Historically I've not had a huge amount of success with cookery classes. There was the time I did a day-long course with Gaucho at Millennium Dome, during which the Malbec started flowing in the a.m's and I remember nothing of what I was taught, and the time I sliced my hand open at a West Mids butchery course and was too focussed on not passing out to take anything onboard. About a decade ago I also did a sushi class that was so difficult and overly involved that I've literally never tried to put my learnings into action, and never will. So yeah, mixed bag.
Above Simpsons restaurant, Eureka Kitchen (you're a stronger classmate than I if you don't internally imitate Vic & Bob's "Ulrika-ka-ka-ka" every time they say "Eureka") things are elevated. I don't just mean the food and the wine, I mean the whole kit and caboodle. The equipment, the teaching, the time and deliberation, the relaxation, the enjoyment. It's measured and professional and, honestly, wicked-good for your culinary repertoire.
You'll meet at 9am (if you think that sounds a little early, that's because it is) with just nine others and though the small talk is bound to be slightly over-bearing at first, you soon settle into a common ground — a passion for food. Even from here, right at the get-go, it's helpful as you'll trade notes with like-minded West Midlanders about everything from local restaurant recommendations, to regional weekend trips to "what's better to spend silly money on — if you ever have it — a Big Green Egg or an Ooni pizza oven?"
I was lucky enough to be given a complimentary spot at the day-long course (I know, tosspot right?) but other classmates came from all walks of life and all ages, 30 to 75 I'd say. I think that's testament to Simpsons, that long ago binned off stuffy white tablecloths and continues to offer one of the most affordable Michelin-starred lunch offers in the UK. As high-end restaurants go it's pretty accessible and that sort of showed in the c̶l̶i̶e̶n̶t̶e̶l̶e̶ studentele. Equally, at a price point of £195 per person, everyone wants to learn. Not at the expense of having laugh, mind, because there was plenty of that, but it's too expensive to "do a Gaucho".
Our teacher for the day was Simpsons Sous Chef, no less, Georgia Frend (above), who was predictably fantastic. I say 'predictably', in that she is clearly an absurdly adept chef, but less predictable is her teaching talent. It doesn't necessarily follow, as with any skill, that being good at it makes you good at teaching it, but Georgia has the patience and ability to engage that really raised this course from helpful, to outright enjoyable. It's a skill to put a roomful of strangers at ease, and Georgia has that in spades.
Chef toques also need doffing in the direction of Ella (commis chef and Georgia's right hand woman) and Bibi, a front of house teammate who handled much of the equipment distribution and hospitality bells and whistles. It was ever-so 'Simpsons' in its operation. While Georgia demonstrated the cookery she was handed items good-to-go by Ella. And while your attention was on the kitchen Bibi would be working behind you on laying out the next items needed for you to put into practice what you've just witnessed. It's so slickly done — you turn around and the worktops are laid out with completely different equipment and ingredients. Like I said, it's all elevated. What was also interesting was how both chefs would wipe down at all points, almost like a reflex. Everything is spotless except your workstation while you cook (which you're encouraged to pepper with flour and dough and anything really), and your Eureka apron, which you take home.
So what were we cooking? Well the menu was braised ox cheek ravioli with basil, sea bream with potato and tartar sauce (I swear you will never buy a jar of Hellman's again when you know how easy the mayo for this is to make) add Earl grey prune and almond tart with armagnac ice cream. Now if you're me (and you're not. I'm me and you're you) alarm bells would be ringing. I'm an average cook. I enjoy it when it's going well and I hate it when it's going badly. I think a good sauce can cover up bad cooking and I'm only ever organised if I'm making something I've made half a dozen times before. I don't really do things with dough, I very rarely bake and the concept of a pasta roller brings me out in sweats. Well... it used to.
What's most appealing about this menu is that it isn't a Simpsons menu. There is almost nothing I didn't have at home needed to make all of it — that's something they pride themselves on here — and probably the reason this is called Eureka (ka-ka-ka) Cookery Class and not Simpsons Cookery Class. It might be a little pricey, but it's also realistic. Don't teach them something they can't do tomorrow, is the mantra.
