. But my two-and-a-half year old was at nursery so we decided to hang fire.”
After quitting hotels (“because with the exception of the Marriott a lot of them are not the same anymore”) Andy’s wife is now doing what she set out to do, revenue management.
“Then a chef’s agency put me into what was then Forum café bars who were looking for an executive chef. They had three sites all next to each other with The Common Room above the Forum and The Old House about five doors away– and I was the executive chef of me!
“I thought, ‘what is this chaos?!’ I came from Brazil from the frying pan into the fire! I said to the agency: ‘look I’ll do the two weeks but don’t send me back here again!’
“But I think what happened on my first day I tried to put in my Swiss organization and system. At 45 I was by far the oldest guy in the company – me and Kane (Yeardley, True North Brew Co MD) are the same age, we’re the old buddies! But all the people I was working with, while all young, were all very respectful of me and were lovely to work with. Fourteen years later, I’m still here!
“We’ve developed from, I think I was the only person in the Common Room, four chefs in the Forum and three in The Old House and then almost every year we’ve added a new site. I’ve gone from ten chefs to 80. The company has developed, I’ve developed, and I’ve put in my organization to make it run as smoothly as possible.”
And that includes being early adopters of Veganuary.
“I tinkered with Veganuary right at the start because The Common Room is a 500-capacity sports bar and it’s meat and carb heavy – burgers, fries, ribs. In Switzerland I bought a hot smoker and it was a great tool because I was in the Alps at 1,400 metres and we did a lot of BBQs.
But you never knew what the weather was going to be like and we spent too much time with parasols over BBQs so I bought the smoker.
“Around the time Reds opened their first site in Leeds we had a general manager (GM) who saw smoking as an up-and-coming trend, and I said I’d love to do it, but it was difficult to get equipment in the UK. I designed and built a hot smoker to my specifications, and it took off so well before long we needed to expand.”
After the GM moved on another arrived “and with them they bring their own concepts” and he thought the next trend was fried chicken. But he also told Andy they needed a vegan option.
“So I started working on a vegan KFC, if you like. I researched it and came up with a blinder. We called it Mockingbird and were working with seitan which is wheat gluten, nutritional yeast and stock and I worked on it until I’d developed a really good product. We launched it and before long the vegan chicken had overtaken the real chicken.
“Two years on and the sports bar Common Room, 50 per cent of sales are vegan. Take lockdown out of it but the market on takeaway was fantastic. Before lockdown we were already talking about expanding The Common Room vegan options to exactly 50-50 choices.
“After my daughter and son were born, I sometimes did the school run and I saw the vegan chef Rikki (Wilson Okrasa) – he’s very recognizable, a bit punky! He was the chef at Church and we got talking about food. Every time I saw him after that we’d have a little chat. When the sous chef at The Common Room left, I approached Rikki and said not only is there the sous chef job, but I want eventually for you to become my vegan development chef and he jumped – he took my hand off!”
Not long after he joined, Kane and the team were experimenting with new concepts for The Old House.
“Everybody was running about looking for concepts and Kane brought in a consultant, but it was Rikki who said you really need to make The Old House the first vegan kitchen in Sheffield. Not vegetarian – vegan.”
At the time the team went for a Henderson’s theme – but it was only open four weeks before lockdown.
But in a crisis there is also an opportunity – the company was offering takeaways.
“Rikki was very involved in the vegan options although he worked with meat and dairy. As we started to crawl out of lockdown Rikki said to me again, ‘I really think you should do the vegan restaurant and do it now or not at all – because someone else is going to jump on the bandwagon’.
“I had heard a lot about veganism and how it was going from strength to strength with beers and wines as well as food.”
Coincidently, the GM of the Old House became vegan during lockdown.
“All of a sudden we had this fantastic buzz about the place,” says Andy, “with everybody saying they’d work all the hours needed and didn’t want to close on Mondays and Tuesdays let’s get the menu and branding ready and we can all help. There was this energy I’d only seen before in the company at openings – but everyone was really behind it and they’ve had such enormous success even in just the first few weeks we’ve been open.
“Because we did this in a few weeks we didn’t manage to brand it, we didn’t get a huge amount of publicity or bloggers and food critics in. But what we’ve found is we’ve got people coming in not knowing it’s vegan and saying ‘well, we’re here anyway – let’s bring it on’. We’ve not even targeted vegan groups on social media yet so it must be purely word of mouth.
“Rikki is a first-time head chef but when I phoned him originally and asked what his dream job was he said to be head chef of a fully vegan restaurant – so I told him what we planned to do with The Old House and said ‘you’re hired!’
“We wanted to make the bar entirely vegan, but are tied to a couple of suppliers whose beers aren’t vegan – and the other thing is the upholstery! Kane spent a lot of money on real leather, so they weren’t about to change the seating for plastic!
“But it’s been a tremendous success and The Old House is very seasonal. Previously when the hot weather comes customers abandon it for The Forum and beer garden so we expect to be quiet but it’s really busy right now. The lads are struggling to cope with the volume that’s coming through but the buzz and the energy is still there.”