Chris Wiggin ‘Canoodle’ Street Food Interview

Welcome to our special Christmas edition of Grapevine Q&A. We are ending the year with a fab interview, Chris Wiggin from Canoodle Catering and a regular at Digbeth Dining Club has kindly answered a few questions on Brum’s Street Food Scene and Digbeth Dining Club. So without further ado.. We’ll cut straight to it:

Chris Wiggin ‘Canoodle’ Interview

Hello Chris, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for Grapevine Birmingham. You’re officially the third in our series of interviews after Ollie Lloyd from The Yardbird and Ahmed Ahmed from Dine Birmingham. Please could you give us a little background on who you are and how you came to be involved with street food.

OK, well firstly Canoodle is very much a family business (as most street food companies tend to be) run by myself and long-suffering partner Vicki with much appreciated help from our daughter Virginia and a few friends but there’s quite a back story there because we like to think of ourselves as one of the forerunners of street food in the UK.

We first started out back in the early nineties before the concept of ‘street food’ as we know it today really existed. In the late eighties we spent a lot of time in London and there used to be a huge Sunday market in Wimbledon that we visited regularly. The thing that fascinated me most was the line-up of Pan-Asian street food traders.

It wasn’t really a street food market as such, just a collection of Chinese, Thai, and Malaysian traders who’d turn up on the day. They obviously all had restaurants in the area and used the market as an opportunity to sell off any unsold food. They must have had a good power supply as well because they all had microwaves and were phenomenally busy pinging leftovers in exchange for fivers. With the arrogance of youth I thought I could take the concept and do it better so I set up the Happy Noodle Company with the intention of cooking Thai food fresh to order in front of customers.

We started trading at the back of the Mailbox at a place called the Holliday Wharf Antique and Craft Market which some of your older readers may remember. It was a great little courtyard of old coach buildings filled with antiques and craft traders but sadly it was bulldozed a few years ago to build the new Registry office. At the time there was only Hank’s Hot Dogs and a hog roast trading there as caterers (par for the course in those days) and they both laughed at us the first day we set up but within three weeks the hog roast guy had packed up and moved on.

We built a decent following and I imagine quite a few Brummies had their first ever taste of Thai food at the Happy Noodle Company. I will never forget the lady who turned up every Sunday with seven Tupperware boxes for us to fill for her meals for the week or the (then) owner of the Beau Thai restaurant in Solihull who was so impressed with our food she offered me a job as a chef at her restaurant!

In general though it was hard work and for every customer we won over half a dozen would look on bemused before shuffling off to buy a 99p burger. We still had full time jobs in those days and somehow in between holding those down and trading on Sundays I had to find time to drive to London to buy essentials like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves because they just weren’t available in Birmingham.

We managed to pick up a bit of other work apart from Holliday Wharf at gigs like the Ministry of Sound and Performance in the Park but the opportunities for street food back then did not exist to the extent that they do today so sadly when the Antique & Craft market closed down we found ourselves without enough regular work to make continuing viable which is when we had a twenty year hiatus from street food pursuing our careers in teaching and advertising.

You work a lot with Digbeth Dining Club, for those who have not yet visited or perhaps heard of what DDC is, please could you explain a brief history of the event and what it means to you, and also how you think it has become such a strong draw for foodies in Brum.

Quite simply Digbeth Dining Club is what got me back into Street Food. I visited DDC after a lot of nagging from our good friend Ahmed (who runs the very successful Rib Nights and Burger Battle events in Brum) and have to admit I was sceptical at first. I had still had memories of trying to get Brummies to eat Thai food being about as easy as pushing treacle uphill and I thought nothing much would have changed. I imagined DDC would just be guys selling burgers (DDC do sell burgers but bloody good burgers) but what I saw there was a revelation.

Something had clearly happened in the intervening twenty years that had turned Brummies into voracious gourmets with an appetite to try new and inventive food. To be honest I always regarded the demise of The Happy Noodle Company as a bit of a personal failure – unfinished business if you like but DDC gave me the faith to believe I could actually have another crack at this street food game and make a success of it.

For those who haven’t yet visited Digbeth Dining Club, there really is nothing else quite like it in Brum in terms of a regular weekly street food event. We’re not the easiest place to find (at Spotlight just behind the Old Crown pub off Digbeth High Street) or in the most salubrious quarter of Birmingham but we’re worth seeking out. For most of the year we trade every Friday night (from 5.30) although we are closed now until January 29th.

Apart from full-on street closures when about twelve of us trade, there are usually six of us there each Friday night selling food from every corner of the world and traders rotate so there is always something different to try each week. We’re all fiercely proud of the fact that we’ve seen off stiff competition from places like London (which you may have heard of) to win the Best UK Street Food Event at the British Street food Awards for 20013 and 2014.

We beat off most challengers this year again and was hoping for a hat trick but we were narrowly nudged into second place by Cardiff. We’re cool with that – it was probably time to let someone else have some glory but it should give you some idea of the quality of traders at DDC.