When the pasta rollers came out there were at least four of us who openly declared a trainwreck in the making. It was extraordinary to see how absolutely everyone, even the most nervous (me) quickly mastered a pasta roller and were passing perfectly thin dough through with confidence. We all admitted to be extremely proud of the outcome — I'm even posting pics of mine here, above and below. It's odd admitting to being proud of yourself to perfect strangers when, perhaps, we struggle to admit the same to those we are closest to.
You don't make everything from scratch. Aspects that are easy but monotonous are done for you and there are some corners quite rightly cut. You won't me removing membranes from ox cheek or filleting your own bream. If it's a job a butcher or a fishmonger can do, you won't be expected to (thank all the gods) and there are moments where the class will simply observe Georgia doing what Georgia does best and it will be taken as read that you'll be able to do a lesser version at home.
The benefit of this is they don't ask too much of you, but you are asked to do enough to feel a real sense of accomplishment. You're also asked to do all the things that Georgia feels are important you learn. There's no better way of locking something in than feeling the slight pressure of doing it yourself. Honestly, if I can do it you can and I've already replicated much of it at home, less than a fortnight on.
Once your prep is done and the food is cooking, Simpsons treat you to a little luxury. Of course they do. I wasn't counting but if exactly two glasses of excellent Champagne while you wait, then exactly four more while you eat (leave your car at home) sounds like a decent return for your fee, you'd be absolutely right.
You're also getting the food you helped make and, believe me, it was sublime. There was the usual "you just binned our food and made your own while we were drinking" quips, but you are truly served the food you made — except in the case of ravioli where understandably keeping tabs on who crafted what would be tricky. You also eat where you cooked, which is a wonderful touch when surrounded by other students feeling just as chuffed as you with the outcome.
What I found of particular use were the things we learned in a general conversation with Georgia. Sure there was the practical pointers and hands on experience, but I took on so much outside of that. During demonstrations, questions are encouraged at all points and even if you're shy chances are someone else will ask what you're wondering. No question is too stupid, which was particularly handy for me.
But outside of those things there was so much advice, too. While we all ate it was a constant stream of questions which Georgia answered with a refreshing and realistic honesty. Like... You know the old adage that if you're cooking with wine you should only ever cook with a wine you'd happily drink? Georgia doesn't really buy into it. Cook with any of the bloody stuff you have as long as it's still fresh, was her take. "Drink the £20 wine, don't chuck it in a casserole".
She also told us she would most regularly order fish when dining out because, well, it's fiddly and often harder to make delicious, so make the professionals do it — and that if she's buying fish at a supermarket she would usually (but not always) gravitate towards the frozen aisle. There was loads of stuff like this, stuff with an openness far beyond what I often believe is simply "the right thing" for chefs to say, not necessarily the honest thing. It was like asking a mate who just happens to be a chef the questions you've always wanted to ask.
It was interesting, of course, to take a tour of the kitchen and to be introduced to the team (including Chef Owner Luke Tipping), something that's included in all classes, but the highest compliment I can pay them is that a pasta roller is now on my Christmas list. If you had told me that would be the case a fortnight ago, I would've told you to stop being so fusilli. More
YOU'RE GONNA LOVE ME
Nigh on 20 years we’ve been hearing an annual rendition of ‘And I am teeeeelling you’ via various TV talent shows. If you didn’t know, that bona fide banger is from the musical Dreamgirls, which later became the movie starring Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé. Now on its first national UK tour, in a quaint, full-circle twist, Hudson’s character, Effie is played by The Voice 2019 finalist, Nicole Raquel Dennis, who performed the song alongside her show mentor, the very same Jennifer Hudson. It’s a small world, showbusiness.
