My Life In Food: Alex Claridge | SLMan
Alex Claridge is chef-owner of The Wilderness, where he cooks modern British food with the aim of surprising, delighting and sometimes provoking his customers with flavour combinations that capture the soul of Birmingham. He’s come a long way from his first foray into black olive tapenade…

The restaurant I remember from childhood is Pizza Hut. Nobody wants to hear that from a chef, but it is. Sue me.

The first dish I learned to cook myself was lemon posset and a black olive tapenade. Not together. Lemon posset was in the corner of my mum and dad’s kitchen. I printed a pretty appalling recipe from the internet and had a bash – it was a mixed success. The tapenade was at a little vegetarian café, where they served it with hummus and marinated olives. Gourmet, it was not.

The restaurant I go back to again and again is Opheem in Birmingham. Primarily, I go to see my mate Aktar Islam’s dazzling Hollywood smile, which he swears aren’t veneers. But I also go because his cooking is bold and brave. It reminds me of Anglo-Indian food I ate growing up, but shows it in a fresh new light.

My favourite new opening is Darby’s in London. It’s all just delicious, real food, with a natural warmth running from the cooking through to the service.

I’m a big fan of solo dining. There’s slightly less conflict, better conversation and some real time to appreciate the food. Plus, I always strike lucky in that I get to take me home.

My death-row dinner would involve Galician beef, Japanese whisky and Morrissey in the corner, performing stuff from The Smiths and his own early catalogue.

 

The Connaught is my favourite bar in London. It does a mean strong drink. It also possesses the rare quality of delivering whatever you want, whenever you want and, typically, without the need to even ask for it. The service is, for me, unrivalled in London and the quiet confidence in everything they serve makes it a retreat. If you’re a first timer, go for the martini – with Roku or, if you want to splash the cash, the signature gin. It’s an experience.

My most memorable restaurant experience was at Aroma in Rome. It has a dining terrace overlooking the Colosseum. I’m only flesh and blood and, on a sunny day, it really does feel superlatively special – in the purest sense of the word, it is romantic. The menu is Italian fine dining to the letter, which can be both a good and a bad thing. The wine list is incredibly dangerous: if they offer you champagne, take my advice and punch the sommelier. However, I don’t think there’s a pure expression of Italian luxury, certainly not in Rome. Avoid the crowds; take a few hours out to really appreciate some grandeur. They aren’t even paying me to say this.

I love drinking Italian reds. Amarone, Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola – big, fruit-forward wines that are easy drinkers but have enough complexity to keep the brain ticking.

For a quick midweek meal I always turn to scrambled eggs – with truffle trim from the restaurant, so I can pretend my life is less of a car crash.

For a date-night dinner right now, I’d do rump steak, pomme purée, jus and one of those naughty reds. Though, in the future, I’ll be going out again and hopefully it’ll be to Brat in Shoreditch.

When the time's right, I’m also looking forward to going back to The Wellington. It’s my favourite pub in Birmingham, a proper old-man real-ale place that’s been there forever.

 

My perfect Sunday is really just an extension of Saturday night. There’s a euphoria to finishing the final service of the week that’s hard to describe and hard to bring to life for those who haven’t worked in hospitality. In my younger days, I quite literally didn’t finish partying and the Sunday would be a victory lap. Age has broken the back of my wilder tendencies, but Sunday still remains a curious half-day. Once you’ve recovered from the week’s work, I allow my Sunday evenings to pass in reverie, with plans to have no plans and a gentle surrender to what little calm the storm that is work affords. I also order a takeout, every time. Usually it’s Indian: naan, jalfrezi and – if we’re pushing the boat out – a cheeky little samosa or five.
 
The secret to a great dinner party is to cut back on expensive food and invest in great wine. That said, even before the lockdown, it was rare that I entertained at home. I’d much rather have my friends enjoy what I’ve honed and crafted at The Wilderness. If I had to entertain at home, I’d do a cold fish starter, usually cured, so I can just plate it up and everyone can enjoy my company. The main would be a nice bit of lamb or beef – whatever’s best seasonally – and I’ll use sous vide so I can be part of the party, not the hired help.
 
The best party I ever threw was for my friend Neph when he moved back to the States. From a tiny kitchen, I smashed the canapé game out the ballpark and it turned into a wild party. If that isn’t a success for a chef, I don’t know what is.
 
My idea of food hell is stagnation. You’re only as good as your last dish, so at The Wilderness we always get rid of dishes that have been on the menu a while and look to constantly evolve. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.
 

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