Alex Claridge, chef owner, The Wilderness

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th April 2019

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Alex Claridge doesn’t like to mince words.

His shamelessly honest approach has earned him a few slaps on the wrist along the way, but it is integral to his persona. His charisma comes from his ability to say things as they are, with little concern for the consequences, and his food reflects this: it is irreverent, outrageous and unique.

We spoke to him about how he wound up being a chef and how The Wilderness went from a pop-up in an art gallery in a back-street of Birmingham to being one of the city's most notorious restaurants. 

Big Mac
The Wilderness' take on a Big Mac 

When did you decide you wanted to become a chef?

Have I decided that? 

I'd always done creative stuff. Music was my first love, but the problem is I have a bit of a self-destructive streak where if I can't be the best at something, I don't want to do it.

I recorded an album with my band when I was eighteen and I actually fucking hated the album.

So I sold all the guitars and quit music. Food was trying to find something else creative I could do to replace that. I cooked at uni for a mixture of money and trying to get girls to sleep with me - the girls bit didn't work out that well.

I did quite enjoy the cooking, it's informed everything I do. It's not inherently out of any desire to be a chef - like who would fucking  spend their entire life constantly working.

It's not for the faint hearted, but as a creative format I think it's amazing. It's such a visceral direct way to
create something and share it with people. At the risk of sounding proper fucking soppy, I quite like the fact that food is universal - you don't need to speak English to understand good food and that ability to bring people together is a really big thing for me.

And had you not been a musician and had you not been a chef, what would you

Dec 6
The Wilderness interior in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter

have been?

I imagine a professional model. I don't really know - possibly a writer. I studied English because I like to tell stories - it's just that as opposed to telling stories in a book I'd rather do it on a plate.

 God, that is literally the worst thing I've ever said.

Where did you work before you opened The Wilderness?

Nowhere exciting whatsoever. Bistros, cafes, pubs across Birmingham, Manchester, London; I did some stages and bits and bobs in Los Angeles.

My CV doesn't read like a list. I um and arr about whether I wish I'd come from a more traditional route but in a lot of ways I don't because because there's always been a limit to how much I felt I could achieve within the normal framework of stuff.

I've surrounded myself with chefs from all sorts of backgrounds. I like to think that I look at it differently because I've had a less orthodox journey through the industry.

We've got chefs who've done the opposite, they knew they wanted to be a chef and they've come through very classical. It gives it a really nice breadth within what me and my guys are trying to achieve.

Alex and Stu
Alex Claridge and The Wilderness head chef, Stuart Deeley

Did you go into The Wilderness on your own? Was it your idea?

I scribbled it down on a piece of paper about eight years ago. I was working as a development chef for a small  company that was trying to get into all sorts and I thought: "fuck this. I'm working really hard, I'd rather work really hard for myself."

It was literally me, a suitcase, a couple of pots and pans and one other chef, and that was how I started.

We started as a pop-up in a suburb of Birmingham called King's Heath. That did well so we moved into the city. It was a tiny little space shared with an art gallery on a back street behind New Street Station.

I look at it now and I don't even understand how we ever coped, it was fucking insane.

But there's always a reason why it's not a good time.  Chefs can always go 'oh I need this to do that, I haven't got this resource, I need this expensive piece of kit.' You need a knife and heat, that's it.

We've always tried to embody that. We will be quite punk in that sense of - we'll do ourselves. If it means we have to think outside the box, we will. So we started over there and then moved into the Jewellery Quarter last April.

It's been a constant evolution. But that's kind of what I love about it. I know where my core values lie. I know what I want my food to say.

Sweetbread Bao
Sweetbread bao, @thewildernessjq

What are you trying to achieve with The Wilderness?

I wanna make people happy and I want to piss people off.

It sounds daft but when I first started, what we did was influenced by Noma and new Nordic food; I was going out picking a lot of it myself. I wanted to capture time and space and memory and nostalgia - then had an epiphany.

We had a bit of a blip on that where I got sued by Daniel Hume for intellectual property, they were very keen for us to change our name -  it used to be called Nomad.

I still find it a bit of a stretch that you're going to confuse a restaurant in an art gallery in the back streets of Birmingham with a hotel, but intellectual property doesn't really work on common sense. It works on who's got the most money and the biggest bollocks.

