INTERVIEW: Alex Claridge – Nocturnal Animals

Words by Ed King

“I thought we should try and have some fun between now and the robot-based apocalypse.”

Alex Claridge is opening a new restaurant. The team behind The Wilderness are moving into the city centre, delivering a two tier establishment on Bennets Hill – with 42 fine dining covers downstairs, and a 60 capacity cocktail led bar upstairs.

Sound familiar? Yeah, well, it’s not. Nocturnal Animals opens fully from November 7th, with soft launches from November 1st, and is best described by the man behind it – “a cat amongst the pigeons”, something I wouldn’t be surprised to find on the menu in six months, giving a spin to a traditional burger or breakfast.

“The idea there is that it’s familiar flavours,” explains Claridge, as we sit in The Wilderness – discussing the eight course main menu for Nocturnal Animals. “It has got inspiration from take away food and I suppose more everyday food, and we’re just trying to present the most intense versions of those – all our cookery is, it’s not rocket science, I’ll take something familiar and find a way to do that in a new or playful fashion and we’ll present the best version of what we can.”

Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, BirminghamNocturnal Animal’s press release describes the new venture as a ‘bold new concept’, a subversive two finger addition to Birmingham’s culinary landscape that’s a ‘fun and inventive experience…. inspired by 80’s pop culture.’ A few phrases and words appear more than once in the public domain around Nocturnal Animals, some featured in the previous sentence, but it’s the reputation of its predecessor that has arguably given this new restaurant life. That and money. Blood. Sweat, probably a few tears…

“So, it’s a bit eighties,” adds Claridge, “but really it’s pop culture – it’s very tongue in cheek, we know it’s high end but it’s also acknowledging the contradictions and the numerous hoighty toighty high faluting wankery that goes on within the higher end of the food, beverage and hospitality sector.” I note down ‘hoighty toighty high faluting wankery’, intent to use this reference at the earliest possible moment. “But above all else I wanted to do a fun venue; the part of town where it is, is bustling. There’s a lot of operators – some are very good, some are absolute horseshit. But I wanted to do something that was quality focused, where genuinely it’s ‘the good shit’, but in the most fun and least pretentious way possible… there’s an irony because it’ll still get called pretentious, I’m well aware of the fact, but that’s just life. I wanted to do something that was fun, that was accessible, that kind of played to a bit of joy.”

It is here that the journalist 101 handbook demands I list the accolades and adventurous dishes that The Wilderness has been known for, and which could have also suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous TripAdvisor entries. But I won’t. It won’t help. Nocturnal Animals is clearly its own beast, if you’ll excuse the pun, and as Claridge declares, “anything that people really enjoy, just kill it. As soon as anyone can predict or knows what we’re going to do – as soon as anything is properly successful, and we’re known for it – I will get rid of it, I will throw it under the bus. When we moved to The Jewellery Quarter I didn’t take a single dish with me, I didn’t keep anything, nothing we’re known for. There’s nothing, for me personally, more depressing than a chef serving the same fucking thing eight years down the line.”

Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham“For all the framework and the fun, fundamentally I want my cookery to taste immense,” adds Claridge, clearly sidestepping an à la carte listicle. “It’s about flavour intensity and flavour clarity; so, if I say it’s a dish that should have pork on it, it should taste of pork. And it should be the most intense version of pork you’ve ever had. We’ve just applied that through the menu.”

But Nocturnal Animals is being presented as much more than a menu. Faber – the architects delivering the new build, and who cite a number of the city’s well patronised establishments on their client list – have had almost as much attention through the mainstream media as the team behind the restaurant. And as the adage goes, the first taste is with the eye. But where’s the line in the sand for Nocturnal Animals, between concept and culinary? “I focus on the end result,” cements Claridge, “I know how I want someone to feel when they’ve eaten that food, when they’ve had that experience, and I work backwards from there.”

And how about upstairs? A 60 capacity bar awaits this chef turned restaurateur, in a clearly visible location on one of Birmingham’s busiest shopping thoroughfares. And that’s commercial gold dust if you can use it correctly. Are Nocturnal Animals’ wet sales set to be akin to the dry?

“It’s certainly influenced by that fact that this is still a venue operated by a chef,” explains Claridge, as I fumble through a pronunciation of James Bowker – the mixologist who has been pulled in to shape and deliver the cocktail menu.Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham “It’s based on six flavours, six colours. And we’ve tried to focus on delivering, again, big flavour. With each flavour you can then get a long drink, a short drink, or a sharp drink – so we’ve tried to strip away some of the wankery… there’s no kind of emotions of… ‘a summer day’ or that sort of stuff, It’s more like, do you like these flavours and what style of drink do you want, then order it. Although I want it to be quality led I don’t want it to be inaccessible. I don’t believe you should require an additional NVQ to understand the menu.”

I’d be happy if I could see one, at this stage. But bookings are open and already being received for Nocturnal Animals, from both The Wilderness’s existing clientele and curious new comers. And there’s one addition to Claridge’s new venue that is all too easy to grab hold off. Afternoon Tea. Or rather, ‘an unabashedly badly behaved afternoon tea,’ as I read verbatim from a post on the Nocturnal Animals’ Facebook page.

