The head chef and founder of The Wilderness, Alex Claridge explains his constant search for new expressions of flavours – and why ants and Oh Bollocks make sense!
Tell us about your cooking
We’re not cooks, we’re storytellers aiming to present something new and unexpected with a sense of fun. I’m of the mind-set that it’s only food. We’re not saving lives, we’re a small team of people who enjoy food, aim to entertain and are blessed to have a busy restaurant. Striving for new expressions of flavour often recalling an emotion gets me going. A dish on the menu called Oh Bollocks looks like a Mr Whippy ice cream that’s been dropped on the plate. It raises a smile and is big on nostalgia. We use the very best ingredients and a broad larder including insects occasionally which grabbed the headlines when the restaurant first opened, but it wasn’t about the shock value for me. The ants made sense in the context of the dish adding texture and flavour. I’d never use a random ingredient without it bringing something to the dish.
How did you become a chef?
I went to a traditional grammar school where the careers advice was limited. ‘Go into finance’ was the general advice. Going straight from university into a corporate graduate job I had an existential crisis and quickly realised it was never going to make me happy. I sort of grew into food from there and I’m largely self-taught.
What do you eat when at home?
Not a great deal. My fridge is shamelessly empty although there’s always wine in it. I’d rather eat out.
Who’s the best chef in the world and why? And who’s the best in Brum?
I have no answer really. You’re only as good as your last service. It takes a lot to be a great chef and you can forget any hope of an ordinary life, so I admire that hugely. I like places that are single minded. For instance, I went to Romania a while ago and found a bakery that made just two pastries, but did them brilliantly, rather than trying to do everything not very well. We could do with more of that ethos in Birmingham. We have a lot of venues, but not many with that sort of focus.
Is the customer always right?
I think the customer has a right to expect to be treated with respect, warmth and love and we get that right. We have really cool customers that get what we’re doing and are supportive. Is the customer always right? No.
Share a cooking tip
Less is more. To quote Marilyn Monroe, ‘take the last thing you put on off’.
What was your favourite food as a kid?
Milky Bars. Apparently for the first six years of my life I ate Milky Bars almost exclusively.
Food heaven and food hell?
Heaven would be really smelly cheese – the sort that would put most people off – with a sherry or port. Hell would be anything that’s just one texture, like a lasagne or similar, where every mouthful is the same mushy texture.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
Ambergris (bile) from a sperm whale at the White Lyan in London. It gives a luxurious richness without the fat.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I never had a plan B!
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
Heritage hogget with early wild garlic.