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


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INTERVIEW: Catherine Farinha – The Chefs’ Forum

Catherine Farinha - The Chefs' Forum / Faydit PhotographyWords by Ed King / Profile pic by Faydit Photography

“People become chefs because there’s a passion; it’s a way of life, it’s not just a job.”

On Monday 15th January, The Chefs’ Forum hold their ‘Pay What You Can’ lunch – a four course meal from a handful of the city’s leading chefs, supported by students from University College Birmingham.

Aimed at “the glitterati of top chefs and food professionals”, The Chefs’ Forum – which launched its Birmingham & Midlands Chapter in February 2017 – organises industry showcase events, where young students and burgeoning chefs get the chance to deliver a menu under the direction of luminaries in their locale. Monday’s lunch will see “signature dishes” from Louisa Ellis (The Wilderness), Mark Walsh (OPUS), Luke Tipping and Leo Kattou (Simpsons) and Olivier Briault (The Edgbaston) – all prepared and presented by students from the ‘career-focused education and training’ provider.

“UCB is the Ferrari of catering colleges,” explains Catherine Farinha – founder of The Chefs’ Forum and a “specialist food marketing consultant” in her own right, whose Red Cherry marcomm agency has been representing food industry clients since 2011. “We work with 16 colleges nationally,” continues Farinha, “and it’s (UCB) up there with the best. It’s had a £25million refurbishment and there was no expense spared when it came to the kitchens; it has the best kit you could possibly have in any professional kitchen, let alone a college.”  

Ticking boxes from facilities to faculty, UCB also has a solid reputation for its business outreach agenda, as you would both hope and expect from such an institution. But was it such a clear choice of partner for The Chefs’ Forum when they opened in Birmingham? “The lecturers completely support the students and are grabbing each opportunity for them to make connections with the local business community,” explains Farinha, “and they’re supporting us 100% – they really do walk the talk. When it comes to best practice UCB is a shining example of how it should be; it’s a well oiled machine with good business links, all we have to do is galvanise that.”

But today’s educational landscape can be more tricky to traverse, with a myriad of shifts in both focus and funding creating a system that’s arguably more interested in retention than placement. Or it’s an apprenticeship scheme, which can all too often carry the echoes of the YTS debacle promulgated by Thatcher’s 80’s administration. Then there’s Gordon Ramsey (although he did give UCB the ‘Ferrari’ quote). But what are the biggest problems facing young chefs today?

“The main purpose of The Chefs’ Forum is to connect the colleges with the restaurants,” explains Catherine Farinha, setting out a stall that stretches from classroom to kitchen, “so that young people can feel more confident in applying for jobs. There’s a huge chef shortage, an international chef shortage not just a national one, and we can’t get enough young people into the kitchen. They don’t always know how to approach a chef to ask if they can have a trail shift or to pass on their CV; they can lack the confidence at the age they are (16-18) so we make it easier. When we hold events we place people in the kitchen with established chefs, we bring the chefs into their colleges to teach them, and then we host four events a year across nine areas – so we’ve got a nice easy conversation going on between both sides. And whilst we’ve got them all in one place we bring the brands in; without the brands we couldn’t stage the events, with them supplying ingredients and equipment.”

And how about those classrooms, outside of your work with UCB how do you find tapping into Levels 1 to 3 – the educational age and stage to begin inspiring young chefs?  “A lot of the schools are hanging on to their students to make them stay on to do A-Levels, as opposed to going to a college for a vocational qualification,” tells Farinha. “Purely down to funding, they want to keep hold of their young people so they don’t showcase other careers. There’s a lot of incentive for schools to hang on to their students and not send them to college – but we need the schools to help us and give those young people a fair range of careers to choose from.”

Sounds frustrating, but anyone who works in secondary education will tell you how difficult it can be to both fund and facilitate extra-curricular activities. Perhaps it’s more about logistics? “We run these taster days for 14-16 year olds and the schools can be an absolute nightmare to deal with, even when we offer to pay for a coach to bring the students into the event and see these great chefs presenting demonstrations. Some welcome it with open arms, but the majority are resistant to allow their students to experience it first hand, and therein lies the problem.”

Meanwhile, back on Summer Row… The chance to work alongside such established chefs is a valuable learning curve for any young kitchen focused creative, but what exactly will the UCB students be doing at The Chefs’ Forum lunch?

“Each chef has a different course,” explains Catherine Farinha, “there’s a starter, a fish course, a meat course and a dessert, and they will get a team of students cooking with them and being directed by them. The students will produce the food with the chefs as mentors, which will be a signature dish from the individual chef’s menu.” And this is supported by the industry suppliers that will be showcasing – both ingredients and equipment – as part of the event? “Absolutely, and we don’t charge the colleges to work with us. We charge the suppliers and there are about 20 to 30 at each event, so it’s like a mini trade show.”

