a contemporary pan asian restaurant created as an exclusive departmental brand for Debenhams
The menu for Chi Kitchen has been created by Group Consultant Ping Coombes, 2014 MasterChef UK winner.
I was fortunate to be a guest at a masterclass with Ping on Sunday 20 March 2016 at the restaurant on the third floor of Debenhams, Birmingham. As I could take a plus one I dragged my husband along. There was food – he was not so reluctant tbh even early on a Sunday morning.
While I didn’t get on with SE Asia on my travels, I did get on with the food. The fusion of Malaysian cuisine particularly impressed me, with so many influences, from Indian to Chinese. The hot curries in Little India, KL and the delicious steamboat in the Cameron Highlands are particularly memorable.
When this invite to the masterclass popped into my inbox I was delighted. While I love SE Asian food I am not very confident when cooking it nor familiar with the ingredients or the techniques. And now I was going to learn from a MasterChef. How brilliant is that?
And that is why on a sunny Sunday morning I was meeting Ping in Chi Kitchen, Birmingham, desperately trying to hide my excitement at meeting an actual MasterChef winner. I am an avid watcher of TV cooking shows and I was a little bit star struck.
Ping was delightful. She warmly welcomed me and my husband Phil and she recalled that I had tweeted about the event. She remembered everybody’s names, which is a great skill.
We all had a welcome card, with details of the food we would be making during the masterclass.
Meanwhile Ping was securing a couple of glasses of bucks fizz for us.
The Executive Chef was already making Roti Canai for us to snack on. Ping told us that we would be making it later on.
Never I thought, could we produce this in one lesson.
We did. Well Phil did, he made the dough comprising of flour, water, condensed milk and sugar and did a decent job for a first attempt.
I thought making the Money bags would be easy.
I have seen women making these in the food malls in Melbourne, they produce hundreds in a matter of minutes, it took me 5 minutes to make one. Not going to be getting a job in a food mall in Melbourne anytime soon.
Then it was on to the Nyonya Salad with King Prawns.
Lots of individual ingredients, rice noodles, bean sprouts, tomatoes, cucumber, onions all into one bowl and massaged.
Add the chilli sauce and massage some more, and you are left with a salad that zings. Beats the limp lettuce and tasteless tomato salads that I was brought up on.
Once we had finished cooking, more food was brought to us. Everything was delicious. Fresh, clean, spicy, a riot of flavours, yet delicate on the palate.
To be able to eat food of this quality, in a department store, demonstrated just how the food scene in Birmingham is improving. As a child, my Grandmother used to take me to Lewis’s restaurant as a treat. This was when we had waitresses in black dresses and white aprons serve us. Proper posh. Then department stores restaurants adopted the canteen style of cafes, offering chicken nuggets, congealed lasagne and chips.
Debenhams has realised that this no longer good enough for the discerning diner. The food offer in department stores needs to be more than a refueling stop for shoppers, in store restaurants need to be a destination to meet friends over lunch or after work. They have also realised that Birmingham is the place that this can work. We Brummies are foodies and we want great food.
Over the past few years I have observed Birmingham’s food scene getting better and better. While the councils PR and Marketing will always mention the Balti Triangle and how Birmingham has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other British city outside London in every press release, as will any London based journo who writes about Birmingham, there is a middle ground for us foodies. And I am not talking Mr Egg.
The Birmingham street food scene brought us Digbeth Diner. This showcases the best street food in Birmingham, including The Original Patty Men (which I have yet to experience) Meatshack dirty burgers and Andy’s Low and Slow, to name but a few of the many wonderful purveyors of amazing food
Indies started to fight back and it became easier to avoid chains selling identikit mextex when Bodega and Habeneros came on the scene. Urban and Six Eight gave Brummies decent coffee. Jake popped up in his telephone box, opposite Starbucks, selling great coffee, amazing sausage rolls and cake. Jake also gave us Tfor2, a way for his customers to pay it forward and buy a suspended coffee for rough sleepers.
A food scene was slowly and surely being established in Brum. Hoo flippin ray and about time too.
And all of a sudden it exploded, in a good way.
Birmingham has some excellent Tapas restaurants, the aforementioned dirty burgers from Meat Shack, innovative burgers at The Original Patty Men in Digbeth, great bread from Peel and Stone and Loaf. And then there is the innovative The Wilderness. Add to that the Michelin starred Adams, Purnell’s and Simpsons and the Birmingham Breakfast Club, Birmingham we have got food covered. Almost. There is still a shortage of mid priced good food that is not Beef Eater but I am sure we will get them soon.
With the opening of Grand Central, Brummies who may not have braved Digbeth for street food, Chinatown for SE Asian food, or tried tapas in Spain, are stepping out of their comfort zone of fast food and are experimenting with new food experiences. This is a good thing. Having tasted pho and lush pork belly tapas, in Grand Central I hope they will want to explore the street food scene, visit the Birmingham Foodies Festival or the Colmore Food Festival, showcasing the best food Birmingham has to offer.
The choice of food at Grand Central is staggering. Yes, they are chains, some small chains, some family run. Yet this is food we used to only be able to get in London. My personal favourites are Pho, Tapas Revolutions and Leon. There are eateries to meet the requirements for almost everyone in a safe environment, restaurants without doors in a shopping mall. It is a food court, a good food court, above a railway station. There are no toilets (if there are I’ve not found them yet) which for family dining is a nightmare. They are all busy, which is good for the retailers, yet one often has to wait in line to eat at Tapas Revolution and Pho.
Well now you don’t need to. Leave Grand Central, take a short walk to the Bullring and visit Chi Kitchen in Debenhams.
Attentive staff, authentic food, good music, open kitchen, uncrowded with a big picture window, clean toilets and no queues. Yet.
I was a guest of Chi Kitchen. I was not asked to write about the experience, I chose to. I was not asked to say only lovely things when I told them I would be writing about them. Ping is genuinely lovely. She told me to say that.
All the photos were taken by Phil and me. Please don’t steal them.
And we got a goodie bag.