"There's no single word translation in English," says James Brewster of his company name: Kodawari. "It means... an uncompromising and relentless devotion to a craft. It happens, say, when a very high standard is set, when special consideration and attention is given to something. It's a very Japanese thing."
James shares a lot in common with the Japanese, but he didn't know it until he visited for three weeks, last year, and dined out at every single ramen bar he could.
"I was an engineer and test driver for Jaguar Land Rover, with a huge passion for cooking. I cooked throughout university to pay my way through an engineering degree, becoming a head chef on the way. In Japan I watched. Watched for hours as chefs perfected their ramen. As crazy as it sounds, it reminded me of engineering. Tinkering to achieve perfection. Ramen became a hobby, but a hobby I threw everything at."
The hobby became an obsession. Back in the UK James was having Japanese YouTube clips translated and he was cooking ramen over and over. Using local ingredients where possible to achieve the most Japanese of tastes. "My first ramens weren't great. They lacked that umami punch. But I'm quite a determined person and I kept cooking until finally I had something that tasted of Tokyo. But I kept delving deeper, every component was like pulling a thread and getting lost in a rabbit hole, I loved it. I loved that Japanese pursuit of perfection. It can always be better."
The hobby that became an obsession was soon to become a business. James travelled the UK sampling ramen bars. "Maybe only two out of 20 came close to Japan. So I saw a bit of a gap in the market. I started to wonder if maybe there was a street food business in the making. People seemed to like what I was cooking and I was getting more confident. I formed the company and spent an age honing what were already good recipes."
Then, pop... COVID-19 landed. Jaguar Land Rover cancelled James's contract.
"It was bitter sweet. I'd ummed and ahhed about taking the jump into Kodawari full time but had never quite had the confidence. The decision was taken out of my hands." James started work that very evening on what Kodawari needed to be in light of Coronavirus. He gave himself four weeks, his JLR notice period, in which to have a fully operating business that, clearly, wasn't going to be a street food stall any time soon. In the most hostile of environments — a global pandemic — he found the answer.
"My first instinct was to want to help, so I did what a lot of cooks did, and started feeding NHS workers. For the first time I had to cook to scale. Five bowls of ramen at a dinner party suddenly became 100 for delivery. The feedback was incredible, and I started to realise I could cook to large orders."
Almost over night Kodawari became a 'cook at home kit'. While feeding NHS workers and finishing his last few weeks with JLR, James was pulling 16 hour days. His Bromsgrove kitchen was no longer a kitchen, it was a catering operation. His dining room was no longer a dining room, it was a mini packaging plant. Begging and borrowing from uni friends and family he had a website built, a brand designed, packaging in place and suppliers delivering nationwide. "It's a blur to me now, those four weeks. Sleepless nights and long, long days." Something that was over a year in the making had been flipped into a completely new business model and, soon, the orders were coming in.
"The beauty of Kodawari is in its simplicity, I guess. Ramen makes for the perfect 'cook at home kit' and the perfect restaurant dish. All the hard work is done many hours before you plate up. The final stages, the ones I ask my customers to do, are super simple. All the effort really has gone into mastering the stock — some of mine take 30 hours to produce. It's great for wowing dinner guests because it doesn't look all that easy, but it really is. So much so that I've expanded the menu to include katsu and karaage."
James had stolen a march on bigger, more established ramen brands. A one-man operation he was able to (you hate this word by now) pivot quicker than major companies, stuttering to get decisions past full boardrooms of decision makers.
And so, what's next? Continue to make the nationwide 'at home' ramen sector his own? Capitalise on that headstart and grow, grow, grow?
"Actually no," says James, catching us completely off guard. "I'm concentrating on Birmingham and the surrounding area. Launching the kits has been amazing and it's made me accelerate Kodawari into a brand with a following. But, really, the maths doesn't stack up for nationwide delivery like it does for local. It takes ten times longer to package a kit than to serve a bowl of ramen in a restaurant and the packaging is costly and bespoke to each ingredient. When it goes nationwide, you then need to add on insulation and ice packs." The temptation, he explains, would be to pass some of that cost on to the customer. "But the customer, quite rightly, isn't willing to pay more to turn their hobs on at home and bring the kit together, than they would to have a chef do it all at a restaurant. I'll keep doing local delivery for Brum and the West Midlands, charging £3 per drop off, but nationwide delivery doesn't stack up."
