It probably feels like a lifetime ago for Andy Low N Slow, a man whose surname isn't Low N Slow but might as well be given how many people call him it. It was 2012 and Andy had been made redundant from a panel wiring job and just saying the words "panel wiring job" makes him slump in his chair. "The redundancy was coming," he recalls. "Sh*t man, I couldn't even bring myself to go into the factory. I'd get to the entrance and walk off around the corner to ring Donna and tell her I couldn't face it." Donna, or Donna Low N Slow as some call her, is the second half of a team that have become one of the most sought after fixtures in Birmingham street food. But we're getting ahead of ourselves...
"So I was living with my mom in a tiny village in south Staffordshire called Cheslyn Hay" says Andy. "I wasn't hugely into food. Actually that's an understatement. As a kid I remember going on camping trips and taking seven cans of All Day Breakfast with me. So you get the idea — fussy." What Andy did love, though, was music and it was music that took him to cooking. "I'd go to Notting Hill Carnival because I just loved the whole feel of the event and it was there that I needed energy to keep dancing, you know? So I started eating Jamaican jerk meats from the big oil drum cookers that lined the streets. Smoke and happiness everywhere. That was when I found barbecue and, to be honest, it couldn't have happened at a better time."
Jobless, Andy started researching Caribbean cookery. YouTube clips at first, but Jamie Oliver helped — not literally —one of his TV shows pushing Andy toward Texan style barbecue, which is hugely influenced by Mexican. Cooking for friends and family became cooking for friends and family, friends of family and family of friends. Brisket buns being passed out to hungry locals from his mom's back garden and, as word got around, the local pub asked Andy if he could cook from their car park for peckish punters. "I started to think I was on to something around about now — that I was at least okay at cooking barbecue. But I'd never heard of Digbeth Dining Club and Birmingham seemed some way off. I was just enjoying doing something that made me tick and making a bit of cash as I went. Did I think it could be a career? Maybe. Maybe not. I knew it was better than a job that was seriously affecting my mental health."
"Do you know what I was going to call myself?" he smiles. "Brisket King!" His laugh is booming and infectious. Part embarrassed, part loving it. It was way back then that Andy's passion for provenance came about. Ask Andy now and he'll admit that being obsessed with sourcing the very best and, where possible the most local, meats and vegetables doesn't work wonders for his bottom line. Burgers, pizza, ever-popular high mark-up dishes are perhaps where the smartest business decisions lie, but Andy went the other way. Quality, wildly over quantity. A butcher near to Cheslyn Hay provided Andy with his meats and they cared about the cuts they sold, using West Midlands farms and breeds that were shown respect. "Around the back of that butchers they had a cutting room," he recounts. "I think it drove them mad how much time I spent there, asking endless questions: 'Where did this pig come from? What cut of steak is that?' But they were patient with me and it helped to steer how I approach produce now, almost ten years later."
From here Andy threw himself into recipe books. Neil Rankin, a chef who launched London's Pitt Cue restaurant being a huge inspiration. Years later Neil and Andy are now friends.
All this theory was all well and good but Cheslyn Hay isn't Soho, so Andy started looking at Birmingham for pitch sites. Sketts Market on New Street and a few spots at Brindeyplace followed, before a friend mentioned Digbeth Dining Club. "Back then it was only a few months old with maybe four traders in a dusty car park," says Low N Slow. But word was the standard of the food was good and people were really keen to attend. I contacted them and took a sample of pork shoulder for them to try. I Ieft it there and thought nothing more of it until I had a call midway through a market I was cooking at, in Wolverhampton. It was about 1pm and Jack [DDC founder] said he'd had a cancellation for that night and could I fill the spot?"
On our meeting Andy often refers to his lack of education, scoring a handful of GCSEs before working in factories. I don't think he considers himself a bright spark, but he does himself a disservice. Regardless, what Andy does have more than most is drive. Not many people working their fingers to the bone in Wolverhampton would have the stones to accept a job in Digbeth just a few hours later, but he and Donna took it. "I rang my mom and asked her to put a pork shoulder in the oven. We finished up at Wolverhampton, headed for the nearest bakery to get a sh*t tonne of cobs, then back to Cheslyn Hay for the meat, then over to Digbeth to do it all again. We had a Fiesta and we'd have to put Donna in first and pack bread cobs around her to be able to get everything in." It was worth it. They may have been surrounded by food that night, but they were so busy they didn't get to eat a thing, and what would soon become the UK's best street food event wanted Andy and Donna there on a regular basis. Andy's food improving and becoming more refined by the week, Donna giving up her day job with the same gusto as Andy did, to help. The music of DDC tying it all together just as Notting Hill Carnival had.
