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Birmingham Chefs Tell Us Why Their City Isn’t a Food Wasteland

“Growing up in Birmingham, there wasn’t much in terms of a food scene. I think people are slowly clocking onto it now. People are opening their own restaurants. There’s way more going on.”

by Daisy Meager
30 June 2017, 10:55am

Birmingham may boast the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants outside of London but for many years, the city's dining scene has had a bad rep. Despite a bustling South Asian restaurant scene along three roads dubbed the "Balti Triangle," to the south of the city centre, a lack of independent eateries and the dominance of chain restaurants have shunted Birmingham off Britain's culinary map. The fact that Cadbury World is the area's top food attraction says a lot.

This hasn't escaped the notice of food critics. Despite eating guides praising the city's high end restaurants, Birmingham has been branded bad for food time and time again in the press. Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner pulled no punches in his put down of the city's dining options in 2015, writing: "In food terms, the test of a city's attractiveness lies not in its ability to provide a big-ticket meal once in awhile, but in its ability to feed you well every day."

But is Birmingham's status as the butt of the country's food jokes deserved? I'm in the city to find out. To guide me is Alex Situnayake, founder of Birmingham-based alcoholic ice lolly business Wavey Ice and a born-and-bred Brummie. He agrees to show me around and hopes to prove critics of his hometown wrong.

"Growing up in Birmingham, there wasn't much going on in terms of a food scene. There are a lot of old school, established restaurants and there were the Michelin-star restaurants, but there were never many people doing interesting things," says Situnayake. "I think people are slowly clocking onto it. There are more street food markets and from there, people are opening their own restaurants. There's way more going on recently, so it's exciting to be at the forefront of that and seeing how things develop."

Outside Chung Ying Garden in Birmingham's Chinese Quarter. All photos by the author.

But our first stop is not one of Birmingham's new street food stalls or bars. Instead, we head to Chung Ying Garden, a Cantonese restaurant that opened in 1987 in the city's small Chinese Quarter, which has been a hub for Chinese businesses, shops, and eateries since migrants started moving here from Hong Kong after World War II. It was officially recognised as Birmingham's Chinatown in the 1980s.

"I used to come here all the time when I was younger with my family," says Situnayake.

Siu mai and black bean sauce pork belly ordered, I ask why he decided to set up shop in Brum.

"For me, moving to London opened my eyes to what was out there and showed me the potential Birmingham has," he explains. "I think you can look at any big city, see what's working there, and bring it back home and put your own twist on it."

Alex Situnayake, founder of Birmingham-based alcoholic ice lolly business, Wavey Ice.

Which is exactly what Situnayake did. After working at East London restaurant Rita's and launching his ice lolly business, he moved back to Birmingham.

"At the moment I'm crowdfunding to push the business forward and being in Birmingham means I have more time to put everything into the brand. I'm also selling the ice lollies in some of the independents here," he explains. "I think there's loads of opportunity here in Birmingham to do your own thing. I feel like there's the freedom to just have a go at something."

Dim sum finished, we make the short walk to the Bullring Indoor Market to meet a chef who has done just that. In among the many fishmongers and butchers selling fresh sardines, trotters, and live lobsters, is Otoro Sushi, a small sushi stall with a few seats lining the counter. In the open kitchen is Polish sushi chef Maciek.

Fish on sale at the Bullring Indoor Market.

"I've been in Birmingham for almost three years. When I came here, the idea was to find a job in a sushi place because I had worked and learned my craft in Japanese restaurants in Poland, but when I arrived I was disappointed," he tells me. "I thought in the second biggest city in the UK, there would be lots of Asian restaurants but there aren't too many which represented my level of craft. So, I decided to open a small place like this."

While he prepares elegant nigiri and maki rolls, I ask Maciek if he's noticed more independent eateries open in Birmingham since moving here.

Maciek, chef-owner of Otoro Sushi.

He says: "When I first came here, there was one good place for sushi and that was it. Lots of the places were chains and I wasn't interested in working there. But in the last 18 months, it has developed."

As well as running Otoro Sushi, Maciek works in the evenings as head chef at another Japanese restaurant in town and has plans to open an Asian small plates eatery. But he's still not sure that success for sushi in Birmingham is what it could be elsewhere.

"Sushi is a lot more popular and the quality of skill is much higher in Poland than in England, except in London. Lots of my friends who I worked with back in Poland are now chefs in the best London restaurants," says Maciek. "My dream is to go back to Poland and open a restaurant there but in my hometown, competition is really high."

