The hashtag #VivaStirchley has been kicking about for years now and I've never really thought too much about it. I've always assumed it's borrowed from 'viva Las Vegas', delightfully repurposed with Brummie tongue firmly in cheek. More latterly, though, it fits the bill as a play on 'viva la revolución', such is the changing face of what, during my childhood at least, was a very forgettable high street. New bars, restaurants, shops and creative spaces have been popping up in a manner that some might label 'gentrification'. I don't know about that. My ear isn't to the housing prices grindstone, but what I do know is that places have to be able to improve, otherwise what the hell's the point in any of this? These are independent places run by hardworking Brummies producing exceptional results and working together in a superb suburb. And two people among dozens who are at the forefront of Stirchley's rise (and rise) are Cassie and James Kirk-Gould.
Originally from Cov, the wife and husband team own fudge specialist Sweetmeat Inc and the 'work in progress' Chancers Cafe, next door (above). Their story is one that'll get even the iciest emotional fuel rods jumping. They met at 19, fell in love (gaaaaw) and then b*ggered off round the world, first to Europe and South America before settling in Beijing for six years where they taught English to classes of, sometimes, 50 kids. James sneaked through with his 4 GCSE's, Cassie did rather a lot better. "It was 2006," says James. "It was Cassie's idea and I was underprepared. I think I was expecting, sort of, Hong Kong you know? But Beijing, at first, just looked like a really big Coventry, but hotter and smoggier. Panic set in. I was jet-lagged and needed food, and the first dish I was served was vinegar peanuts which I tried to eat with chopsticks. I was well out of my depth. But after I'd slept, I fell in love with the place. We both did. The food, the people, everything."
Cassie studied Mandarin while she taught and James picked up excellent, what he describes as "restaurant Chinese" such was the regularity that they dined out. Around where they lived were a dozen restaurants doing a dozen different styles of Chinese cuisine and they threw themselves into all of them. They both left China loving the food, but having never really cooked that way themselves. "It felt like leaving home. But after six years it was draining being the six foot four ginger bloke that everyone points at. I guess it got the point where we wondered whether we would ever entirely fit in and, with heavy hearts, knew it was time to up sticks."
The pair then spent two years "haemorrhaging savings" in Paris, with Cassie trying to find work as a fashion journalist, and it was here that James started recreating the Chinese food he began to pine for. "The Chinese restaurants in Paris were more like your 'end of the street' takeaways," he recalls. "It wasn't like the vibrant, fresher stuff we were having in Beijing. It was Western palate Chinese — which is fine but it wasn't what I was craving. Funnily enough the food scene in Paris didn't impress us hugely. We couldn't afford to eat in the great restaurants and the mid-tier stuff didn't blow us away at all."
Next stop was London and Cassie convinced James his cooking was at a standard that might warrant work in the industry. She continued to freelance as a writer and James struck professional gold, finding work at Duck & Waffle, the famous 24-hour, 40th floor, Heron Tower night spot. His first job was in the production kitchen in the basement of the tower before being promoted to the cityscape kitchen — at the time the highest restaurant in the UK. Here James met now best friend Chris Thompson — half Thai, half Grimbarian — who became a mentor of sorts, trading food knowledge with James back and forth, both sharing a passion for Asian flavour. "He's in Hong Kong now, the head of development at Soho House. The best chef I have, and will ever, work with."
It was in London that Cassie became pregnant and a sweet tooth developed. A serious one. "I didn't have a sweet tooth before pregnancy," she says, "and I don't really now. But then? Then I was eating chocolate before breakfast". Cassie fell for fudge in such a way that she launched Sweetmeat from the kitchen of their Walthamstow home — making it, then selling the good stuff every Saturday at a local market, wrapping it in a square of grease proof paper, just as her grandmother used to do for her mom. She sold 17 bags on the first day, the three flavours being classic, salted and vanilla — to this day her top selling fudges — the couple's son, now about 5 months, crawling around the stall table as the day's sales went out. "Fudge has that wonderfully unique quality," says Cassie "of being something people forget they love."
