After the glory, the goading. This weekend’s Observer reported on Birmingham’s latest culinary achievement, namely Carters of Moseley bagging a star from what remains, rightly or wrongly, the world’s most influential restaurant guide. It became the fifth restaurant in the city to do so. Step forward Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant pundit, ready to rain on Birmingham’s parade. He’s far from alone: earlier this year, Times food scribbler Giles Coren declared Birmingham was ill-served by restaurants and “just a bit rubbish” when compared with similar-sized European cities. Another “well-known food critic, who wished to remain anonymous” was quoted by the BBC as saying Birmingham was not a competitor to London – no, really? – and ranked “quite a way below Edinburgh, Bristol and Manchester”, which is clearly twaddle.
On this latest assault on my adopted home town, Rayner thinks chefs, food-watchers and restaurant customers shouldn’t be bothered with Michelin and its “prissy aesthetic”. He has a point. But prissy? I don’t know if the critic has dined at Brad Carter’s eponymous restaurant, but let me report that Carters most definitely is not prissy, and neither is its head chef/director. He’s got crazy hipster hair, a big beard, a Brummie accent and loves underground dance music.
Anyway, the fact Birmingham now has five Michelin stars doesn’t really matter. Michelin is for muppets. It’s all fluff. Get over yourself, Brum. That is the perceived subtext of the Rayner rationale. Curiously, the critic then goes on to condemn Birmingham for a lack of Bib Gourmands, dinky awards bestowed on restaurants for good food at a “moderate price”. Bib Gourmands are doled out by, er, Michelin. Confused? Frankly, yes.
I fully agree that Birmingham doesn’t have enough good independent restaurants. I have covered the city’s food scene as a restaurant critic and food writer for a decade and have made similar observations. It is soaring rent demands and operating costs that have led to the plasticisation of the dining landscape, not a lack of cooking skill or application. The same holds true for every town and city in the UK. As Rayner observes, “chain-itis” blights Britain. But the worst offender in regard to the proliferation of big-brand restaurants is, of course, London.
One should also be very careful about underestimating the extent of Birmingham’s independent restaurant sector. The city has a large group of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and Chinese restaurants (the latter acknowledged in Rayner’s piece). Are all these restaurants, which represent diverse cultures (a Romanian cafe and a Syrian restaurant are on my hit list), turning out terrific food? No. But some of them are.
In a world of hybrid foods, of cronuts and “dirty” burgers and god-awful gourmet “dogs”, it is trendy to mock the Brummie balti. But if the dish is well-executed, as it is at places such as Al Frash in Sparkbrook, it is one of the great value-for-money Mirpur-West Midlands fusion meals. The kebabs at Shahi Nan Kabab, cooked over charcoal and dispensed at £1.60 a pop, are the favoured snack of Asian taxi drivers.
And there is good value at lunch in the higher-end joints. The city’s cheapest three-course “posh” Michelin meal, at Carters, is £28. If you are nice, the sommelier will throw in half a bottle of house wine for £8. Of the other Michelin restaurants, a set lunch (usually with a choice of two dishes for each course) is as follows: Adam’s, £32; Turners, £35; Purnell’s, £35; and Simpsons, £45 (including half a bottle of wine). Bread is included; cloches aren’t. Frequently there aren’t tablecloths. The savages.
I had my birthday lunch at Purnell’s this year. Other than the truly outstanding cooking (the self-styled prince of Birmingham knows how to transform a humble pollock into a show-stopper), I was stunned by one thing: the total absence of that scourge of the London dining scene – Men in Suits. Neither were there Middle-Aged Men in Jeans and Suit Jackets. Rarely have I been in a “top-end” restaurant with such a relaxed, democratic ambience. Mr Prissy has left the building.
No, because restaurant critics aren’t yet as influential as Miley Cyrus, who happens to be a huge fan of the city’s Balti Triangle. Yes, because it is dispiriting to the next generation of Birmingham chefs. Okay, the city has miles to go in its food evolution. In truth, it’s probably at the awkward teenager stage. But there is a wealth of talent coming out of this city.
April Bloomfield, named best chef in New York by the James Beard awards, grew up and trained in Birmingham. David Hands, chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills, also learned his craft in Brum. So did Adam Smith, former executive sous chef at The Ritz, now head chef at the four-AA rosette Burlington Restaurant at the Devonshire Arms, Yorkshire.
Then there’s an abundance of home-grown talent still at work in Birmingham, which compares incredibly well with other cities. Carter learned his craft at the College of Food at University College Birmingham (full disclosure: I do consultancy work there). His three chefs, and his assistant manager, were recruited from his old college. Bloomfield, Hands and Smith also attended.
Then consider this: Birmingham chefs run four of the city’s five Michelin-starred kitchens. Two support Birmingham City. One supports Aston Villa. They have an appetite for misery. (The fourth is a football agnostic.) So, 80% of Brum’s leading kitchen talent – according to a guide that may or may not be for les muppets – is home-grown. Now what percentage of London’s top chefs are Cockneys? Say 50%? Less? Maybe 20%? Less than 5%? Gawd blimey, guv, it’s a fair cop and no mistakin’.