“Afternoon Tea is something I never thought I do,” reiterates Claridge – stating his opinion on the offering that also appears on the social media post, “because I find the whole thing to be generally nauseatingly predictable. Also, I have umbrage with any experience that is so heavily gendered – the kind of marketing, ‘do you love your mother? If you do… Afternoon Tea’. I feel like that’s a bit simplistic and a bit shit really.” I twitch under the knowledge that this was, indeed, the birthday present I bought my matriarch, at Harvey Nichols no less. But the CND badge plastered lesbian I call mother, who built and ran the largest women’s bail hostel in the Midlands, had a wonderful time – spending the hour and a half cliché with her daughter and granddaughter. As far as I know they’re all still feminists, so perhaps we’re OK.

Afternoon Tea at Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham“The deal with myself was I’d only do it if it made sense with the venue,” continues Claridge, “and we could do it in a self-aware kind of way. Now with Nocturnal being a bar as well, we have a beautiful space upstairs that during the day… let’s be honest, there’s not a massive amount of cocktail drinking going on in the city. It’s not London, it’s a different profile. So, there was a commercial basis, and a space for that within the venue. And I wanted to do something that was pop culture, that was recognisable, but I wanted to do something that took the piss out of Afternoon Tea as this sort of ladylike – whatever that fucking means – delicate, refined, dainty… I wanted to take that and just punch it in the face.”

And to do that, Nocturnal Animals is… achem… ‘taking inspiration’ from a well known brand of children’s toy. Or not. For legal reasons I’m going to sit on the fence. But during the afternoon upstairs at Nocturnal Animals it will be ‘Basic Barbi and Recruiter Kyen’ serving you their own take on tea and scones.

“Barbi is in so many ways this pop culture figure, but I find it so much more interesting to present it with a mirror,” explains Claridge, “there’s nothing I’ve said about Basic Barbi and Kyen, for legal reasons, that isn’t basically already in that brand. It’s just holding a mirror to it and asking ‘are we… are we really OK with this? Is this really happening, does this still have a place in the group discussion?’ But the Afternoon Tea is still going to taste banging, it’s still delicious things, it’s still a satisfying afternoon tea experience. But I think we’ve found a progressive and playful way to do that.”

My stomach grabs the chance for specifics; can you elaborate on ‘delicious things’? “It’s all soup, twelve courses of soup,” jokes Claridge, I think. “No, the Afternoon Tea menu is a mixture of savoury serves, including a little pink burger – which in itself is quite a fun thing. And we’ve got a transition course which is a bacon and butterscotch macaroon. But the main servers are still… we’ve tried to take cakes and flavours that would not be unheard of on Afternoon Tea, we’re just presenting them in more exciting ways.

I think Victoria Sponge is fucking mega, for example, but you can’t – as a chef – just go, ‘here’s a Victoria Sponge’. And I don’t really get why not. But if we can present something, in a playful or whimsical way, to make people go ‘oh, that really is good’Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham – just almost, through that element of disruption of the expectation around those flavours, remind people how delicious some of these things are. How life affirming a little bit of fruit and a bit of cream can be.”

A blanket of familiarity seems a good place to wrap up, and the conversation trails off into a wider discussion of Birmingham’s hospitality scene and a less that glowing report card for the German Market, which is set to be Nocturnal Animals’ neighbour from opening to Christmas. As both a chef and a restaurateur Alex Claridge is firm in his endeavours, in a way that makes me understand why bookings are coming in before any menus or images are being released.

But the proof will be in the… insert pun here, and as I walk out onto the streets of Hockley with a few more questions than answers. Ambiguity’s a bitch. But that’s the fun, I guess. And it’s good to see an operator take such chances on the door steps of more ‘hoighty toighty high faluting wankery’ – instead of hiding amongst the Birkenstocks and ridiculous beards of the city’s creative industry led fringes.

And for all his self-deprecation, comic peer review imitations, and seeming aversion to adulation, Alex Claridge clearly cares about his creations. And that’s what sells, that’s what engages a public. That’s what made me want to interview him instead of copy and pasting a press release. I’ve repeated asked Claridge if he, himself, is having ‘fun’ with Nocturnal Animals – posing the question with another word that features heavily in the new venue’s rhetoric, and creating oddly long pauses whilst making me sound more like a quack than a hack.

But I’m also curious to know if he feels endorsed by Birmingham’s food and drink fraternity, both those that attend his restaurants and those that operate their own. So ‘fun’, sometimes. Maybe. But how about ‘loved’? “People who like food in Birmingham are aware that, in some way, we exist – and we do food,” explains Claridge, continuing the slightly self-effacing approach that has peppered this interview.

“But the interest is definitely there, and I think once people start to actually see the venue… like it or loathe it it’s going to be a difficult one to ignore.”

Nocturnal Animals opens fully from 7th November, with soft launches taking place from 1st November. For more information and online bookings, visit www.nocturnal-animals.co.uk

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