James launched Duck & Waffle Local in Piccadilly, as head chef, but pretty soon, given there were three of them now, the can't afford a house in the capital conundrum kicked in and they decided to move to Kings Norton in 2018, neither having jobs to go to and the pressure on Sweetmeat to make ends meet. "I took one look at the Cadbury factory and decided I wanted to take them on," says Cassie, only half kidding. The quality of her fudge backs her ambition. Last year Sweetmeat entered the Great Taste Awards, the benchmark in global food and drink recognition, and came away with two stars out of three entries. "I was livid," says Cassie with chuckle. She was renting kitchen space at Millennium Point and selling wholesale to restaurants without any real desire to open a shop. "But then I saw Stirchley. I realised it's where I needed to be — somewhere with energy. Somewhere where stuff was happening. And if I was going to open a kitchen on a high street I may as well open a shop there too. So I did."
For his part, James managed to score a Michelin-starred gig as sous chef at Stratford's fantastic Salt restaurant, but the commute from Brum made the job impossible. Shifts were starting at 7.30am and he wasn't getting home until 2am. "I was a complete mess, to be honest," recalls James. "Cassie was doing all the parenting plus Sweetmeat, and I had to put my family and my sanity first, so I handed in my notice."
After a short period working in a factory to keep some cash coming in, James started shifts almost directly opposite Sweetmeat, at Stirchley's wonderful Caneat. It was Dom, Caneat owner, who offered James the chance to host his first Chinese pop-up — James hadn't stopped cooking and learning about Asian cuisine and by now was really bloody good. He called the one-off event Yikouchi — pronounced ee-koh-chuh, it's the first half of a Chinese idiom that's used in the same way as 'Rome wasn't built in a day', but is literally more like 'one mouthful (yi cou chi) won't make you fat (bu cheng pang zi)'. The Caneat pop-up didn't happen as Cassie went into labour with their second child. Then, the rearranged date was cancelled thanks to the minor matter of a global pandemic — the couple pivoting Sweetmeat quickly into shipping fudge nationwide, with a huge emphasis on online sales. Finally, between lockdowns, Yikouchi saw the light of day with a sell-out, one-off at the equally wonderful Eat Vietnam, just a stone's throw from Caneat and a few doors down from Sweetmeat. A takeaway only pop-up soon followed and it too sold out.
Pre-pandemic the hairdressers next door to Sweetmeat closed and the landlord offered it to the pair. Sweetmeat was, by now, doing well, but still being run by Cassie on a very part-time basis due to parenting. When James was furloughed, he could take the lion's share of that strain allowing Cassie to go big into Sweetmeat. Online sales exploded with fudge going as far as the Isle of Wight and Cassie finding time to create a fudge sauce that was so good it warranted a hot desserts cafe. Genuinely though. Such was the clamour for those pots of pure bliss the pair realised what they needed to do with next door, particularly as and James was keen, eventually, to start his own kitchen. They were juggling everything: parenting, Sweetmeat, a job at Caneat, pop-ups, but they took on and opened Chancers Cafe, so named because in their younger years James would accuse Cassie of being just that.
The pandemic has nobbled Chancers' opening hours and your best bet is to follow it on Instagram to know exactly what they are doing and when. For now though, on Saturday lunchtimes they sell beignets (above) and that talk-of-the-town fudge sauce to footfall customers. More hot desserts are planned, perhaps when there's not a pandemic to wrestle with, and fudge can be picked up while you're there — Sweetmeat being a production kitchen only these days and Chancers being the customer-facing shop.