Dreamgirls will arrive at The Alexandra for a month-long run from Tuesday December 6 until Saturday December 31. Quite a way to see out the year, if you fancy it. 42 years on from opening on Broadway, this production hasn’t ceased with its top-notch musical offering, glamour and sparkle (in its 2016 West End debut, Swarovski offered up a million crystals for the costumes).
Directed and choreographed by Olivier and Tony Award winning Casey Nicholaw, who has produced as diverse productions as profanity-filled The Book of Mormon to Disney’s Aladdin, the story follows Deena, Effie and Lorrell throughout their career as an R&B girl group during the 1960s and 70s. Dealing with newfound fame and the realities of being black women in America – within the ruthless music industry and during a revolutionary time – they morph from talent competition winners, The Dreamettes, into The Dreams, and ride the rollercoaster world of showbusiness. The trio are signed to a black-owned record label, clearly inspired by Motown Records and their original sound of the era, including the talented girl groups like The Marvelettes and The Shirelles; so the musical numbers in this are some of the best around. Don't miss the chance to belt them out for yourself. Tickets from £13 to £68.
COMING SOON TO THE JQ?
Maybe. With your help. The team behind Stirchley's fantastic Attic Brew Co have plans to expand into the city's sparkliest suburb, the Jewellery Quarter, and their Crowdfunder-dependent project, The Barrel Store, looks and sounds phenomenal.
It's four years almost to the day since Oli Hurlow turned his back on London and teamed up with Brummie pal, Sam Back, to turn a shell of a Stirchley warehouse into a community beer and food hub, cobbling together a brewery from equipment that was older than the two of them combined. Now, it's an all-singing-all dancing modern microbrewery, but they've not lost an iota of their commitment to the local area putting on craft markets with independent artists, hosting rising stars of the street food world and even launching a home brew competition for the amateur beer-makers of South Brum. All this while making some of the best beers the city has to offer.
Over the course of those four years Attic have managed to grow their output from 800 litres of beer per week to 12,000, brewing 213 different beers and putting their core range (Intuition, Signals and Birmingham Pilsner) firmly on the map.
Their next goal is to create a bar and barrel store facility (above), in the Jewellery Quarter, where they will add to the Stirchley-made pale ales, lagers and IPAs with mixed fermentation and aged beers emulating the likes of geuzes, lambics and saisons, as well as barrel-aged stouts.
"We’ve found the perfect facility in the form of an old railway arch," says Oli "which stays a cool temperature year round, thanks to its thick walls. It’s also ideally located for visitors, meaning we can create a standalone bar to showcase this fantastic barrel store. Alongside beers aged onsite, all the beers from the main brewery will also be available and we’ll also be installing a dedicated kitchen space so we can continue to work with incredible street food vendors."
"Moving the ageing process away from the Stirchley brewery means we can protect the beers that we’re already known for, and do our best for the ones we want to make. It also gives us the opportunity to create another authentic brewery drinking experience close to the centre of town."
If you want to support the team then follow The Barrel Store on Instagram and await the Crowdfunder link which should be going live tomorrow (November 25). I plan on chipping in enough for a Barrel Store corduroy dad cap, which looks like one of the ace rewards they are set to have on offer.
LITTLE BLOCK OF HORRORS
Glastonbury’s Block 9; the bizarre dystopian madness of JG Ballard’s High Rise; a really bad concept on Grand Designs: modernist architecture often forms the backdrop or focal point to terrifying stories. Move through the Ikon’s new multi-floor, free exhibition, opening tomorrow (November 25), presenting the work of 20 contemporary artists that explores the relationship between architectural modernism and horror.
It begins at the heart of brutalist architecture: our city itself. Exploring the troubled history of modernist buildings through multimedia artworks and installations, the pieces link horror tropes such as darkness and suspense, with qualities of modernist design, including the real violence and trauma of its construction and destruction. The journey through the floors of the Ikon’s own neo-gothic building highlights how building design – and its features therein – can shape our movement and perception, and our deepest fears. The First Floor Galleries open to a film zone, projected in a timed, horror movie-like sequence. BRUTAL (2022) was shot on the modernist estates of Druids Heath and Aston New Town in Brum, and features alongside the ethereal The Cloud of Unknowing (pictured above, 2011) by Ho Tzu Nyen, exploring inhabitants in a housing block in Singapore, suddenly engulfed by a mysterious cloud.
