Paul Gould, the NEC’s top chef, tells food critic Richard McComb about his ambitious plans for Michelin-style dining
A chilly corridor outside the main kitchen at Birmingham’s ICC is an unlikely venue for the unveiling of a radical, not to say hugely ambitious, dining concept.
Chefs in the mega kitchen, or “central production unit” as it is known in the Communist-sounding in-house terminology, are working on a menu revolution. It will change the face of large-scale catering, or it will if it works. And with Paul Gould in charge, I am not going to argue.
Gould is the enthusiastic, energetic and talented executive head chef for the NEC Group. He’s cooked for royalty and rock stars, including a veggie spread for Sir Paul McCartney. He must be approaching his mid-60s (he lets slip he is due to retire in a couple of years) and still likes to training with weights. If he ever tires of cooking, he could boost his pension as a bouncer at the local Darby and Joan Club.
Gould greets me with a hearty handshake and invites me to sit down at the linen-draped table. A bottle of wine is chilling in an ice bucket although with the temperature nudging 2C this hardly seems necessary. It must be the first time a chef’s table has been stationed in a corridor at the ICC. It’s homespun, in a corporate way.
The reason for the unusual lunch date and venue is this: Gould, who never shirks a challenge, is taking on possibly the biggest challenge of his 34-year career with the NEC Group. He wants to serve Michelin-style tasting menus at the ICC.
Tricky, you might think, but not impossible. The twist is this: Gould wants to seat 250 covers – in one sitting.
It has never been done before and the highly ambitious dining experience will cost £65 to £85 per head (exclusive of wine), aimed at Birmingham’s corporate high-rollers as well as the financially comfortable who are looking for something special to mark a wedding, a landmark anniversary or a birthday.
Gould confidently predicts he and his team can turn out food of “Michelin quality” to scores of diners. “If I didn’t think I could do it, I wouldn’t promise it,” he says.
As we chat about the ideas behind the tasting menus, I am served samples of the sort of dishes clients can expect. It’s bite-sized eating, each course requiring five or size mouthfuls. The driving principles are lightness and cooking finesse.
There will be seven courses on each of the bespoke menus – two mini starters, two mains and two desserts, followed by a cheese course. I am served lemon and chive crab, marinated anchovies, Bloody Mary jelly and guacamole dressing on a tile of black slate. Main course is tender Scottish beef fillet with a beef tortellini, wilted spinach, buna shimeji mushrooms, black sesame and pimento chutney and a deep Shiraz sauce.
Dessert is a shot glass of refreshing lemon curd, dressed with a pretty lemongrass jelly and a ginger pistachio crunch. The standard of the cooking is high and when Gould pledges to deliver, he generally does. But Michelin standard? Michelin restaurants typically have high staff to diner ratios in order to ensure the food, the twiddly garnishes, the foams and the petit fours all come together. Meeting those requirement for 250 will require an army of chefs in the kitchen.
Gould is aware that he is sticking his head above the culinary parapet – “It’s my head that’s on the block,” he says. But when I suggest that serving 250 seems like madness, he is unfazed, saying: “If you always do something that is achievable, you go backwards.”
The food, he accepts, will never actually achieve a Michelin star because guide inspectors take so many other factors into consideration; and try as the ICC’s innovative party planners do, they are never going to make Hall 9 look like The Connaught. Still, Gould sees no reason why Michelin-type food should be kept just for swanky restaurants.
He says: “While a tasting menu is a familiar sight in Michelin star restaurants, we have found that the catering industry has been unsuccessful at delivering this for high volumes. We’re recognised for being able to take niche restaurant concepts and deliver them to scale, so this presented a great challenge and opportunity for the ICC catering team to be the first to do it.
“We will be able to offer this to event organisers wanting to give their guests something really unique for up to 150 guests initially, with a goal of extending this to 250.”
Gould is keen to create a sense of theatre for the new tasting experience. “It will be aimed at the foodies. We could do it for golden weddings, 50th birthdays, 21st birthdays,” he says. The chef, and his bosses within the NEC management, hope the idea will also appeal to the corporate sector, which is starting to come blinking into the daylight after an economic battering.
Gould, one of the country’s most decorated chefs (he won gold at the World Culinary Olympics), did a lot of research at Michelin restaurants as he composed his menus – “It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it,” he says, smiling – and has worked through the logistics of staging such specialised cuisine on a grand scale.
He says: “As I sat down at these Michelin restaurants, there was nothing that frightened me. I thought, ‘My team and I can deliver this.’
“Tasting menus require a long dining experience. It is not a lunch or dinner that will be over very quickly. It will be aimed at people who are as appreciative of their food as their wine. I don’t think we will be doing it every week. It will be for a specific market.”
That said, Gould, originally from Quinton, Birmingham, has pledged to take personal command of the project and will happily sit down with clients to discuss their menu preferences, whether they want lobsters or oysters, beef sirloin or confit pork belly.
He doesn’t lack for culinary firepower. “There are about 80 chefs in my teams and 15 of us have been together for 34 years. I have got Michelin star chefs, banqueting chefs and industrial chefs,” he adds.
NEC Group Catering is also planning to offer a new “multi-sensory” dining experience including a mini cookery class, demonstrating each dish on selected menus, for guests and conference delegates.
Sally Davis, managing director of NEC Group Catering, said: “We’re adding value to our existing offer and always aim to bring excellence and innovation to catering within the event industry. I am very proud to lead such a talented team that continually strives for innovation.”