If you were involved in our Euro 2016 sweepstake (you weren't) you'll know how seriously the I Choose Birmingham team takes its gambling. Just the one murder this year and in fairness that's being downgraded to manslaughter. Collectively, this time, we're making a bold, bold bet that Cheal's of Henley-in-Arden will win the West Midlands' next Michelin star on October 3. And at just 30 minutes by train from Moor Street, you should get in there before half the world wants to.
Solihull-born, Mat Cheal — who didn't look far beyond his surname when christening his restaurant — grew up in catering. "It was the camaraderie I fell for," he explains. "Love of food came later." Washing up at The Arden while at school, then heading to catering college at UCB, Mat secured a work placement at Simpsons. "Luke [Tipping, Chef Director], Glynn Purnell and Andy Waters were all in the kitchen. You could say it was a good calibre of chef", he says. Andreas Antona, owner of Simpsons and The Cross, offered Mat his first full time job. "Seventeen years later I left Simpsons to launch Cheal's." He fails to mention the competitions he won on the way — junior chef of the year, senior chef of the year, or time spent seconded to a two-star Michelin restaurant in France. A nicer man in the food business there is not.
As you step through the entrance to Cheal's stunning 438-year-old building there's a giant picture of Mat staring down on you. "That's kind of a joke," he says with a wry smile. "My parents ordered it. It was supposed to be A4-sized but arrived absolutely enormous. I hung it in the doorway to get a cheap laugh out of my dad, but he loved it so much that he's convinced me to keep it there." Logistically the building was a nightmare. Mat had to have a dumbwaiter installed to ferry food from their small upstairs kitchen. "Turns out that was the least of my problems. I'm quietly confident it's haunted." Mat didn't look for a venue in Birmingham, despite having created a name for himself in the city. "There's a big market for a place like this out here, slap bang in the middle of Brum and Stratford."
"It's fairly classical, with a modern interpretation," says Mat. "It's not English, it's not French, but it is European." The taster menu is a refreshingly reserved six courses. "I don't think you need to blow a customer's head off with wildly differing kinds of food and endless courses. I had a 40 course meal at Quique Dacosta, Denia. Don't get me wrong, it was incredible, but I can't remember three quarters of it." About 45% of customers order the taster menu but if you're going a la carte Cheal recommends the rabbit and chicken terrine (pictured above), the brilliant invention of his Senior Chef de Partie. Suffice to say we loved it, but it was just about trumped by Mat's immaculate ox cheek ravioli.
He'll hate us for predicting a Michelin star, this time around. "I think after just 11 months it would be very soon to get one," he explains. "Don't get me wrong it would be a dream come true, and I'll be pushing hard until the day I do get one. But this year is a bit of a stretch." They've been, though. Michelin have paid Cheal's two visits, the first one just three months after opening. And the restaurant has already been featured in the Good Food Guide as well as winning the coveted Louis Cippola award. "Word gets around when Michelin are in town, so we sort of knew who we were cooking for. But I didn't feel as nervous as when Michelin came to Simpsons. Retaining a star packs more pressure than winning one." And if we're wrong about Michelin recognising Cheal's this year, then we'll double our stake next year.
Images: Tom Bird
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