My Birmingham by Ahmed Ahmed
Nearly eight years ago I arrived here as a fresh-faced student and a total stranger to Birmingham.
While many people grow up with negative impressions and prejudgments about the city, I had somehow escaped absorbing any of this while growing up in not-too-distant Nottingham. Fast forward to now, when many people are only just beginning to believe in Birmingham, and I’m still grateful for my early state of ignorance.
For me, the city was just a name – a blank slate. The first marks were made by the leafy Victorian cluster of Edgbaston, and by the stately red brick of the University of Birmingham. This was quickly followed up by the boisterous fun of Broad Street and the glitz of Summer Row (which we students considered a ‘posh night out’).
Over the next few years I grew to like Birmingham. But I was largely cocooned within the cosy student village of Selly Oak, with its ample curry houses and legendary breakfast spot The Selly Sausage. It wasn’t until I got the foodie bug that I began to truly explore what the city had to offer.
I started to branch out a little to discover the burgeoning food scene in Birmingham. My earliest foodie expeditions took me to Bodega (still a favourite), The Chameleon (haven’t been back) and Mantons (now sadly closed). This being 2011, a blog and a Twitter account were inevitable. And so Dine Birmingham was born, as a way of cataloguing and reporting the city’s foodie boom.
Over the next few years this boom only got bigger. In 2012 the street food thing came along – suddenly Brummies were queuing up in the cold to get hold of a gourmet burger. There was an explosion in coffee shops, with venues like Six Eight Kafe and Urban Coffee Co leading that early charge. Now, of course, we’re spoilt for choice but it was all very recent back then.
Then you had the ‘big three’, Simpsons, Purnell’s and Turners – each restaurant holding a Michelin Star, one of the most respected culinary accolades.Remember the excitement when it looked like the holy trinity would be joined by a fourth? Chef Adam Stokes swept down from Scotland and opened up in a renovated sandwich shop in spring 2012.
Sure enough, by the autumn the city had racked up its Michelin-starred venues to four.
But something else was going on. At farmer’s markets and on high streets around the city, small independent traders and venues were gaining a name for themselves. From husband-and-wife teams crafting artisan chocolates, to small neighbourhood restaurants to the multiplying army of street food vendors, the big players were joined by a new layer of high-quality contenders.
And the Birmingham public was appreciating homegrown food businesses like never before.
Inspired by this revolution, I teamed up with The Gastro Card and Visit Birmingham in 2013 to produce #FutureFoodies at Millennium Point, a fair bringing local foodies together with independent traders and restaurants at Hotel La Tour. A year later, the appetite for independents had grown even more, and the time was right for Birmingham Independent Food Fair at Millennium Point, which saw traders, restaurants and chefs serving up food and drink to nearly 2,000 foodies.
Throwing such a big event was a big learning curve, and unfortunately some stalls ran out of food a little early! But what stood out most was Birmingham’s hunger and enthusiasm for real local flavour. A second, improved Birmingham Independent Food Fair is very much on the cards for 2015, over the weekend of 12-13 September.
Birmingham right now is a maelstrom of activity and excitement. The food sector is right at the beating heart of this.
New restaurants and bars are popping up like porcini mushrooms, chefs are doing increasingly daring things, and even big boys like The Mailbox and Bullring are trying to tap into the passion for local independent food.
When I left university I could have followed the tide to London, but I felt there was something irresistible about a city on the rise. Birmingham felt on the cusp of reclaiming its status as respected second city, and I think the growing inward flow of investment, talent and outside interest shows we are getting there.
But there are always naysayers. Some people are worried that Birmingham is being oversold, or dislike the glossy ‘destination marketing’ of organisations like Marketing Birmingham. But like it or lump it, Birmingham is a destination. People do like to come here and we should be shouting about the great things going on in our city.
It’s not just people outside Birmingham who do us down sometimes. A lot of born-and-bred locals also seem to doubt the city’s true potential.
As a ‘new Brummie’ and someone who didn’t grow up with preconceptions about the city, I am unashamedly upbeat. Despite having its challenges, Birmingham is brilliant. And getting better.