On Thursdays from 11am to 2pm, James does Chinese baps called roujiamo; braised pork belly, Turkish green pepper and coriander, chopped and popped in a bun. Side dishes include shredded potato in chilli oil, smacked cucumber and tiger salad. And, two nights a week — Friday and Saturday — Chancers is home to Yikouchi, James's refreshingly pared back menu of home-syle Chinese. Dishes include a light battered and beautiful fried chicken in chilli oil, an umami filled pork mince (or shitake) with pickled chillies and vermicelli number, and a slow braised pork showstopper (below). Side salads and fragrant rices add to the zippy, zesty experience. "I cook what I miss most about Beijing," he says. "Six years is a long time. That food, it feels like home."
What did you do during lockdown? I did a lot of clapping and crying, but brother and sister team Romaney and James Southwood converted a large bedroom space at their parents home into only Birmingham's second coffee roastery — and launched an online company to sell the beans. I've been to see it and it's, frankly, amazing. Above a garage on Russell Road (Moseley) is a small but fancy roasting machine putting out one blend and four single origin coffees. Committed to fair trade and good environmental practices they have a combined total of 40 years of working with java and the results are very flipping, flapping good. It even passed the test of I Choose Birmingham's resident coffee editor — my dad — who when I left him having sunk two back-to-back flat whites in 40 minutes, was singing Southwood's praises from his own ceiling. El Bosque was my pick of the single origins — a rollicking, rich mug of Joe that sure let's you know you're drinking it, but does so with a cuddle not a cosh. Southwood Coffee is on the hunt for a permanent roastery spot and customer-welcoming premises, with tasting classes and a shop. Until then, dive into an exclusive 20% off deal on their taster packs, taking the £15 price tag down to just £12. Look out for the purple writing at the end of the checkout process that reads 'add a discount code or a gift card'. There, enter the code ICHOOSEBRUM and you'll see your discount knocked off the total before paying. More
WIN A GREEK MEAL FOR TWO
Greek street food gods, Street Kitchen Brothers, are launching new restaurant, Kouzina Greek Meze, at Selfridges food hall. The local, family run success story will serve their famous moussaka (as seen on The Hairy Bikers) souvlaki, stifado and loads more, using recipes the brothers' grandmother imparted on them during their childhoods in Greece and Cyprus. They've even got loukaniko, a smoked pork sausage with leeks that I've been dreaming of since having it a decade and a half ago. They'll launch as a takeaway option ASAP until government guidelines allow for indoor hospitality. To celebrate the launch you could win £40 worth of free takeaway over on our Instagram and a further £40 on our Twitter. More
ANIMALS IN HANDS
Meet Mo. Not only does Mo have the finest moustache-beard combo in the West Mids, he also rescues unwanted animals. The former safari park zookeeper looks after 160 critters, rodents and mini mammals in Great Barr, up by 40 since lockdown as pet buyers have been-back peddling from mad-ass purchases. Anyway, now should be Mo's peek time for taking animals into schools and offices and introducing them to kids and corporates. Alas, that's not allowed, so he's got no income and a lot of animal-related outgoings. If you're looking for team building experiences or educational interactive classes for schools, give him a follow on FB, Insta or Twitter and get in touch. Ta bab.
It's all going off in Digbeth. New burger bar Meat Meets Bun will launch in the Zumhof Food Märkt, April 12. Found on the site of the former Air nightclub, MMB will be joined by Bonehead's second venue with Rudy's pizza already there... —
...Meanwhile, a stone's throw away and on the same day, Digbeth Arena will become Luna Springs, an open air street food and music venue that will, one day, allow a 2500 capacity. —
Also in Digbo, Centrala has announced eight new live experimental music commissions, each exploring responses from UK and international artists to the global panny D, all to mark a welcoming back for audiences. Tickets for 'All Systems Go' will be live in May. —
Inspired by the blooming of Japanese cherry blossoms, Argentea Gallery will, tomorrow, launch A Thousand Fallen Blossoms by Aliki Braine. At first this will be a digital exhibition with, all being well, Aliki coming to Brum to open the physical iteration April 17.
"I never drink coffee at lunch.
I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon."
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