Being able to cook is one thing, but street food is about more than that. If you've ever been to Digbeth Dining Club you'll know that each trader has a remarkable eye for their own brand. The look and the theatre of what's happening in, on and under that gazebo is all part of the experience. Andy, a man who has always loved the hip-hop side of graffiti (the talented side of street art, not the aimless tagging) had a close friend who was gifted at 'graf' and a tattoo artist. "One day he just showed up with what is now my logo [below]. I didn't even ask for it. He just designed it thinking it might help. I loved it so much I asked him to tattoo "Never Give Up" on my arm in the same style. He died not long after," says Andy.
Never give up. It's a motto that fits both Andy and Donna, a couple who have cooked food underneath an umbrella that was underneath a gazebo that had an enormous tear in it. A couple who have cooked in blizzards. A couple who have cooked by headlamp light as their car was the only thing that could provide enough illumination to see. A couple who have cooked overnight on basic barbecues, Andy getting up at ungodly hours to see if the wind and rain he could hear had messed up the meat. They needed bricks and mortar and set about crowdfunding in order to get it. Their supporters helped them reach their target but a tide of misfortune combined with (I think Andy might admit) a desire for the perfect location, resulted in the pair missing out on a succession of sites. A spot next to the Original Patty Men, for example, was all go until eleventh hour Network Rail complications scuppered it. A pandemic didn't help.
They both struggle a bit to chat about the crowdfunder, I can tell, because they clearly feel like they should have delivered on the restaurant by now, large amounts of the cash raised being spent on kitchen equipment, smokers and blast chillers that help to produce food of an incredible quality. And with funds still available for when the right time comes. "The restaurant will happen," he says. "I want to promise my backers that. But I'm asking them to be patient. It will happen, I'm not the sort of person who doesn't deliver on promises."
If the tattoo on his arm is anything to go by, he will. He won't give up on his restaurant and in Donna he has found someone just as driven. For now, though, you will find them both at Hockley Social Club, Digbeth Dining Club's new Jewellery Quarter(ish) venue where a kitchen is provided for them. That, combined with their prep kitchen that simply couldn't have happened without the crowdfunder, help the couple cook and serve what is surely the city's best barbecue — so good Andy found himself a finalist at the prestigious YBFs, the gold standard awards for grass roots cookery. Pork shoulder buns and brisket rolls are still an option but Hockley Social Club's more refined guests are snapping up Andy's Achiote Tamworth chop with heritage tomatoes, watermelon, nasturtium and oxalis. Or his Cornish dayboat grilled mackerel, nixtamal tortilla, green herb salsa with pickled red onion. What he's putting out is next level.
Andy might also just be the answer to Brum's lacking Sunday roast conundrum, cooking native breeds over fire, washed down, if you're one of the first 50 to order on June 20 (Father's Day) with a free pint of Purity Brewery's Bunny Hop. And if that's not keeping him busy enough Andy's cookery school goes live on his website this Saturday, if you fancy buying your dad (or anyone, for that matter) a lesson in fire and food.
Yep, it's been quite a rise. In the last four years alone Andy has found himself prepping food next to Nathan Outlaw at London barbecue fest Meatopia. He's done an internship at Scully (St James's) under the watchful eye of Ramael Scully a protégé of Yotam Ottlenghi, and he's even pulled a few shifts in famed Texan smokehouse, Stiles Switch, in Austin. Nine years ago he was serving from his mom's garden, on his nan's pasting board, under a gazebo that "looked like it was bought from Toys Я Us."
Nine years. A lifetime ago.
Andy will be at Hockley Social Club every Thursday and Friday (5pm to 11pm), Saturday (12pm to 11pm) and Sunday (12pm to 9pm) for the foreseeable. Find him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
IN A BOX, IN A BOX, IN A BOX, IN A NUTSHELL
Digbeth continues to out-Digbeth itself with its latest launch 'In A Box, In A Box, In A Box'. Genuinely, that's what it's called. Tickets are now live on their website for booking from August 5 onwards, so what the hell is it? I'm not entirely sure but it seems to be some sort of immersive Virtual Reality meets theatre meets escape room thang. So you'll done a VR headset and walk around their Floodgate Street arena, where moments of movies and real flesh and blood actors add to what you see. Does that make sense? Thought not. And if you're looking for a tropical cruise escape to break the monotony of being stuck in the UK, then you're sh*t out of luck. The first experience, Chernobyl: Hidden Depths, is written by Hollywood screenwriter, Jeremy Drysdale (Line of Duty, The Game). It’s set at Chernobyl Reactor 4, where, unknown to the general public, a covert black ops corporation has been running secret experiments on soldiers, in partnership with the Russian government, using the very radiation that caused the plant to explode. Chernobyl can't seem to catch a break. The participating team (of up to 4) must solve the challenge through a series of puzzles, which will facilitate their escape before either the mutated soldiers, or the radiation, gets them. Neither sound great. For the first time in the UK, users will also be able to smell the environment in Chernobyl, using special scent technology which stimulates emotional and behavioural responses virtually. Because you know you've always wanted to smell a mutated soldier.