I’ve already got my sights on Alicia’s – the Midlands based ‘handmade ice cream and sorbet’ outfit who I’m hoping will be make an appearance in Oliver Briault’s dessert course. But how does The Chefs’ Forum selected its suppliers? “The pre-requisite is that they are already supplying chefs in Birmingham, you can’t buy your way into The Chefs’ Forum. All those brands have been recommended by the chefs; without one of our committee members having road tested a brand we won’t let them come in. The quality control comes from the chefs.”

And Birmingham loves a committee. Who is ‘on the board’ for The Chefs’ Forum’s second city events? “Mark Walsh (Opus), Nathan Eades – who’s just moved over to The Wild Rabbit in the Cotswolds. Neil Rippington at UCB is also very much in the driving seat; whilst we don’t have a contract with them (UCB) he’s our committee member for the educational side. Then we’ve got Adrian Enescu and Bev Brown from Rofuto. We’re not from Birmingham but we made sure we’ve got a few local people who know it like the back of their hand.”

And the pay-as-you-feel approach? Not that I’m complaining, but the lunch menu presents four courses from some of the best chefs in the city – not exactly an M&S sandwich on a bench by the Town Hall. “It makes it accessible,” explains Farinha, “chefs aren’t always the best paid, so to ask them on their day off to pay a load of money for a lunch cooked by top chefs with a ticket price of £95 would be unrealistic. But I don’t care if they give me £10 or £50, because they appreciate what we’re doing and they know all the money is going to The Chefs’ Forum Educational Foundation. But people can pay what they feel; I wouldn’t ever turn anyone away.”

The Chefs’ Forum carries an agenda that is arguably well placed in today’s catering education and industry, namely one that helps clear a path between the two. And Birmingham has blossomed with gastronomy over recent years, from the five Michelin stars that now decorate the city’s listings to the profoundly successful Digbeth Dining Club. There is, too, an army or eager young chefs in this city that would benefit from any support of substance. But the proof is in the pudding, if you’ll forgive the outrageously obvious pun, and whilst The Chefs’ Forum may have a pretty successful six years under their belt only one has been spent in Birmingham. So, it’s both exciting and early days.

But for now I’m content to enjoy some fine dining in January, not what I thought my New Year budget would allow. And with The Chefs’ Forum committed to four events in the Midlands each year, reaching out to “new openings” and supporting “the new generation of chefs” across Birmingham and beyond, who knows what the spring and summer menus will present. I wonder what season is the best for a good burger..?

For more about The Chefs’ Forum, including news from chapters across the UK and details on upcoming events, visit

If you would like to know more about The Chefs’ Forum Educational Foundation, visit

If you are a chef, supplier, educator, or work within the food industry and would like to know more about opportunities through The Chefs’ Forum, please email Catherine Farinha at

To know more about University College Birmingham, visit

ED’S PICK: January 2018

Words by Ed King

January 1st… no finer day to cross off the calendar. But as the world crawls out of bed with hangovers and resolutions, Birmingham’s events diary looks forward to a pretty vibrant January. It seems the ‘quiet month’ is not so dormant this year. Which is a good thing, right? I mean, who needs to stay in and save money? Food and heating are for quitters.

Some pretty big gigs happening this month, with the rock powerhouse that is Paramore (ain’t alliteration ace) coming to the Genting Arena on Jan 14th. Tickets may be sold out by the time I finish this sentence, so you’d better act rápido por favor (just finished watching Narcos) if you want to catch them tour their fifth album, After Laughter, through the second city. On the Lord’s Day as well… dios nos perdone.

On the smaller stages in Birmingham, Surprise You’re Dead are tearing the city in two on 24th Jan – as Ohio’s metalcore Miss May I come to Mamma Roux’s, whilst London’s pop punksters The Bottom Line are joined by Nottingham’s Lacey at The Asylum. In fact, overall it’s quite a strong start to 2018 from SYD as the Birmingham’s stalwart rock/punk promoters are also bringing Dead! to The Flapper on 31st Jan and The Bronx to Mama Roux’s on 17th Jan – although The Bronx gig has already sold out so check the relevant corners of t’interweb for returns.

Elsewhere in the land of live gigs, we have the rising stars Riscas headlining an uber line up at The Sunflower Lounge on 19th Jan – with Spilt Milk Society, Candid and The Real Cool all in support. If this gig doesn’t sell out then I will 1) buy a hat, 2) eat my hat, 3) buy another hat. 2018 is set to be a big year for Riscas, we reckon, so catch them when and where you can. Then The Hunna return to the O2 Academy on 11th Jan, whilst Setting Son Records present Average Sex and Semantics (one of our faves) at the Hare & Hounds on 24th Jan.

Hot on the heels of their recent triumphant homecoming, KIOKO headline a stellar line up of local acts at The Crossing on 26th Jan – with Namiwa Jazz, Zara Sykes, VITAL, Elektric, and revered local poet Kurly all performing as part of the Love Music Hate Racism event at the Milk Street venue. Trish Clowes presents her latest album, My Iris, with a new ensemble of the same name at Eastside Jazz Club on 25th Jan. Whilst those somewhat silent psychedelics, Moon Duo, come back to the Hare & Hounds on 30th Jan courtesy of This Is Tmrw. Then there’s the gig I’m throwing my metaphor in the ring for – This is the Kit showcase their new album, Moonshine Freeze, at The Glee Club on 24th Jan.