Voluptuous as my testicles are, I lost that fight and when I came back I lost it again. I wanted my food to in some way do exactly the same thing -  to capture the place that I'm from, the city that I grew up in, the food that has thus far been informative to me.

But then when you look at it - this is not a city built on running through a fucking field to 5am picking flowers that've been blessed by pixies. That speaks in no way to the experiences of growing up in Birmingham. 

I grew up eating a lot of Asian food - actually I grew up getting battered because I wore a tweed jacket when I was twelve - but I see junk food and international food as defining Birmingham. When I left the city it blew my fucking mind that people didn't see samosas as a national dish, because that for me was the fabric of what I grew up eating. 

Everything we do now, we're trying to take the influence of junk food, to take the influence of spice and heat and international cooking and incorporate that into our food with the goal of providing the biggest possible flavours we can.

But in doing so reminding people that good food doesn't have to be fancy or exclusive - it's elevating food which for me is the fabric of what Birmingham really is.

If you find any London press publication and ask them about the Birmingham food scene, they'll

Herdwick Hoggett%2C carrot%2C szechuan
Herdwick Hoggett, carrot, szechuan @thewildernessjq

say 'oh they've got X number of Michelin stars and they invented the Balti' - that's a really fucking reductive way of identifying what the city is.

All we're ever trying to do with The Wilderness is to capture the place that we're from. We play heavy metal and rock'n'roll because this is the city that gave the world Ozzy Osborne and that's the music that I grew up listening to.

We serve food that's as much inspired by McDonald's as it is by any kind of classical French stuff because it speaks more to what the city is and what it means to me as someone from that place.

Honest to God, you find me a chef on a Saturday night after a dinner service, if you give them a fucking greasy burger, who's not going to be happy as Larry.

I'd much rather do that - food people actually eat. 

I want it to be a restaurant that's not for everybody. I want to be for the misfits, the weirdos, the people that don't really do fine dining. We're serving food that's ambitious, using produce from all over the world, the best quality stuff we possibly can.

But fundamentally, they're still sitting down and they're eating flavours that taste like a Big Mac whilst listening to the Rolling Stones.

 There's a lot of familiarity in that. And I think that's really powerful.

Who are your typical customers?

 The longer we've done this, the more appetite there is for this type of modern Brummie cuisine. We are getting people coming from further afield which is awesome. Our core customer base is incredible; we have some of the most loyal guests. They're part of the journey with us, through the good stuff and occasionally the stupid stuff that we get stuck into.

There's always this side of 'we're here to cook food, we're not allowed to have an opinion on that.' ‘We shouldn't say that,’ ‘the guest is always right,’ none of that really tallies with me. All we've done is enact a restaurant that does very little bullshit. But it's very sincere.

For me, that's what hospitality should embody.

Do you see yourself expanding The Wilderness or opening other branches?

I just want to keep doing what we do and making it better. I think if you set yourself something achievable, realistic and humble, it sets you up a lot better.

The Wilderness is a one off. I've got I've got a cocktail bar in the city centre called Nocturnal Animals that I enjoy; it's a bit more volume-led.

 I've got another project that I want to do and we’re looking at potentially moving The Wilderness to somewhere else in the Jewellery Quarter later in the year.

 But fundamentally, if it ain't broke, why fix it.

What advice would you give to any aspiring chefs?

Expose yourself to as many ideas as possible. Learn what you like and what you don't like. Learn the value of failure. I've learned so much more through the stuff I fucked than from the stuff that I've succeeded at.

The biggest thing that has enabled me to do what I wanted is learning the power of not giving a fuck. Don't take it too seriously. Chefs kill themselves for this, literally, they push themselves to the absolute limits.

I'm not saying that I'm exactly well-adjusted, but don't lose sight, it's only food, it should be fun. The minute you take it too seriously, believe your own hype or think that what you do is this life-affirming fucking thing that's going to fix it all - it's not.

Give fewer fucks, make mistakes, learn as much as you can.

Don't sweat the small stuff, no one gets out alive.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th April 2019

Alex Claridge, chef owner, The Wilderness

IN ASSOCIATION WITH