A new culinary friendship between Birmingham and Riga is flourishing, writes Richard McComb.
Gints and Juris are working in the cold preparation room at the back of Simpsons restaurant in Edgbaston.
There is a neatly turned out tray of juicy little quails, the product of Gints’ early morning labours.
His colleague is standing by the huge stock pot, which is bubbling away with bones, discarded carcasses and vegetables.
It is a good spot to take refuge because it is particularly chilly in here, even for a cold room. It keeps the chefs on their toes and the absence of heating is restaurant boss Andreas Antona’s gesture towards fighting global warming.
Not that Gints and Juris are too bothered about the Arctic blast whipping in off Highfield Road.
A nippy November day in Birmingham is a walk in the park for these natives of the Baltic. The two Latvian chefs have come over from their home in Riga to get an insight into life inside a Michelin-star kitchen.
It is the return leg of a culinary fixture kicked off by Simpsons’ executive head chef Luke Tipping, who travelled to Riga in September to pass on some of his tips as well as experience the freshness of Latvian cooking.
The job-swap was set up by Delice, the global network of 17 leading international food cities, of which Birmingham and Riga – together with places such as Barcelona, Gothenburg, Osaka and Milan – are members.
Delice wants to promote greater co-operation between the cities’ chefs to highlight new ideas, raise standards of dining and spread the gospel of gastronomy.
Tipping came back from Riga with a tremendous enthusiasm for the produce, particularly the fish and vegetables, enjoyed by the Baltic states’ biggest city. He was also impressed by the skills and craftsmanship used in traditional preserving techniques.
While he was there, Tipping also took part in cookery demonstrations, in which he was assisted by Gints and Juris.
As part of the reciprocal agreement, the two Latvians flew to Birmingham to join the team at Simpsons for a ten-day visit. They admitted the style of cooking was a world away from the hearty fare they were used to serving in Riga. Gints, who is 31, worked this summer at 38-year-old Juris’s huge grill restaurant and beer garden in the heart of the capital.
The place, called Wine and Fish, seats 640 in the summer with an outside terrace. The food is always fresh – nothing is frozen – and the biggest selling dishes are the fish and meat plates, which feature four different varieties of produce and include wine. The cooking is done outside on big grills and planchas.
In the winter, the open-air dining and cooking shuts up shop and the restaurant, whose name translates as No Problem, opens. With an abundance of great local fish, the restaurant specialises in halibut, sea bass, sea bream and sardine. Green curries and grilled steaks also go down well with hungry Latvians, says Gints.
“I don’t want to see you cooking any burgers in here,” says Tipping, laughing as he walks through the prep area at Simpsons. Burgers are also big in Riga but don’t work so well on Michelin-style menus.
“There is a huge difference between the food in Latvia and here,” says Gints. “Simpsons is a completely different style of restaurant.
‘‘They order just as much as they need for the day. The techniques and the ways they prepare the food – and the cost of making the food – are totally different.
“It is very costly to keep a kitchen like this and you need a lot of staff to maintain it. The service is so much better here, too. It is something we struggle with back home. There is a different attitude. There is more training in the UK and a more professional attitude.”
During their stay, Gints and Yuris took in an eclectic mix of the region’s food, both local and “adopted”.
They dined at the grand Coombe Abbey Hotel in Warwickshire, toured Aubrey Allen’s new catering butchery in Coventry, visited Birmingham’s German Market and had a late-night curry at Imran’s in the Balti Belt.
Asked about their favourite dishes, Gints heaped praise on Tipping’s salad of Portland crab with Severn & Wye smoked salmon, avocado mousse, red pepper jelly and tacos.
“And I love the puddings, especially the sorbets and the chocolate. The chef who prepares the chocolate [Jacqueline Keenan] is excellent. Very impressive,” says Gints. And he’s right – Jacqueline is terrific.
City council leader Mike Whitby joined the chefs at Simpsons for a lunch-time taste of Latvian cuisine, enjoying a salmon dish prepared by the duo from Riga.
He said he hoped the new relationship between Birmingham and Riga would help to foster future culinary exchanges.
“I take great pride in the fact that Birmingham is part of the Delice network. Indeed we’re the only UK member city,” said Coun Whitby.
“Our involvement in Delice is testament to the wealth of culinary experiences that Birmingham is home to, whether they be our three Michelin-starred restaurants, the Birmingham International Food Festival, Taste of Birmingham, or the Balti Belt.
“Through Delice we are able to promote Birmingham’s food offer internationally and to work closely with restaurants in the city so their staff can learn from and exchange ideas with fellow chefs in other major cities.”