20% OFF AT KARAAGE IN RESORTS WORLD
Moseley-based Japanese fried chicken restaurant Karaage is the newest feature of the now open Resorts World, and they're offering all readers 20% off. The concept of karaage goes back to the 1920’s — a chicken dish that is lightly marinated then covered in a traditional coating and fried, perfectly crisp. It's usually served with a Japanese mayo or Japanese sauces like Teriyaki, Tonkatsu and Ponzu (which is the pick of the bunch in my book). To claim your 20% off simply subscribe to their newsletter here and a code will be automatically sent to you. Other menu items include gyoza, chahan, katsu curry and takoyaki (deep fried octopus balls which I'm obsessed with). All shops and leisure are now open at Resorts World if you want to make a day or night of it, while the venue's kid-friendly gaming zone, Vortex, is also back open. Huzzah!
LYCETT LIVE: TICKETS TOMORROW
In what is one of the hottest dates in the Brum comedy diary, Joe Lycett has revealed the name of his next UK tour. Following on the back of That's The Way A-Ha A-Ha, Joe Lycett in 2016 and I'm About to Lose Control And I Think Joe Lycett in 2018 comes 2022's More, More, More! How Do You Lycett? How Do You Lycett?. Arguably more important than the name, though, are tickets, which go on general sale here at 10am tomorrow (June 18). Joe will play the Hippodrome on June 3 and 4 before playing the colossal Utilita Arena (the NIA) September 16 and 17. All dates are wonderfully a Friday or a Saturday. Joe told me: "Of course Birmingham is my favourite place to perform, because I can be in my garden with Carl Chinn and Alison Hammond 30 mins after coming off stage with a crisp glass of Gavi di Gavi and a Zindiya samosa chaat. More
...and also Flemish. But that's not a saying. The first physical exhibition of 2021 at Birmingham's beloved Barber Institute of Fine Arts brings together for the first time in more than 25 years a group of old master drawings from the Queen's own Royal Collection. Take a bow, your Maj. Making a Mark: Dutch and Flemish Drawings from the Royal Collection features works by your boiz Rubens, Van Dyck and Jan Brueghel the Elder. It's on now until Sept 26. The loans from Windsor Castle (yes, really) are displayed alongside a handful of the Barber Institute’s greatest works on paper, including a celebrated sheet of head studies by everyone's favourite opinion-splitter, Rembrandt. Inspired by a saying attributed to the ancient Greek painter Apelles, ‘no day without a line’, Dutch and Flemish artists were encouraged to draw daily, and the exhibition will demonstrate the importance of drawing in art. Running concurrently, the Barber is also hosting a display devoted to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, drawn from the collection of the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections at the University of Birmingham. It charts key stages in the career of an artist whose paintings largely concentrated on classical subjects and settings, with depictions of languorous ancient Greek and Roman types in lavish marble interiors, or posing against backdrops of stunning landscapes and azure Mediterranean seas. Nice work if you can get it. His art also informed the costumes of Ridley Scott's 2000 movie Gladiator, but I don't think he made it to the red carpet having been buried at St Paul's Cathedral 88 years previously. More
Fried chicken specialists What The Cluck will be serving at Stirchley's Birmingham Brewing Company tomorrow and Saturday (June 18 and 19) with Euro football screened, including THAT game. Details
The full event schedule for The Commonwealth Games has been released, here, so you can see which events will be held in each of the 286 sessions. I'll be at about 174 of them.
I had no idea that the National Garden Scheme existed but it is gold dust for nosy neighbours. Just punch your postcode in at any time of year and it'll tell you who nearby is opening their gardens, that week, for you to have a jolly good gawp at.
— Blaze Studio (central Brum) is offering a free fitness class for you and up to 14 workmates (30 in total when restrictions lift). It's a 45 minute HIIT workout where you can even pitch teams against each other for a battle of the best department. Full use of the ace facilities are provided. Email the studio on firstname.lastname@example.org for details. —
"Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it's a start." — Anthony Bourdain
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