Alex Claridge is the nomad who walked into the wilderness. He talks to Richard McComb about Birmingham food culture, recreating a Big Mac and refusing to be typecast
Alex Claridge isn’t a fan of TripAdvisor or street food vendors who denude great cuisines of authenticity. He is a fan of speaking his mind. This tenacity perhaps explains how Claridge is turning out some of the most exciting dishes in Birmingham at the Wilderness.
The food operation is unrecognisable from Nomad, the pop-up Claridge launched in April 2015 before it morphed into the Wilderness. Following an unhappy spell as a corporate bean-counter, the English graduate had busked round Birmingham with Nomad before finding a permanent home in Dudley Street in 2015. Then followed a name change – to the Wilderness – following a crass threat of legal action by a New York hotel of the same name.
“We started to introduce dishes that are the root of what we do now,” says Claridge. There were playful exercises, such as “Oh, bollocks!”, an ice-cream dish based on a dropped 99 Flake. “We realised we didn’t need to limit ourselves to any particular emotion. We can do food that is unsettling. We can do food that is exciting. There is not a fixed grid,” he adds.
Claridge refuses to be “trapped” by a dish, so if it’s a hit, he will kill it off. It’s a Game of Thrones approach to gastronomy: “I don’t want to look back on my menu in five years’ time and have anything that I have got on now. It’s more exciting to throw it all out.”
Life is definitely exciting now. The Wilderness moved to Warstone Lane, Hockley, in April 2018, with the site being transformed in five days after Claridge had an “existential crisis”. The plan had been to move the restaurant to Bennetts Hill, in Birmingham’s central business district, but Claridge had a gut feeling it was wrong.
The change of heart saw the Wilderness relocate to Warstone Lane while the Bennetts Hill site became Nocturnal Animals, a cocktail bar, and Kisama, a 42-cover restaurant. These projects mean Claridge leaves day-to-day cooking at the Wilderness to head chef Stuart Deeley (ex-Simpsons). The fact the 22-cover restaurant represents Claridge’s heart and soul underlines the faith he has in Deeley. It is well placed.
Four years down the line, Claridge’s intentions are still the same as they were on the first day of Nomad. “I wanted to capture my time and place and all the rest of it,” says the chef. “When I was younger, I thought that was best epitomised by picking herbs, running through a field and pretending I was a nature pixie. But I grew up eating curry and McDonald’s and shit. My mum went to Iceland.”
There is no à la carte, just the 13-course tasting menu at £100 (10 courses is £75), which is heavily influenced by Claridge’s creative take on Brummie food – Indian, Chinese and “takeaway junk”.
“We want to try and show you what we think this city represents, and I tell you a Big Mac and a curry is a lot more representative than any amount of wild herbs I can pick,” he says.
A Loch Duart salmon and cream cheese tart, served as a snack, is “M&S canapés when you go to your posh aunt’s” while a yuk sung bun celebrates the city’s Chinatown, as does an appetiser of Orkney scallop satay offset with lime foam.
Claridge’s “Big Mac” elevates the burger chain’s signature meal to a level of technical finesse far outside Ronald McDonald’s skill set. A soggy McDonald’s bun is traded in for a chickpea wafer, bavette tartare and a boost of umami delivered courtesy of soy caramel, crispy onions, pickled shallots and shimeji, cheese custard and gherkins.
A dish called NAFB is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on lazy perceptions of Birmingham’s food scene. NAFB stands for “Not Another Fucking Balti” and playfully celebrates the essential aroma and flavour of a curry using quail, a butter chicken sauce, date and tamarind purée, curried wild rice and a cucumber foam.
Like all the main proteins, a mullet dish comprising Spanish and Asian techniques, and Herdwick hogget (loin and belly), are finished on a Japanese konro barbecue fired by binchōtan charcoal.
There is also refreshing, accomplished simplicity, such as “milk and cookies” – a cep and milk chocolate cookie, salted milk ice-cream and cep caramel. Deeley came up with the original concept and Claridge hit on the idea of cep as a seasoning for the chocolate. It is delicious food to make you smile.
From the tasting menu
• Lamb sweetbread bao
• Yuk sung bun
• “Big Mac”
• Cornish smoked eel, heritage potato, whey
• Orkney scallop satay
• Goosnargh duck, ponzu, togarashi
• “NAFB” – quail, tamarind
• Barbecue mullet, ‘nduja, bouillabaisse
• Herdwick hogget, carrot, Szechuan
• Rhubarb, gingerbread, anise
• Apple, miso, sesame
27 Warstone Lane, Birmingham B18 6JQ