Where and when did Birmingham’s street food scene originate? We’ve always had burger vans in the UK but so often these have been very basic. Festivals seem to have been a bit more imaginative with mobile catering, but what brought this to the streets of Britain?

There’s always been street food in Birmingham. OK, until recently most of it was pretty ropey but not always. I doubt you’re old enough to remember but in New Street and Corporation Street there always used to be a handful of guys with hot chestnut carts who also sold wonderful paper cones of baked potatoes.

I used to have one of those most days on my way home from school. For reasons that I still find inexplicable it’s difficult to actually trade physically ‘on the street’ like those guys these days. I can think of the hot sausage guy who has a stand at the Bullring end of New Street along with a donut/candy floss stall and Habaneros who sell Mexican food by Birmingham Cathedral and beyond that I’m struggling.

That’s a huge missed opportunity to bring vibrancy to the streets of Birmingham which I’ll admit I can’t quite understand. Instead, street food in Birmingham seems to have evolved ‘off’ the street due to the efforts of private event organisers such as Jack and James who run DDC and Duncan at Brum Yum Yum who saw the opportunity and thankfully ran with it.

The street food scene that we have today didn’t so much evolve though as burst onto the scene almost fully formed about three years ago. I have my own theories as to why it took off so instantly when it proved so difficult twenty years ago with The Happy noodle Company and it’s a combination of things. Firstly the daily barrage of food programmes on the TV has educated and broadened most people’s knowledge of food and cheap air travel has allowed people to actually try different cuisines first hand. Ironically I think the recession we all suffered from 2008 helped the street food scene tremendously.

Personally, prior to the recession I was co-running a Birmingham restaurant review site called Birmingham Plus and in pursuant of that regularly ate out at Michelin Starred restaurants which people wanted to read about.

Once the recession bit my personal focus switched to finding good value food at all the little Asian cafes in the Chinese Quarter (Café Soya and The Village are still firm favourites) and I think most people followed suit. I think that educated a lot of people in the fact that you could get really good food at incredible prices if you were prepared to be a little bit more adventurous and that’s what street food is all about.

What do you offer with Canoodle Catering, your ethos and food people can expect to buy, also where and when can they buy it?

To be fair, our ethos is no different from many of my other colleagues in the business and that is to offer the absolutely best quality food from the freshest ingredients that we possibly can. Competition is fierce in the street food industry at the moment with new traders trying to break into the scene all the time so there really is no room for people who cut corners, and those that do quickly get found out.

Personally I will only ever cook food I would happily eat myself (an obvious statement maybe but I know many festival caterers who will never touch their own food) and I still get a huge buzz out of introducing new foods to my customers.

Twenty years ago I couldn’t convince that many people to try stir-fried chicken but at Canoodle our most popular dishes are things like squid, soft-shell crab and pig cheeks. We were also the first street food trader in the midlands to offer Taiwanese steamed buns and I had a Chinese girl recently begging my for the recipe for our own tamarind and chilli house sauce that we use on them.

A lot of our dishes such as Malaysian beef rendang and Thai green chicken curry are classic recipes that we don’t mess around with too much but we still like to add our own personal twists to them. The beef rendang for instance is served with our own recipe soured mango garnish and I honestly believe it makes it a high-end restaurant dish served in a palm leaf tray for less than the price of a bag of fish and chips.

Our menu constantly evolves and we will be working on a whole host of new dishes for 2016 which as ever will also include many vegan/vegetarian dishes as well as gluten free options. We’ll hopefully continue to be regularly attending DDC, which in itself will be extending to new venues in 2016 but we will also be doing many other events and pop-ups throughout Birmingham as well.

The best way to find out is to follow us on facebook at CanoodleUK which we promise to make more effort updating in future!!

How big is Birmingham’s street food scene and how does it compare to the rest of the UK?

Unusually for Birmingham I think the street food scene is probably as good if not better than anywhere else in the UK, and it’s not often we get to say that about our city!

OK, In terms of sheer volume of locations and events London is way ahead of us but I think the quality of our street food traders is every bit as good, if not better than the London guys.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of the London street food scene that it is over-populated with hipsters on gap years and that may be true or not but what I can say is that Birmingham has a lot of talented guys in it for the long game.

Please could you sum up the best of the West Midlands street food outlets and events, we’ve already heard about Digbeth Dining Club, but please could you recommend other stalls and markets worth trying, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Harborne, Moseley or Kings Heath perhaps? Are farmers markets similar?

OK, well first of all sticking with DDC they will be expanding in 2016. We just did a very successful DDC event a Codsall earlier this month and hopefully that will become a regular event. We also did about four street closures in King’s Heath this year in York Road in conjunction with the Hare & Hounds and those will certainly continue in 2016.

Of course King’s Heath also plays host to Brum Yum Yum who will be continuing to hold their street food events on the second Saturday of every month on the Village Square and they will also be expanding to other venues in 2016 so it’s worth following them on Facebook. Just down the Road at Sarehole Mill Flying Teapot events hold regular Sunday ‘Folk, Street Food and Real Ale’ events which are great family days out and have free entry to boot.

