Food Critic Richard McComb talks to ICC head chef Simon Hellier, the man tasked with delivering Birmingham’s most lavish dinner at the FoodFest
Chef Simon Hellier has either got the best job in town, or the worst.
In a few days’ time Hellier, the executive head chef at the International Convention Centre, will embark on the culinary industry’s very own Mission Impossible.
He will lead a team comprising six of Birmingham’s most distinguished chefs – three of them Michelin-star holders – and will be responsible for delivering a seven-course gastronomic treat, featuring caviar and edible gold, to 180 highly-expectant diners.
Just to complicate matters, Hellier’s venue is not a purpose-built restaurant but a church cafe. He will have just a couple of hours to transform the small kitchen into a fully-functioning food preparation area capable of delivering fine dining to 180 guests paying £200 a head.
It will be Birmingham’s most lavish dinner and Hellier has to pull it off at the historic St Martin’s in the Bullring. “I will pop in there the day before the dinner to say a quick prayer,” he says.
We are talking at his home from home, the ICC. The calm inside the executive meeting room is a world away from the gastronomic hurly-burly into which Hellier will be pitched next Thursday (October 13).
As one of the senior figures in Amadeus, the NEC Group’s catering arm, Hellier will be responsible for ensuring that the dazzling talents of the city’s leading chefs come up to scratch for the Birmingham Chefs’ Alliance dinner, which will act as a curtain-raiser for the new-look Birmingham Food Fest.
Despite the price tag, the tickets for the evening have been some of the most sought-after reservations in the city. Diners will have their meals cooked by the head chefs of Opus, Purnell’s, Lasan, Turner’s, Edmunds and Simpsons as well as Hellier himself, representing Amadeus.
(Incidentally, the order the restaurants have been named is the order in which they are cooking. Just so you know.)
It will take a man of steel and extraordinary diplomatic skills to marshall this crème de la crème of Birmingham chefdom. One wrong move and it could all turn sour – and turn sour very quickly. There’s no room for mission drift.
Like a military commander, Hellier has total clarity of objective – spotting, and avoiding, the cock-up factor is his overriding aim. It is all about timing,” says Hellier.
“If service drags on and it is not happening at a pace we could get to 12 o’clock on the night and have had only four or five courses.
“These guys are highly capable of delivering their dishes but, for me, it is like playing chess. You have to be several steps ahead. I will be three courses ahead of the chefs. Do we need to get the sea bass on now? Do we need to get the venison resting? Chefs will not be used to these type of ovens in this kind of atmosphere.”
So is Hellier adept at calming ruffled nerves? “There are ways and means of saying things.”
Hellier adds: “You do have to have patience and a degree of calm. If I ever do lose it, it is with myself. If I have a failing it is to think, ‘Could I have prevented that?’ The guys are looking at you for guidance.”
He knows some of the chefs’ alliance team well, having worked alongside Luke Tipping, of Simpsons, and Andy Waters, of Edmunds, at the Plough and Harrow in the 1980s.
There have been a series of lively briefings (another was held this week) and the plan is for the chefs to arrive at the ICC’s central production unit for final preparations on the day of the event.
They will decamp to St Martin’s at about 4pm and move in when the last religious service of the day has finished. Four electric ovens and a ring burner will be installed (as well as a generator) and the chefs and waiters will set about filling the 1,440 plates required for the different courses.
It will be Hellier’s job to ensure there are alternative dishes for vegetarians and those with allergies and food intolerances. He usually budgets on a 10 per cent turn-out by veggies. Nothing is an inconvenience. It is all about providing the best food and dining experience for the customer, says Hellier.
“It is important that I was involved from the beginning because I don’t want to miss out on anything,” says Hellier, whose team was approached in early summer about the possibility of staging a grand dinner.
“It is all about assessing risk with large-scale banqueting. My job is to eliminate the risk. One risk could put you in a situation where you lose full control. Someone once described it to me as being like a train going down a hill with no brakes. When it goes, it goes.”
The stakes may be high but Hellier, who will be assisted by three other ICC chefs and three kitchen porters, is unfazed. After all, what could possibly go wrong with the city’s most ambitious chefs, all of them perfectionists, working together cheek by jowl in searing heat?
But it might be worth Hellier saying a prayer, just in case.