Out of the darkness, you’ll then enter a light-filled space with photography, images, etchings and installations, including Karim Kal’s Entourage (pictured above, 2017), which explores control imposed by architecture, and the eerie spectre of modernist relics in the present day.
Perhaps the most reflective point in the exhibition is the Ikon’s glass stairwell, where Abbas Zahedi’s Exit Sign (2022) dwells. As a poignant response to the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people, including Zahedi’s friend and fellow artist, Khadija Saye, Zahedi manipulates health and safety signage to turn this area into a space for pause and communal mourning.
Works by five female artists in the Second Floor Galleries continue to unpack how modernist architecture is so affecting, culminating in large-scale works depicting the striking and – clue’s in the name– brutal nature of modernist constructions. Local artists Simon and Tom Bloor use urban ruins to create a slightly less brutal place to rest your legs – modernist street furniture – while Ruth Claxton’s sculpture, coated with high-vis, light-reflective paint, plays with light and movement within the enclosed space, reaching intensity at the top of the tower.
This sounds strange, eerie and oh so interesting, and is on until May 1 2023. See the horror
BADGES: BLACK FRIDAY DEAL
Look, none of us feel particularly great about Black Friday deals, but the truth is they're not going away and everybody wins when you get them right. With that in mind, and with none of us making eye contact, we are offering free shipping on all four I Choose Birmingham badges and on the combination offers, too. The offer will last from now until midday Monday (November 28) and the deal is FREE SHIPPING. That's a saving of £2 on every order. The code you need, whichever badge or combination you pick, is BULLSHIP. Be sure to enter that code into the discount code box. There's only one other thing you need to know: The Snobs and Mr Egg badges are sold on a different website to the Bull and Kong badges. So if you were to want all of them you would need to make two separate transactions. Want the boring reason? We made the brilliant Bull and Kong badges with the even more brilliant Birmingham Design and they handle shipping for those two. Click whichever you want below and don't forget the code BULLSHIP for free shipping and a £2 saving.
GIVE IT A GO
The price of everything has gone a bit insane in the old membrane, hasn't it? If 2023 is looking like a year when you might just need to be cutting back on the outgoings, but you'd rather not be rooted to the sofa, we have the answer — and it's much cheaper than a night in the bar. Birmingham-based Buckt have, for years, been sending Brummies five mystery tickets for activities across the city — every month for just £30 for two people — getting them engaging with inventive and exciting things to do. And we're not talking about discounts or recommendations here, these are five tickets for five activities, fully paid for and ready to go. And you have three months to use them in. Since launching subscribers have done over 250 different activities with values well in excess of your £30 fee — that's just £15 per person. And to make this even better value they're offering I Choose Birmingham readers the first month for just £9.99 for two people. That's a saving of over £20. More
Screen B14 are showing 'Donnie Darko' at Moseley's Cuban Embassy / Bulls Head, on Thursday December 8. Tickets are pay as you can but with a £4 minimum (online) and £5 minimum (cash on the door). More —
I went to see the live stage performance of Raymond Briggs' 'The Bear' at MAC and it was a right hoot. Without wanting to give anything away, if your kids are the sorts who enjoy an immersive experience, book as near to the front and as far to the sides as possible. But seats anywhere is a guaranteed giggle for the fam. On until December 30 —
ICC/Brindleyplace-based restaurants Craft and "8", plus also Black & Green in Barnt Green (same owners), are offering a hefty 35% off their vouchers for Black Friday. More —
The usually eye-wateringly expensive Bear Grylls Adventure are also throwing the kitchen sink at Black Friday. Deals —
You can now do yoga with puppies. You heard it here 261st.
WORDS: Tom Cullen, Claire Hawkins
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