Walking back past the Bullring meat and fish traders flogging the last deals of the day, Situnayake and I make our way further into Digbeth, an area close to the city centre filled with warehouses and factories. It used to be the manufacturing hub of Birmingham, encompassing the Typhoo Tea and Bird's Custard factory, but since the mass de-industrialisation of the 1970s and 80s, many of the buildings here now stand empty.

"People are starting to think there's more to Birmingham than passing by it on the M6, which most people used to."

The area is primed for redevelopment. The Custard Factory, a complex of buildings hosting creative industry office spaces, event venues, and independent shops, has been thriving since the 1990s and is an example of efforts to regenerate Digbeth. The space is also home to street food markets Hawker Yard and Digbeth Dining Club, and plans to extend the city's metro tram line here, along with the arrival of High Speed 2 (a high-speed railway that will open in 2026, linking London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds, and Manchester), means that more money is being pumped into repurposing buildings for housing, retail space, and office space.

Original Patty Men, a burger joint in a Digbeth railway arch.

One person who thinks High Speed 2 will be good news for the Brummie food scene is Tom Maher, co-founder and front-of-house at burger joint Original Patty Men. Along with head chef Scott O'Byrne, Original Patty Men started life as a street food stall at Digbeth Dining Club. Now, the pair cook and sell their decadent, aged Longhorn beef burgers and loaded fries from a Digbeth railway arch restaurant.

"Since we started about five years ago, people have started to go into Digbeth a bit more and explore the area. As a result, people have started to open more independents which Birmingham really needed," says Maher. "Digbeth is cheap at the moment and being regenerated as a result of HS2. It'll run past here and they're going to pedestrianise parts which will bring a lot of footfall."

Original Patty Men's buttermilk fried chicken burger.

I ask whether he's worried that the redevelopment will have a negative effect on independent eateries. The area may become more attractive for big businesses and rents would inevitably increase.

"There is that risk because you can guarantee that people will jump on the retail side of things," admits Maher. "But HS2 is a good ten years away so I'm hoping people get in there while they can. I think there's opportunity in Birmingham because it's not overly developed, there's not a huge amount of investment at the moment."

Co-founders of Original Patty Men Tom Maher (left) and Scott O'Byrne.

He continues: "Scott and I used to work in menswear and started Original Patty Men part-time because we saw lot of street food things going on in different countries when we travelled. Now, we're doing this full-time. I think there's a bit more freedom for people to do things in Birmingham. There's a bubbling pot of creativity here and so many different things have started to crop up."

"People are starting to think there's more to Birmingham than passing by it on the M6, which most people used to."

Down the road in a more isolated part of Digbeth, another pair paving the way for the independent food scene is mother and daughter Jasmine and Woolim. But Modu, their Korean restaurant hidden behind an unassuming green painted door, started life as a greasy spoon.

"My sister first opened the place as a cafe which did English breakfasts and teas. There weren't a lot of walk-ins or passersby so my mum decided to change it up into a restaurant," explains Woolim. "She used to run a Korean cooking class and helped open a restaurant in London so she became the head chef here."

Mother and daughter Jasmine (left) and Woolim run Modu, a Korean restaurant in Digbeth.

Jasmine chips in: "I knew customers would have to purposely seek us out and make a journey to reach us, so I wanted to offer great food, and a great atmosphere at reasonable prices which made the journey worthwhile. I wanted to focus on introducing real, honest, traditional Korean food to people of all backgrounds. Hence, the name Modu which means, 'everyone, everything, everybody, altogether' in Korean."

The restaurant has received strong reviews from local critics and Woolim tells me dinner service is always fully booked, with their Korean fried chicken a favourite among diners.

"Working as head chef in a different Korean restaurant and in a Korean supermarket I recognised the demand for Korean food—mainly from students with Asian backgrounds and teachers who had taught English in Korea," explains Jasmine. "After further research for around a year, I felt that there was room for more Korean restaurants in Birmingham. People had started to recognise the differences in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food. I also think the demand in the UK for healthy food, increased demand for Korean food because of its reputation in Asia for well being and slow-cooked dishes."

Photos of Modu diners hang on the restaurant's wall.

I ask whether they felt the need to adapt traditional flavours or dishes for a Birmingham audience.

