Our philosophy is based around being as local as possible and trying to source as much as we can from within Bromsgrove,” says enthused young chef Nathan Eades.
It may seem an unlikely place to spark a food revolution but Nathan and fellow chef Grant Hill are going back to their roots to launch a pop-up experience making the most of Midland produce.
The pair are opening Epi restaurant next week at the already established Kitchen Garden Cafe in York Road, Kings Heath.
They hope the temporary business will help them to show off their skills to a new set of diners, having already seen success from a similar venture in Bromsgrove.
Nathan, 26, from Catshill, near Bromsgrove, and Grant, 25, from Kidderminster, met five years ago while working at the three AA rosette Lainston House in Winchester.
Nathan went off to Canada to work and travel for a year during what he terms an early “mid-life crisis”, and found work at The Wedgewood, a Relais Chateau hotel in Vancouver, where English chef Lee Parsons took him under his wing, inspiring him to try foraging and fishing for salmon.
“He showed me how to really respect and understand food,” says Nathan, “and how it needs to be cooked simply.”
Returning to Britain in 2012 to marry girlfriend Charlie, Nathan sent out a batch of CVs to every restaurant with a Michelin star or three AA rosettes, clinching a position at the three-rosette Fishmore Hall in Ludlow, where he was promoted to sous chef after three months and once again had the chance to work with Grant.
Last year he bit the bullet, left his job and launched his own pop-up restaurant, Epi, with support from Grant (who is still working full-time at Fishmore Hall) and Charlie, whose background in event management is being put to use leading the front-of-house operation.
“It’s scary,” he says, with wide eyes.
“It’s exciting but the be all and end all is I’ve got a mortgage to pay so I have to make this work.”
So far, so good, for the pair launched Epi in Bromsgrove in late October, putting on seven events in two months at the charming Courtyard Cafe, serving 30 diners each time, with each event selling out.
Remembering their opening night, Grant says: “There was definitely pressure but it was an amazing feeling, being able to say ‘This is us, this is the dining experience we’ve created’.
“It was such a buzz – a real adrenaline rush.
“And fortunately everybody loved it. We didn’t know what to expect but the feedback was amazing.”
The pair aim to deliver most of their dishes directly to the tables, interacting with diners and cutting out the middle man to answer questions about cooking methods and ingredients.
Grant continues: “Feedback helps us to improve and that’s why we leave comment cards at the end of each night. We want diners to tell us point blank what they enjoyed and what they didn’t and we’ll take it on the chin, whether it’s good or bad.
“The pop-up in Kings Heath is priced at £32.50 per person, not including drinks. We know that’s a lot of money for a couple so we want to give those customers exactly what they want.
“We are still in a recession and disposable income isn’t what it used to be so we’ve got to provide value for that.
“We are in a highly-competitive market so we want to listen to our clientele as much as possible.”
Giving diners the chance to feed back comments directly has also proved a good strategy for improving Epi’s online reputation as diners have the chance to share criticisms personally with the boys and are then more likely to take to websites and leave positive comments, winning them an enviable five-star rating on Tripadvisor.
The popularity comes from the locally- sourced produce presented in innovative ways.
Their flour comes from Charlecote Mill, near Stratford, and they use Holywell water from Malvern.
Their beef, mutton and chicken comes from within Bromsgrove itself, from specialist poultry farm Keys Hill in Wildmoor, with more fresh produce coming from Bromsgrove’s Array fruit farm.
“Their apples are incredible,” enthuses Nathan, “They’ve got a crispin apple which is a cross between a Bramley and an eating apple similar to a Braeburn, and it’s so versatile.”
He adds: “The produce within the Midlands is fantastic. The wild food here is second to none with lots of mushrooms, herbs and fruits right on our doorstep.”
Last December they turned a locally-sourced haul into a festive feast with Charlie’s vision of a nostalgic “journey through Christmas”.
Diners found their menus inside Christmas crackers, starting with Epi’s version of traditional Santa and Rudolph snacks, savoury mince pies and compressed carrots with coriander and vinegar, before progressing to a chicken dish harking back to Nathan’s mum’s traditional festive pate on toast.
Grant says: “We want people to know where these dishes have come from and what they mean to us.
“We’re bringing the diners into the menu with us.”
Each table had stockings with chocolate orange truffle penny sweets and lumps of “coal” made by injecting CO2 into chocolate to give a bubbly Aero-like texture before breaking it down to look like charcoal.
Dessert was made from apples foraged from the garden of a willing customer with chestnuts gathered at the back of West Midland Safari Park.
They talk passionately about using the by-products such as apple peel and cores to make a tangy apple vinegar, and list other foraged ingredients: sorrel, chickweed, wild parsley and angelica.
But when it comes to their inspiration, the pair don’t cite back-to-basics foragers like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but Marco Pierre White, Satt Bains and Michael Wignall of Pennyhill Park – classic chefs’ chefs.
More locally they wax lyrical about Carters of Moseley and fellow pop-up restaurant (though in a looser sense of the term) Adam’s in Bennett’s Hill, where Michelin star chef Adam Stokes is giving his food a two-year trial before opening a more permanent Birmingham venue.
Now living in Northfield, Nathan is keen to win a slice of the Birmingham food market and the pair are clearly inspired by what they’re seeing here.
Grant says: “The current scene in Birmingham is great and there aren’t many places in the country that are on the up like Birmingham is. It’s a city that has every type of food possible.”
Nathan adds: “You can see pockets developing in and around Birmingham with the high-end restaurants and the big foodie areas of Harborne and Moseley.
“Even though we’re slightly further out we’d like to be part of that.”
Monday will see their first appearance in Birmingham, with a pop-up event at the Kitchen Garden Cafe, a venue previously used for a pop-up event by Moseley’s Masterchef finalist Claire Hutchings.
“I didn’t know it existed,” says Nathan, “but it’s a fantastic place, hidden on this urban street among terrace houses, with an alleyway full of herbs and big tubs full of flowers leading to a courtyard. It’s something you wouldn’t expect to find there.”
Using the pop-up route to raise awareness of their brand, Nathan and Grant are hoping Epi restaurant could have its own permanent venue 12 months from now.
Before then, diners should look out for them nearby, with potential pop-up spots including Bewdley and Sutton Coldfield.
* Epi is at the Courtyard Cafe, Bromsgrove, from Thurs to Sat and at Kitchen Garden Cafe, on January 27, February 25 and March 31.