Flying Teapot events are also working in conjunction with Two Towers Brewery who has just taken over the Gun Makers Arms in Bath Street to hold regular Friday night street food events there but It’s not in the best location so I fear for their future. Throughout 2015 various event organisers have tried to hold Friday night events to varying degrees of success but if I can appeal to any that might be reading this, please think outside the box.

There is plenty of scope for other events in Birmingham. I’d love to see a regular Sunday street food Market or more events on Saturdays for instance but personally I think the city can only support a limited amount of events on a Friday night!

As well as DDC we are also a member of Scoff Street food, a collective of traders (most of whom ironically started out at DDC) and as a body we have tried to organise our own events outside of Birmingham to limited success. In the last eighteen months we traded at the Prince Albert in Wolverhampton, Fargo Village in Coventry and on the riverside at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Sadly none of these have been successful enough to continue although we do run hugely successful events in Warwick for Warwick Rocks such as free outdoor film festivals which are always worth looking out for. I think in 2016 we will see more successful street food events in other areas start up. There is talk of a regular Sunday event in Moseley but it’s not definite enough to divulge any info on that at the moment.

Farmers markets have not been something I’ve ever bothered with to be honest. I know colleagues who have tried them and they have reported mixed success because it’s a different audience of people who are more intent on shopping than eating street food and currently they seem to be dominated by traders offering ‘novelty’ foods such as ostrich burgers rather than serious street food.

With Birmingham being such a diverse city, home to a large African Caribbean, Indian and East Asian community, do you think we will see more from these communities in way of street food offerings, or is it not practical to cook say, Balti in a van?

I’d say it’s certainly practical to cook a balti from a van. If I can do a beef rendang, why not a lamb balti? I doubt it would happen though. One of the reasons balti restaurants are in decline is because younger generations of the families who own these restaurants do not want to continue in the industry.

They’ve seen from a very young age what hard graft catering is and they are taking the more sensible options of a nice comfy well-paid job in IT or medicine. The street food industry currently is heavily populated by guys my age who have always dreamed of becoming chefs and have mostly taken redundancy cheques from their office jobs to ‘live the dream’.

Where do you see the UK street food scene in five years from now, do you think it will still be as popular?

Of course. People always have to eat and hopefully now we have a momentum of people who realise that street food is a good viable alternative to expensive four course meals in restaurants.

My hope is that city councils will realise the fantastic opportunity that street food offers in terms of adding vibrancy to their cities and attracting tourism and work enthusiastically with us to open up new trading opportunities.

Can you recommend any places outside the UK for street food fans to try. Is there a Holy Grail for street food fans?

Well for me it has to be Vietnam. I have a brother-in-law living in Hanoi and I’m forever hoping to be in a position to take a month off to visit him and just eat off the streets for the entire time. It’s one of the street food capitals of the word but to be honest you can’t go wrong for street food anywhere in that part of the world.

Singapore, Bangkok in Thailand, Penang in Malaysia; you’re not going to go hungry in any of them. A colleague at DDC who specialises in American BBQ and smoked food has just done a similar thing spending a month travelling around Austin, Texas and New Orleans visiting the big names like Franklin BBQ and I have to say, it’s not my field at all but from a street food perspective it looks amazing.

Closer to home, if you just want a quick weekend away I’d head to Brussels and live off waffles, moules and fries and although I’ve not been I’ve heard the street food in Istanbul is fairly amazing.

For those reading this, please can you tell us five of your top street food meals from anywhere in the world.

Lol, I’m really not that well-travelled but one of the most memorable meals I have ever eaten was in Paris and it was just a humble Brie baguette. I don’t know whether it could be technically classed as street food but we’d bought a baguette and a wheel of brie from a local shop before trudging around the Louvre all morning after which we just flopped down on a park bench, broke the baguette open with our bare hands and pushed the brie into it.

It was one of the most magnificent things I have ever eaten and I thing I may ever have shed little tears of joy. I still get a little reminder of it every time I eat a brie baguette at Paul on Grand Central but it’s nowhere near as good.

We love Greece and have probably spent the best part of the last thirty years travelling around the islands. I still remember the first giros I ate. It’s not the best street food in the world but that was pretty damn good as well. Another great memory for me happened in Barcelona at a posh sit-down restaurant in the Barri Gotic.

Obviously it’s not even close to a definition of street food but it was a bit of an epiphany for me because it was the first time I’d experienced savoury ice cream (in this case Parmesan and black pepper) and I realised that you could push boundaries with food beyond people’s expectations. How many is that? Oh, just three! Well I have to say Canoodle’s Vietnamese chilli pepper squid and soft shell crab burgers are pretty damn good!!

Chris, it has been a pleasure, thank you very much. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

Find out more about Digbeth Dining Club and Canoodle Catering here:

Nick Byng, Grapevine Birmingham.

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