Jasmine tells me: "I believed that traditional Korean food had enough merit to stand its own. But Korean food always has a very homely feel and side dishes must always complement the other dishes on the table, balancing in terms of taste, digestion, and nutrition. So, I introduced set menus to serve authentic Korean food with a presentation and service more suited to British habits."

It's not just the food that people return to Modu for. Jasmine tells me that anyone who walks through her restaurant's door is entering her home—the photos of diners that hang on the wall seem testament to this. Woolim adds that this open-arms welcome extends to her mum walking around the restaurant, scolding diners who haven't finished their vegetables.

After promising that we'll come back to eat another time at Modu, it's time for Situnayake and I to go.

It wouldn't be a trip to Birmingham without a visit to the Balti Triangle. A short taxi ride from Digbeth, the "triangle" comprises several Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi restaurants south of the city centre around Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane, and Stratford Road. The area's eponymous dish has roots in northern Pakistani cooking but is claimed to have originated in Birmingham curry houses in the 1970s.

Poppadoms and chutney at Pakistani restaurant Imrans.

It's early evening when I meet Usman Afzal Butt, executive chef of Imrans, a Pakistani restaurant on Ladypool Road. A cricket match has just finished down the road in Edgbaston, so the place is filling up fast and takeaway orders are flooding in. The hiss of a barbecue grill flares up behind a counter filled with pakoras and keema samosas.

According to the 2011 census, the Pakistani community in Birmingham is one of the city's largest ethnic groups, making up 13.5 percent of the city's population. Butt tells me how he has seen the city change.

Usman Afzal Butt, executive chef of Imrans.

"My father started Imrans in the 1970s and opened this restaurant in 1981. There used to be more of an Irish community. Then an English community. Now, it's predominantly all Asian," he says. "In the last 25 years, the customer base has gone from being 100-percent English, to half English and half Asian and other minorities."

This demographic change has impacted the food Butt serves at Imrans.

"My father started off with three or four curries and three or four starters on the menu. Slowly, we've built it up and brought in more traditional dishes that you'd get in Pakistan (we're from Lahore) and some from India," he explains. "We got famous for our barbecue menu in the 1980s. And we brought in dishes with meat on the bone and Punjabi specialties like paya curry with lamb trotters and a lamb tripe dish. We've added in street food like sev puri which is more influenced by the Indian market."

He continues: "We've actually started doing some Pakistani-Chinese dishes as well because you have a Chinese community in Pakistan. This cuisine is different to the Chinese you'd get on the high street. We've got shrimp toast which is made with sesame seeds."

Imrans' famous barbecued lamb chops.

And is balti still a popular order?

"People still want balti. A lot of people say you should cook it in the traditional balti dish but a lot of people don't like that because they say that you can taste the metal. We've got the traditional flavours like jalfrezi and makhani. There are about eight things on the menu that you can say are the core items. The katlama is one of the items that has been around for 40 years."

Egg pilao rice.

From Ladypool Road, Situnayake and I head west to Harborne, a suburb of Brum and the home of our final stop: Harborne Kitchen. Chef proprietor Jamie Desogus is in the open kitchen where the first tickets of evening service are being called out. In between checking dishes on the pass, he tells me how his restaurant aims to fill a gap in Birmingham's food landscape.

"Birmingham is great and we champion our city. We've got great high end, Michelin places and loads of low end chains. But there isn't much middle ground," he says. "Here, there's a deep focus and it is high end food but we have relaxed atmosphere and the price point is middle ground."

Jamie Desogus, chef proprietor of Harborne Kitchen.

He continues: "Our tasting menu runs from classics like duck parfait with cherry to dishes like ray with ponzu, pineapple, and mango salsa which is more edgy. But we're not fine dining. We're humans and we cook food for other humans who pay for it. That's it."

I ask whether he thinks there's a difference between opening a restaurant in the Birmingham suburbs, compared to the centre.

Desogus answers: "We've got a good demographic here—there's a mix of professionals and families. I'd like to open a business [in the city centre] but I'm not ready yet and I wouldn't want to replicate this."

He adds: "Birmingham is lucky with the high end food that we've got. We've got five restaurants with Michelin stars and that's brilliant. We've got the street food scene which is amazing. And there are a few other people doing similar things to me. I'm hoping it catches on because there's a market for it."

Desogus' words echo the fact that Birmingham is a city with a diverse population, diverse tastes, and diverse offerings. The people who earn their bread and butter in food here are reacting to their city's shifting culinary climate, whether they've been in the business for decades or months.