Walking into Nocturnal Animals was like walking into a new world. As soon as I stepped into the building It was no longer 2018. I was immediately transported back to the 80s. And this was a very good thing. On arrival at Birmingham’s newest hotspot, I meet the creative genius behind Nocturnal Animals, Alex Claridge (The Wilderness). He gives me a tour of his venue, including the retro 80s themed bar, the open kitchen restaurant (that boasts an impressive tasting menu) and hallways that would find a perfect home on the Starship Enterprise.
My senses are already heightened. I hadn’t been into a bar this alive before. I sit down on retro furniture whilst Phil Collins’ voice fills the building. Alex brings me a beer that Nocturnal Animals have infused with Yuzu juice and begins telling me about the cooking at his latest venue. Before the end of ‘Easy Lover’ I was beginning to realise that Alex was no ordinary chef. “I always saw the potential of food being more than just a creative medium that was served up on a plate. I knew early on that you could think outside the box with it,” he begins.
Alex is no stranger to being very creative with ingredients in his food and drink. The Wilderness gained a lot of attention for serving up ants on their menu, an ingredient that Alex, nonchalantly claims “adds a citrus note to a dish”. The current Nocturnal Animals dining menu consists of chicken liver parfait, Thai red langoustine and chorizo and Quail Katsu to name a few. “We are very obsessive about ingredients. And then of course we want each ingredient to achieve its true potential on the plate. If it’s beef or pork then it needs to be the best meat possible. We will start local but we will keep moving further afield until we find the best that’s out there. There is great produce in Britain but there are certain things that taste better elsewhere.”
“I always start with flavour in our drinks and our food. If I don’t serve up something that’s fucking delicious then that’s not good enough. I am very hard on my team. I refuse to let them be lazy.” This menu was created whilst Alex was listening to a specific 80s playlist, and this list of tracks was also given to the interior designers before crafting the décor of the bar, halls and dining room. This relationship with music is injected into every aspect of what this bar is about. Sticking to the Phil Collins theme, Alex pointed out that the inspiration behind the entire décor was the feeling he got during the drum solo in the song ‘In The Air Tonight’.
Other than Alex’s obsession with quality ingredients, infusing great music into the venue and serving up stunning cocktails, his story is also one full of fight. “I got sued by one of the worlds best chefs at a famous New York hotel over the name of my old restaurant. I had to scrap everything and start again. I was completely livid. From that place of anger and frustration I really didn’t give a flying fuck anymore.
There was a freedom that came with that emotion. Once you cease to give a fuck, you really stop worrying about what you can and can’t do and instead just do whatever you want.” After hearing Alex tell his story, it was clear that he could have easily given up, but instead, he came back fighting. This mindset is something that still lives with Alex and unlike other restaurants that live and die by the code that ‘the customer is always right’, he has the tendency to fight his corner.
“If someone throws a punch at us we throw several punches back. We never back down. A lot of chefs are concerned that if you take a stance people will think you are a dickhead. But I am a dickhead and I am not concerned about that.”
“All that said, I am a caring person and I want our guests to have the best time possible. We do make mistakes and we do everything we can to rectify those mistakes. During the opening of Nocturnal Animals, we were getting used to our new reservation system and there were some tables that showed up and they had been knocked off the system. There was no table for them. I put £500 tabs behind other venues out of my own pocket just to make sure they could have a good night and to show that we were extremely sorry. “But this whole ‘the customers is always right’ thing isn’t always true. If a customer disrespects any member of my staff then they need to get the fuck out of here as quick as possible. I don’t want their money, I want them to take their personality and fuck off. The tabloids do enjoy dragging me through the dirt with this approach. It’s not a stunt though, I am a human being and I approach everyone with respect and kindness. But if you cross the line and disrespect my business or staff, I will have you.
“I am not worried about a bit of trouble. Me and trouble have a really good relationship. We see each other often. If you didn’t like something then that’s fine, chat with me. But I will have no respect for you if you want to be a keyboard warrior.”
Alex was unlike any chef I had ever met. It was refreshing to meet a creative genius that lived and dies by what he creates, and most of all defended his art form too. I finished the rest of my beer and exited the bar. I found myself back on Bennetts Hill, bewildered, fascinated, and for a brief second, a bit unhappy that I couldn’t have spent the rest of the afternoon in 1987.
To book a table at Nocturnal Animals, visit nocturnal-animals.co.uk