Over a meal at the Hyatt, Food Critic Richard McComb talks to council leader Mike Whitby about Michelin chefs, pork crackling and stews.
When it comes to food, Mike Whitby doesn’t believe in doing things by half.
We are looking at the lunch menu at Aria, the Hyatt Hotel’s restaurant, sipping a glass of Petit Chablis, and the leader of Birmingham City Council is in gastronomic turmoil.
He’s got his eye on the trio of salmon – oaked smoked, timbale, roulade – but the seared scallops, not to mention the crayfish and prawn cocktail, are giving him nagging doubts.
Whitby didn’t rise to the top of local politics without a measure of man, and woman, management and so it proves when the waiter appears to take our order. I tell my guest I’ll put him out of his misery by having the hand dived scallops, served on a natty sweetcorn fritter. At £10.50, the molluscs are the priciest starter on the menu and my selfless gesture absolves the Tory from any subsequent left wing bitching about municipal excess, even though neither Whitby nor the local authority has had to dip their hands in their pockets.
(The need for financial prudence has been made quite clear to me during the media ground-setting rules for the lunch. I am politely informed that the council cannot be seen to be lavishing cash on meals for hacks. Pot-holes, not pot roasts, are the spending priority. So the leader will do lunch, but not at the taxpayers’ expense. Quite right, too.)
Despite my scallop intervention, Whitby is still left with the salmon trio/crayfish cocktail conundrum. However, this is a man of culinary action and equivocation is dispatched quicker than a long-winded question from the scrutiny committee chairman about light bulbs. Whitby declares he’ll have the salmon – and the crayfish. Surf and surf.
It soon becomes apparent that politics pervades the food arena just as much as it does any other walk of city life. You don’t need to be a seasoned party operator to predict the howls of disapproval that will greet one of Whitby’s suggestions. We are talking about the spectacular improvement in dining standards in Birmingham over the past three or four years when the leader reveals his dream of having Michelin-star chefs cooking at high-profile city functions.
If, as is beginning to be accepted, food and dining can boost a city’s economic health, its sense of well-being and its marketing potential, why shouldn’t we showcase our kitchen heroes when Birmingham is in the national and international spotlight?
Whitby says: “We are twinned with Lyon and I get on very well with the mayor. Lyon’s reputation for cuisine is massive and when you go into their council house and town hall they have a range of restaurants. One of the challenges for me is to capture the grand nature of our town hall and council house and introduce there the same level of cuisine they do in the Lyon state houses.
“If you go in the banqueting hall, it has that splendour. You have got to align that splendour with a traditional reputation and some very good food, and we are looking at ways of addressing that.
“I have people from all over the world come to the city of Birmingham and we do entertain them. But when you go to Lyon and you have a Michelin chef looking after you, it has a cachet.
“I am not decrying the food that we have, but life and reputation is underpinned by cachet. We could possibly look at how we take advantage of all the great chefs we have in the city, align their reputation to the status of an evening. I am seriously looking at that.
“It is not a case of demeaning anything, but it is capturing this dramatic transformation in the perception of Birmingham as an eatery and we need to do our part as well as a council.”
How such a grand dining event might be managed, and, more importantly, how it might be paid for, are some way off being decided. Political opponents will say there is never enough money for schools and social services, so how can we afford to underwrite the costs of a Michelin bash?
One might argue that the question partly answers itself. Because there will never, ever be enough money for crumbling school buildings, textbooks, old folks’ homes and meals-on-wheels. But that doesn’t stop the council spending money on other initiatives with a view to longer term income generation. Some times you have to spend a bit to make a bit.
Controversy is left behind though when we talk about Whitby’s own food heritage. The roast guinea fowl that he orders next – I have the roast rack of Shropshire lamb, well cooked with lovely pearl barley – is a world away from the dishes of the council chief’s Brummie upbringing: hearty pies, milk puddings, fish on Friday and stews. Lots of stews.
Whitby has nothing by admiration for his late mother’s cooking. He was born a mile from where we are dining, at the now defunct St Chad’s Hospital on the Hagley Road. The family home was in Bearwood, where his father, Sidney, grew vegetables in the backyard, and Iris, a mother of five, excelled with baking, roasts and the dying art of working wonders with left-overs.
“We were unbelievably traditional,” says Whitby. “To this day I can still recollect the beautiful aroma of my mother cooking the joint on a Sunday. We would always have lunch every Sunday between 1 and 1.30. My father and mother would buy a massive joint.
“They would alternate between lamb, beef and pork, never any other meat. Chicken was in the week. It was never seen as a substantial meat in those days.”
Then he’s lost in a foodie reverie. “Tremendous Yorkshire puddings,” he says. “Tremendous mint sauce. All the roast potatoes. The smell of that as it gently roasted is a memory I will take to the grave.”
