Owner and head chef Mike Bullard is casting his culinary spell on diners with his off-the-cuff creations at the Butchers Social. It’s all about pushing the boundaries, he says
Tell us about your cooking
My style is all about pushing boundaries, creating bold dishes with playful flavours. The majority of dishes I create are totally off-the-cuff (admittedly some dishes are better in my head than in reality!) but when it works, it’s pure magic. Take our chicken balti pie – something that’s a complete British classic but totally transformed to fit perfectly into a restaurant environment. That’s what excites me, creating that friendlier approach to fine dining and celebrating proper food without the pretence.
How did you become a chef?
Age 14, I was playing hockey at a fairly high level, which meant most of my mates were older. They were downing beers on pub crawls around Moseley and I, of course, wanted in on that – meaning I needed to get myself some sort of income. So, I started off as a pot washer to earn some pennies in exchange for pints and I became intrigued by the processes that went into cooking.
I used the opportunity to observe and ask as many questions as I could. Then, I started an apprenticeship at Metro Bar & Grill in Birmingham and moved through the ranks within the Lovely Pubs company before eventually leaving to gain more experience with contract catering, outside catering and working at University College Birmingham.
I was appointed consultant executive chef at West Bromwich Albion, which led to multiple awards and gaining recognition within the food industry, including the Craft Guild of Chefs Award for Banqueting Chef of the Year. I also spent some time in New York working for Le Bernadin (three Michelin stars), Per Se (three Michelin stars) and the Breslin (one Michelin star).
Being a Brummie born and bred, it was really important to me to return to my roots and bring that Birmingham heritage to my food. I was inspired by Glynn Purnell and my cooking embodies Brummie heritage.
What do you eat when at home?
I never eat at home. When I’ve been working in the kitchen, the last thing I want to do is spend my downtime in there too! I’ve got two young boys and of course I cook for them. Simple, hearty meals like homemade curry and pasta dishes – the type of wholesome, comfort food that reminds you of home.
Who’s the best chef in the world and why? And who’s the best in Brum?
It’s difficult to pin it down to one! For me, it has to be Thomas Keller. He’s totally changed the approach to modern cooking, creating a new pattern within the hospitality profession. Something that really resonates with me was a quote from him: “A great meal is a journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may have forgotten and takes you to places you haven’t been before.” That’s something that sits at the heart of my cooking and the culture of the Butchers Social.
In the West Midlands, it’s also hard to put the spotlight on one. Matt Cheal of Cheals is producing some great food at the minute. Just over the road (literally) from the Butchers Social, Cheals is helping to put Henley on the map as a foodie destination.
Is the customer always right?
They pay the bills.
Share a cooking tip
Salt is your best friend. So many people use salt as an afterthought but I can’t stress how important it is to use during cooking to enhance the flavour. I couldn’t cook without it. Or butter. The only other thing I would say is, keep it simple, use natural ingredients and you can’t really go wrong.
What was your favourite food as a kid?
A fish finger sandwich, complete with both tartar sauce and ketchup. Oh, and that awful burger cheese that can’t even really be classed as cheese…
Food heaven and food hell?
Heaven has got to be anything meaty – beef, short rib, ribeye. It’s a yes from me. My hell is horseradish. It’s the devil’s work.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
Weird stuff in Thailand… I’m still not exactly sure what it was.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
It’s got to be a fireman. There’s something very appealing about four days on and four days off!
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
Masala chicken, Balti pie and spiced lentils or a good old-fashioned ribeye.