I missed saying “hurrah” when Birmingham won a fifth Michelin star last week as I was eating my way around China.
So a belated “hurrah.”
Or rather a qualified “hurrah.”
Much has been written about the latest Michelin milestone, much of it nonsense. Lots of newly-opened mediocre/poor restaurants have been lumped together in an attempt to show how much Birmingham’s food scene has progressed.
Eating out in the city has come forward leaps and bounds in 10 years but this has nothing to do with the influx of design-led, dining-bland so-called restaurants that have sprung up like fungus on an unmown lawn. Let us not confuses “newness” with quality, or frippery with gastronomy.
The five restaurants now rated by Michelin as the best in Birmingham aren’t the best five restaurants in Birmingham, in my view. However, the latest place to pocket a star, Carters of Moseley, most definitely is.
It has been thrilling to see Brad Carter’s cooking develop. Maturity doesn’t always bring assurance and confidence; it has here. Carter, 33, puts ingredients, not ego or fad, at the heart of his dishes. You will rarely find more than four elements on a plate, plus a sauce, so there is no hiding place. It’s all down to produce, execution and, crucially, consistency.
Carter, sporting a latter-day Southern Death Cult hairstyle (80s indie music reference) told me: “Everything has got to be perfect. You see young chefs pile everything on a plate – dots, cress, dots, cress – and it has no meaning. It has got to be about taste for me.”
The chef is a breath of fresh air amid the often fetid atmosphere of self-regarding Michelin dining. If he hadn’t take command of the pass, Carter could have ended up earning a crust on the underground dance music scene as an MC.
If he is the heart and soul of the small kitchen at Wake Green Road, his partner Holly Jackson is the magician of the front of house operation. Whatever the secret of restaurant service is, she’s got it.
The couple have amassed an ambitious young team and show admirable faith in promoting the next-generation of hospitality industry talent. Carters must be the only Michelin star kitchen to draw its entire team, the head chef included, from a single training establishment, the peerless College of Food at University College Birmingham.
Sous chef Pete Jackson, 25, (Holly’s brother), Richard Walter, 22, and Jack Gooch, 19, all trained at UCB in Summer Row. Assistant restaurant manager Abigail Connolly, 23, also studied at there.
Abigail and Richard, both Culinary Arts Management students, only graduated this week and Jack completed his VRQ Levels 1 to 3 in Professional Cookery in the summer.
Carter himself studied the then NVQ qualification in Professional Cookery at UCB after a year at a pub where he was quickly promoted from pot-washer to steak griller.
The great thing about fresh talent coming through is that the Birmingham old guard is upping its game. Simpsons has invested heavily in a spectacular remodelling of the Highfield Road restaurant. I popped my head in when the place was a building site at the end of August and was blown away by the unfolding transformation. This is a bold statement of intent. The gloves are off and the salamander is on. You pop up if you want to; Simpsons ain’t going anywhere.
A new head chef is in place following the departure of Matt Cheal. Nathan Eades, under the guidance of chef director Luke Tipping, will be responsible for delivering Simpsons new five and eight-course menus, à la carte having been dropped in favour of a more cohesive vision aimed at delivering unimpeachable consistency.
It’s often forgotten that Simpsons earned its first Michelin star in Birmingham in the same guide as Glynn Purnell – and held one for several years (in Kenilworth) before Purnell stormed on to the scene and took the place as the city’s first bona fide celebrity chef.
So what now for Birmingham as the Michelin dust settles for another year? I’m not sure how long the burger and steak thing will continue. British cooking is a moveable feast of influences, from the East and the West and our own backyard, and over-reliance on trend cooking has its perils.
I listened with interest as Vincent Durier, food and beverage director at Hong Kong’s Hotel Icon, told a discussion group last week that diners in the metropolis have already tired of gourmet patties, “dirty” burgers and grilled hunks of meat. Steak restaurants are shutting up shop in Honkers. Burgers are great but they are burgers. If I eat one hot dog a year that’s one hot dog too many.
Birmingham still has not got a good pizza restaurant. That’s a shocker. Or a Mexican restaurant or a bells-and-whistles Japanese. There isn’t a stand out fish/seafood restaurant. Some restaurants have diversified their offering and forgotten why they started out in the first place.
There are exciting projects, like Two Cats Roaming Kitchen in Hockley, where I had some stunning Arctic char and delicious bread recently on an unobserved visit. It’s a great time to be eating, drinking and watching in Britain’s quirkiest, ballsiest food city.
Take Carter’s view on traditional kitchen etiquette: “It’s definitely not formal French here. Ever. If they say ‘Oui, Chef’ they are out the kitchen. This is Moseley.”