January also sees a strong line up of comedy in the city, kicking off with Tina T’urner Tea Lady Steamy Bingo at The Old Joint Stock on 5th Jan. Tracey Collins will be bringing her ‘camp alter ego’ back to The Old Joint Stock in March, so if you miss your numbers this time around you can always try again in spring.

Stand up also starts strong at The Glee Club, with Andy Zaltzman bringing his Satirist for Hire tour to The Arcadian Centre venue on 19th Jan – a week before Fern Brady’s debut Suffer Fools tour lands there on 26th Jan. Quick tip, if either of these stand ups ask you to email in suggestions or comments… don’t. Or at least don’t sign your name. Or sit in the front row. You have been warned. Whilst over at the Town Hall, Ed Byrne brings his Spoiler Alert tour to Birmingham on 27th Jan – a room big enough for some safe anonymity, for the audience at least.

Theatre stamps a reassuringly eclectic foot down on the first month of 2018, with Outer Circle Arts presenting The Death Show at The Rep Door on 26th and 27th Jan. Whilst a stone’s throw behind them in Hockley, Blue Orange Theatre present The Late Marilyn Monroe – running from 30th Jan to 3rd Feb. Then over at The Patrick Centre is the somewhat less self-explanatory Translunar Paradise  – Ad Infinitum’s unspoken story ‘of life, death and enduring love’, presented at the Hurst Street venue for one night only on 31st Jan.

Saint Petersburg Classic Ballet present Swan Lake, also for one night only, at the Symphony Hall on 7th Jan. Whilst The Mockingbird continues to its mission to save The Custard Factory from the cultural abyss with a double screening of Clerks and the documentary behind Silent Bob’s directorial debut, Shooting Clerks, on 19th Jan. There will also be a Q&Q with the latter’s director, Christopher Downie, and some cast members at 9pm.

For more film, mac hosts Playback from 7th to 24th Jan – a touring and ‘interactive exhibition’ of over 200 short films from ‘krumping and parkour dance shorts, to an animated tale of teenage love that unearths our desire to be as cool as the zines we read’. Held in the arts centre’s First Floor Gallery, with free admission, Playback carries a Tubbs and Edward local angle too, as ‘some of the films were originally made in and around Birmingham, where young people based in the Midlands were given the support and funding to create a short film.’

Then rounding off Birmingham’s cultural cache for the New Year, The Chefs’ Forum present their ‘Pay What You Can’ lunch at University College Birmingham on 15th Jan – a networking, trade and showcase event with four courses from some of the city’s top restaurants. Having launched its Midlands’ agenda at UCB back in February this… sorry, last year, The Chefs’ Forum is hosting their Jan ‘18 lunch to raise funds and awareness for its Educational Foundation which supports young chefs across the UK.

And with Louisa Ellis (The Wilderness), Mark Walsh (Opus Restaurant), Luke Tipping and Leo Kattou (Simpsons) and Olivier Briault (The Edgbaston Boutique Hotel) all chipping in a course, it should do just that. Although, the non-fixed donation approach is gratefully received in mid January.

Now if I can just find an energy provider with the same approach…

**Also straddling this month and the next are the two rescheduled Lady Gaga concerts, as the uber-star kicks off the UK leg of her Joanna World Tour at Arena Birmingham on 31st January before returning to play the Genting Arena on 1st February. Tickets to both arena shows are priced at £48.50 (+ fees), as presented by Live Nation UK.

In memoriam of her paternal auntie and namesake, Lady Gaga’s latest song, album and tour appear as personal an affair as you can offer when delivering it to millions of strangers. A curious dichotomy, but one Birmingham will get to see on stage first as the Live Nation machine sets down in our city before anywhere else in the UK. Kudos.

And with tickets being transferred from the previous dates in October 2017, it’s fair to say there may be a bit of a bun fight to get in to these gigs. No doubt it’ll be worth a few scuffed elbows though, but even if ‘I’m never going to know you now, I’m gonna love you any how’. OX Joanne.

For direct gig info, including venue details and online ticket sales, for Lady Gaga at Arena Birmingham on 31st January, click here. For Lady Gaga at the Genting Arena on 1st February, click here.’

Tickets for the originally scheduled Lada Gaga shows at the Genting Arena (12th Oct ’17) at Arena Birmingham (15th Oct ’17) can be transferred to the new dates. According to the venues’ websites, ‘if you cannot make the new date, refunds can be obtained at your point of purchase for a limited period’.**

Playback @ mac 7th to 24th Jan

For more on any of the events listed here, click on the highlighted hyperlink. 

Ed King is Editor-in-Chief of Review Publishing, which issues both the Birmingham Review and Birmingham Preview titles.