A lavish seven-course dinner served by Birmingham Chefs Alliance heralds a turning point for the city’s culinary credibility, writes Food Critic Richard McComb
It withstood the worst excesses of the Luftwaffe so there was every chance the historic church of St Martin in the Bull Ring would emerge unscathed from the Birmingham Chefs Alliance dinner.
But few who were present at the grand evening, sipping Champagne and nibbling caviar, could have foreseen the accomplished ease with which the event passed off.
Perhaps it was the ecclesiastical setting, amid the splendour of Alfred Chatwin’s Victorian Gothic design. Perhaps the 20 angels looking down on the stalls helped to impart a sense of divine unity. Whatever the reason, there was a lot of love in the nave.
The dinner, presented by seven of the city’s top chefs – our own Magnificent Seven – heralded the start of the revamped Birmingham Food Fest.
In 10 years’ time, I dearly hope the delivery of this seven-course tasting menu will be seen to represent another turning point in Birmingham’s gastronomic journey, marking the night we finally threw off the reputation of dining pariah and assumed the mantle of a nationally-recognised centre for cuisine.
Surely, you might say, Birmingham achieved this accolade a few years ago, when its tally of Michelin star restaurants jumped overnight from one to three?
In England, only Bray, home of The Fat Duck et al, can claim to have the same number of starred kitchens outside London.
But something quite remarkable happened last Thursday. Six of Brum’s finest chefs, marshalled by Simon Hellier, head chef at the ICC, worked together to deliver a complex menu to 180 diners.
To my knowledge, such a feat has never been achieved before. Could the chefs of Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool have pulled it off? Don’t make me laugh into my langoustines.
And what of London? Hell no, or at least not with the home-grown flair of the Birmingham dinner.
Because all of the chefs who cooked at St Martin’s were either born in the city or grew up here from early childhood.
The Birmingham Chefs Alliance dinner was 100 per cent made by Birmingham. (I couldn’t say made “in” Birmingham because the venison came from the Queen’s estate in Balmoral and the sea bass was from Brixham, but you get the picture.)
The majority of London’s fancy-pants chefs are shipped in from overseas, from France, Italy, Japan and Australia.
How many cooks born within earshot of the Bow Bells are in lofty positions in the capital’s Michelin-starred and equivalent restaurants?
The Brum contingent, by contrast, grew up amid the tribal roar of Villa Park and St Andrew’s. Birmingham pumps through their veins.
If I am honest, I approached the evening with sense of trepidation.
I feared for Simon Hellier, who was responsible for man-managing Messrs Purnell (Purnell’s), Tipping (Simpsons), Waters (Edmunds), Turner (Turner’s), Colcombe (Opus) and Islam (Lasan). “It’ll be like herding cats,” I mused.
I hadn’t taken account of Hellier’s supreme organisational abilities and selfless diplomacy (next job – Secretary-General of the United Nations?).
Neither had I factored in the spirit of camaraderie that I think I secretly knew would take hold among the chefs.
Peeking my head around the screens into the church’s hastily-erected kitchen, I watched Field Marshall David Colcombe address the troops.
There was not a word of dissent, even from the maverick Major Purnell.
When I sallied forth into the kitchen later on, emboldened by several glasses of wine, I watched the trio of Purnell, Simpsons’ head chef Adam Bennett and Edmunds’ Andy Waters put together the latter’s crème brûlée. Poetry in motion.
Out in the serving area, Aktar Islam was wiping the ramekins, lest any smears should compromise the aesthetic appeal.
The front-of-house service was performed with regimental precision, and warmth, by Amadeus, the NEC Group’s prestige event caterers.
With their cooking duties complete, the chefs spoke in glowing terms of the occasion and there was a resolve to repeat the event, albeit not for a while.
I spoke to an international food/travel writer on the night and he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the dinner and what it represented.
Above all else, I believe the dinner underlined Birmingham’s new-found confidence. London, like Paris or New York, is another country.
It is the capital city and therefore it has an in-built critical mass. Birmingham’s culinary challenge has been altogether more formidable – it has had to earn its place to sit at the top table.
The decision by the BBC’s Olive magazine to name Birmingham as Food City of Britain could not have come at a better time for the city’s food festival, although the honour was bound to attract some catty comments.
In The Guardian, Matthew Fort wrote: “While some may quibble about Olive’s findings, there’s no doubt that they are further evidence of the way that food, in various unlikely guises and places, now lives in the national consciousness.”
Is Birmingham an “unlikely place” to have a nationally pre-eminent food culture?
The city has a population of a million and the wider West Midlands, which it dominates, has a population of 5.5 million. That’s a few mouths to feed and, odd as it may seem, some people outside the M25 have palates too.
Earlier this month, I was chatting to Jean-Michel Daclin, the deputy mayor of Lyon and founder of Delice, an international network of food cities of which Birmingham is the UK representative.
M Daclin reaffirmed his belief that Birmingham has an unrivalled mix of restaurants from different cultures. We don’t have to play second fiddle to anyone.
But what the St Martin’s dinner did throw into sharp relief is the need for the city to have a top league female chef.
Ever since Trish Plunkett hung up her apron full-time at Liaison in Hall Green, Birmingham has been crying out for a woman to make their mark among the big-name boys.
It’s interesting to note then that, for me at least, arguably the evening’s finest course at St Martin’s was produced by a woman.
Jacqueline Keenan, of Simpsons, was responsible for delivering the restaurant’s macae chocolate and praline delice, accompanied with a light mandarin and lemon thyme sorbet.
The evening ended on a sweet highlight, without a single punch being thrown in the kitchen.
What more could you ask for from a city bristling with culinary confidence and finesse?
Birmingham Food Fest runs until October 23 and features special menu promotions and tasting events. For more information, go to www.birminghamfoodfest.com