From Druids Heath to Manhattan... Food Critic Richard McComb talks to New York hot-plate star April Bloomfield.
April Bloomfield is probably the most famous Brummie chef in the world but there is a good chance you’ve never heard of her.
The 38-year-old serves up cultured rusticity at two Michelin star restaurants in New York and has opened a third specialising in seafood.
She knows Jay-Z, Norman “Fat Boy Slim” Cook and REM’s Michael Stipe. Annoyingly, she won’t tell you anything about her starry friends and associates, or indeed anyone who dines at her critically-acclaimed and very busy restaurants.
Bloomfield rose to Stateside hot-plate stardom on the personal recommendation of global cooking star Jamie Oliver. Oliver was himself headhunted for the job of head chef at The Spotted Pig, but the approach coincided with his career going stratospheric. It wasn’t a role Oliver could commit to, but he said he knew a woman who could.
Bloomfield is now hailed as one of the brightest talents in the Big Apple, one of the world’s unqualified dining destinations.
She is Number 2 in the Huffington Post’s “Top 10 Badass Women Chefs in America” (because she is “100 times more likely to be seen cooking on the line in her restaurants than in front of a television camera”) and is credited with revitalising good bar food. Not bad for a council-estate kid from Druids Heath who failed home economics.
For someone so unassumingly successful, Bloomfield is shy, almost painfully so. She is on edge talking to me: “I am a little bit nervous. I’m a girl from Birmingham, aren’t it? You get nerves.”
I had expected a bombastic character and crackling bravado from a chef used to shouting the orders in noisy kitchens, but Bloomfield speaks in a soft, gentle voice. Her accent is plain weird.
There is southern Irish in there, a bit of Aussie, some mid-Atlantic. Incidentally, she has neither Irish nor Australian heritage. Bloomfield insists she speaks straight-forward Brummie and confides that her toughest US test was getting the natives to tune in to her south Birmingham brogue.
“The biggest challenge I had when I first moved to New York was nobody could understand a word I was saying. They weren’t used to my accent at the time,” she says.
“I used to have this American sous chef and she used to put on this Cockney accent to put in the food orders at the end of the night. She liked to impersonate English people. The suppliers understood her.
“So I was like, ‘That’s really impressive. They can understand her accent.’ And so what I used to do was call my orders through and put on a Cockney accent. They couldn’t get the Brummie accent.”
They understand her now all right and she insists the Brummie twang is never far away. “As soon as I set foot in Birmingham it comes back, especially if I’m around my mum and dad.”
I catch up with Bloomfield during a flying visit to the UK, which she describes as a “homecoming.” She is hosting a two-day residency in London at St John Chinatown with her friend – and “nose-to-tail” eating godfather – Fergus Henderson. Henderson has held similar events, dubbed “Fergustock,” at Bloomfield’s New York restaurants and she is repaying the favour. She is also here for the UK launch of her wonderfully no-nonsense cook book A Girl and Her Pig.
Bloomfield co-owns The Spotted Pig, The Breslin (both Michelin-starred) and The John Dory Oyster Bar. Her success has been built on the consistent delivery of full-flavoured comfort food. Her dishes are created by humans, not pseudo-chemists. One of the most popular items at the Pig (in fact, it is never off the menu) is gnudi – ricotta and Parmesan dumplings which are coated with semolina flour and served with brown butter and sage. Other staples include liver and onions, mashed potatoes and faggots. You don’t need tweezers to plate her food. Bloomfield says the aroma of livers searing in a hot pan makes her knees tremble.
There is no hesitation when I ask Bloomfield to sum up her cooking philosophy. “Simple, rustic, clean and vibrant, with a foot in English and Italian roots,” she says.
“I’m very passionate about Italian food. My food is Italian in philosophy, by keeping it simple, using great ingredients, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. But there are English twists and some refreshing up-to-date stuff that you would find in England.
“I eat with my eyes and my soul. I eat with my brain, too. But I much prefer rustic, approachable food, whether it is soul food, comfort food, however you want to say it, more so than so-called tweezer food.”