"On top of that, I still see this as a street food stall. So much so, in fact, that I've just been offered my first plot at BirdBox in Bromsgrove for August 21 to 23. I've also been in touch with Digbeth Dining Club and Taste Collective in Solihull." And the long term goal? "A bricks and mortar restaurant," say James. "I put time aside every week to look at properties and my focus is on Selly Oak or, ideally, Stirchley. I already know what I want it to look like and I'm hoping to have a place open by the end of the year," he says.
The end of 2021, we correct him. "No, no," he says "2020."
And a man with a story like this behind him, not many would bet against.
Order locally from Kodawari here and follow on Instagram here.
Some of the city's most beloved historical venues have come out swinging with socially distanced events designed to help them survive the pandemic. As the nation pines for theatre, Aston Hall will host three live outdoor stage performances of TheWind in the Willows, with the grand mansion as the backdrop. August 23, tickets start from £15 for adults and £10 for children. Picnic boxes are available. Meanwhile, again at Aston Hall, team members from Birmingham Royal Ballet will be on site to talk about how, despite the grandiose name, the BRB is for everyone, not just The Windsors. September 20, £9 for adults, £3 for kids. Elsewhere, celebrate Birmingham Heritage Week with a visit to the brilliant Tudor house that is Blakesley Hall (pictured), built in 1590 and open for the first time since lockdown — September 12, £7 adults and £3 kids.
PAINTING YOUR PINTING
Pubs. Is there anything they can't do? Now, with rather a lot of help from Brum artist Faye Quinn, they can make your home look beautiful. So moved was Faye at her return to the Prince of Wales, in Moseley, after four months of lockdown, that she painted her local and placed it on her instagram. "I can see the Prince from my bedroom," explains Faye "I visit most weekends. I hand-painted it and it seemed to strike a chord with my followers, so I decided to do another — The Crown in Digbeth [see here]. Pubs are buildings filled with memories. They've got more life to them than if I was drawing, say, an office block. They resonate with people." Faye is currently working on a painting of the Patrick Kavanagh. You can buy The Prince of Wales or The Crown from her Etsy, and you can follow Faye, here, on Instagram. Prices start at £10.
Venue: Harborne Kitchen, 175-179 High St, B17 9QE; Website Choice: Pig belly taco, pineapple salsa and coriander (£4) Chooser: GM
There are absolutely loads of kitchens in Harborne. Seriously, almost every house there has a kitchen, but there is only one Harborne Kitchen. This dream neighbourhood restaurant with its ace service and top food has just got even better. “How?” We hear you ask. Hang on, we're coming to that. If for some reason you’ve lost your mind and don’t fancy a six or nine course tasting menu (available on Eat Out To Help Out, too) you can now sit in the bar and work your way through a selection of big-hitting small plates from the spanking bar menu. If you’ve been to HK before you’ll have had the chicken liver parfait with white chocolate and strawberries — it’s one of the best dishes in Birmingham — now you can keep ordering it until they’ve run out of chickens. Another must-have is the cod roe. Silky, smoky roe topped with salty pops of perfect caviar. The only issue with these two dishes is you'll end up fingering the bowl clean — do attempt to not make eye contact with the bar staff while doing so. Then there’s the tacos — pork belly with a pineapple salsa. If you’re capable of only eating one of these you’re a stronger person than we are. Worth every penny. Menu
A gin distillery and tasting school has opened at the Clayton Hotel. That's the one that used to be Hotel La Tour. Staffs juniper jugglers Nelson's are running it. Details
A floating boat cinema is coming to Birmingham. Details are so scarce they are yet to announce where. More
The Social Cheese Fest is the socially distanced version of Brum's annual Cheese Festival, happening at the Bond, Digbeth. It's B.Y.O Cheese. Nah just kidding, don't bring cheese, there's going to be loads. Sept 5 and 6 from £5. More
Speaking of Digbeth, Digbeth Dining Club. is back in Digbeth. They're taking over the huge open-air Digbeth Arena, in Digbeth, for four days of food and good Digbeth times. Aug 13 to 16, tables for six start at just £15 (in total). Dig-tails
"The Japan represented by sushi is a very different country from the one represented by ramen. The former was a hushed, refined, serious country of fine taste and even finer economic means, but ramen represents a less intimidating, less exotic Japan, one dominated by bright lights, bold flavours and the electric pulse of youth-driven pop culture."
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