Iris turned out tasty steak and kidney pies, toad-in-the-hole and fish pies. All the food was fresh; nothing was processed; nothing was “bought in” with the honourable exception of the apple pies purchased from a bakery in Three Shires Oak Road. The young Whitby had to queue up on a Saturday for the celebrated fruit desserts.
Great stock was put by the restorative power of food and Whitby says he has been blessed with good health thanks to the culinary lessons of his youth. Sidney, orphaned at four, lived until he was 94 and Iris passed away just 10 days later – “She died of a broken heart” – aged 87. Honest, fresh British food sustained them.
“My father’s family didn’t live long and the importance of food to my father and mother was ultimately sanctified by their longevity,” says Whitby.
“Good food made all my brother and sisters strong. All these people go on about fat, but we used to have all the meat juices go into the gravy. I used to love the fat of all the meats. On a Monday, we had it cold with a whole range of potatoes and vegetables and then ...”
The voice of the leader trails off. I’ve lost him again. Has he stumbled on a new idea for the Big City Plan?
No, he’s remembered the aroma of his mother’s richly flavoured stews. “Every Tuesday we had this stew. Oh, the marinade! The taste was exquisite,” says Whitby.
“Eventually, of course, it was a bit tedious, knowing you were always going to get stew. But when I left home and I’d had so much good food, I made these comparisons about my mother who cooked from very ordinary stock, cold meat, bits and bobs, a bit of pearl barley. That is traditional, British food in its purest form. It was substantial and health making.
“My brothers and sister were all healthy. The food nurtured us. It was tasty and enjoyable.
“One has to be careful not to be romantic and beguile yourself into thinking yesterday was always better. But pork was never white. You had three or four lovely colours in the meat. You would have the marling. The taste would just come out. The fat would be there and my mother would crackle it up. Oh, and we would have the Bramley apple sauce. And the stuffing. Ahh ...”
Chez Whitby, at the family home in Warley Woods, he grows herbs in the back garden. At the minute, there’s parsley, marjoram, sage and thyme. He likes nothing better than peppery, garden-harvested nasturtium leaves in a cheese sarnie. Then there are the home-grown fruits, the Bramley apples, all the currants, loganberries and raspberries. He would plant more vegetables but says he’d get it in the neck from wife Gaynor, who likes a garden to look like a garden, not an allotment.
Whitby reveals he has started cooking again after years in the wilderness, taking to the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. But it’s a case of apron down if Gaynor gets involved.
“I can’t cook with my wife around. We fall out,” says Whitby.
Is Gaynor too exacting, I ask?
“That’s it. I’m not going to measure quantities, I’m going to taste. I’m going to throw things in and I am going to do things that shouldn’t be there. I love the olive oil and she is still on the keep-fit kick.”
Gaynor does a terrific spaghetti bolognaise, he concedes.
Ask Whitby to name his favourite foods and Birmingham restaurants and the list is endless. During the course of lunch, he refers to Mediterranean cooking, Italian food, Greek Cypriot specialities, curries, baltis, Chinese dishes, modern British and Barbadian delights.
The next big thing, he predicts, will be the wider emergence of Afro-Caribbean cooking.
“I feel Afro-Caribbean cuisine, especially Jamaican cuisine, is hiding its light beneath a bushel,” says Whitby.
Jamaica’s track and field stars are set to be based in Birmingham during the 2012 Olympics and the leader believes the Caribbean team’s city legacy will be underpinned by Jamaican cuisine. He says: “We are doing an audit as a city on what we import by way of food stuffs from Jamaica and we are doing an audit on Jamaican restaurants because we want them to raise their profile.
“Rather than sell to Afro-Caribbeans and Jamaicans, [they should] take a leaf from the Asian people that came here. They didn’t sell their curries to themselves. They sold them to the indigenous population and I want to align myself with the Jamaican High Commissioner and the Afro-Caribbean/Jamaican community here in Birmingham and promote what is a gem of a food. It has a range that people don’t understand.”
Whitby believes the scope of Birmingham’s food renaissance is limitless. “We are going through a golden age and we can build upon it. It’s a golden age with momentum. Who knows where we can go? We can go to the gods,” he declares, savouring a sip of the Burgundian white and looking forward to our dessert of a Black Forest chocolate box, prepared by the Hyatt’s expert executive chef Brett Sandland.
The pudding goes down a treat with Whitby, not least because it is served with that old-fashioned favourite, berry ripple ice cream. Whitby loves “old school” cooking as much as the Michelin genius of the new era Brum. In fact, he hankers for his mother’s fortifying, no-nonsense cooking.
“British food in its purest form had depth, taste and richness, was satisfying and it really made you healthy,” says Whitby. “The cafes of today ought to look at these lovely stews. At their best, a good stew or a good casserole is comparable with a good curry. There is an opportunity there. People would pay £5.99 for some dumplings and good mash with a stew or casserole. That’s my plea.”