Going wild

“These are perfect shooting conditions,” says Ben Weatherall as he surveys the sun-drenched, heather-blanketed headland and equips London chefs James Lowe and Brad McDonald with ammunition for their 12-bore shotguns. It’s early on a bright autumn day and the sweeping Scottish landscape is glorious shades of green, gold and auburn. But as romantic as the flora in this scene is, we haven’t come to paint it. We’ve come to hunt the creatures that make a home here.

Weatherall, whose company Yorkshire Game supplies Lowe with produce for his restaurant Lyles in Shoreditch, points to a patchwork of heather across the stream. “You see that, that’s old heather which they [the grouse] use for cover and for nesting in—the shorter stuff is the young shoots, which is what the grouse eat. If you open up a grouse you’ll find it’s full of little heather shoots in the crop. You’ll see in the restaurant when you cook with them you’ll get a very, very dark red meat, which comes from the heather.”

Following Weatherall’s instructions, we form a fractured line at the foot of the hill and walk very slowly up, Weatherall’s legs move skillfully across the uneven terrain, his black Labrador Audrey panting alongside him. “What we’re going to do is walk up in a line with me in the middle with the two guns at either side. If a bird gets up it will fly away from… —then you shoot,” he says.

There’s a feathery kerfuffle of wings in front of us. Then, a sudden, momentarily deafening bang of a gunshot rings out, followed by a soft thud in the distance. Brad McDonald, the Mississippi-born chef of the Lockhart in Marylebone has hit a young grouse just over the slope. He dashes to find it, and emerges minutes later in his neon orange hat—apparently a family hunting tradition—holding the bird by the feet.

The chefs swarm around him to see, but rather than the braying exhibitions of testosterone you might associate with hunting, they are all calm and studied, quietly gathering around to inspect the bird, stroking its feathers to examine where it’s been shot. The chefs’ respect for this fresh, rare ingredient is evident.

McDonald, who cooks elevated Southern fare at The Lockhart, grew up hunting the deer that propagate the Mississippi, but some of these chefs, who have come from as far-a-field as Australia (Pasi Petanen) and Mexico (Edgar Nuñez) have never seen a grouse before, let alone held a gun. They’ve been flown over from their respective countries by Lowe, who for years has harboured a desire to show off British game season to his international peers.

“Before I opened Lyles I travelled around the world, cooking for a place to sleep through Europe, South East Asia, Latin America and the States, and I saw how proud people are of what they have in their countries, and how they liked to show off their national ingredients. I feel the same about what we have in the UK, and wanted to bring people over to show them,” he tells me the day before, over a simple game lunch he cooked for the chefs at Lyles. “One of the most unique and special things we have in our food culture is an incredible seasonality—a massive difference between winter and summer cooking, and game season is a fantastic expression of that.”

Lowe fell in love with what he calls the “visceral, slightly farmyardy” flavour of game—wild birds and animals that are legally hunted—as a young chef, learning about it by eating at St John (Fergus Henderson’s legendary British restaurant) during the season, which runs from August the ‘glorious‘ 12th through to December. He’s used it in his cooking ever since. “People sometimes think that we only cook large amounts of game to challenge or provoke, but it’s mostly because I think it’s the most interesting and tasty thing around during the season. You can get pork, beef or lamb in the summer, but you can’t get pheasant at that time so why would you use pork over game in the winter? Game offers flavours unlike any of the more common proteins.”

Lowe’s vision for ‘Game London‘ has seen him max out credit cards and close his restaurant for two days to bring the chefs over and accommodate the preparations for two game dinners that will be cooked collaboratively at Lyles later in the week. Experiencing the hunt in the midst of the Scottish countryside is a crucial part of the process, and he’s carefully chosen a group of chefs who he feels will relish the chance to get inventive with this ingredient, and bring a fresh perspective to the cooking of it. The group consists of Finnish chef Pasi Petanen, whose Cafe Pasi restaurant is considered to be one of the best in Sydney; Australian-born James Henry of Bones (soon to close) in Paris; Jeremiah Lawrence of Contra in New York; Swedish chef Fredrik Berselius formerly of Aska in New York; Edgar Nuñez of Sud 777 in Mexico City; Junya Yamasaki of now-closed Koya in London and Brad McDonald of The Lockhart in London.

“I chose chef-owners who’re in a similar situation to me—in the first couple of years in their restaurant doing interesting and creative food. I wanted people I could relate to and people who would see it as an exciting opportunity and be keen and hungry and genuinely excited about coming to the UK with an open mind about our ingredients. We’re all very different in our cooking styles but we share a similar philosophy I think.

Specifically we’re here, high up into the hills of the River Nith, north-west of Dumfries, to shoot grouse—the wild, indigenous birds that live among it and feed entirely on heather, which is responsible for giving them their uniquely funky flavour. “From a shooting point of view, gamekeepers will try and control the predators of grouse; stotes, weasels, foxes and crows, and they’ll also try to improve the habitat,” says Weatherall. “This land is kept by my brother and it’s not ‘keepered’. Today we might also see a snipe, we might see a woodcock. With all ground nesting birds the plumage is very well camouflaged.

“There is a native population of woodcock, but when it gets really cold in Scandinavia and Russia, large amounts come over because they can get their long beaks into the boggy ground—this is sort of boggy. They feed in here. Again, it’s quite a dark, strong meat. So when you’re reading about drunks in St Petersberg being frozen to their benches, that’s when you know the woodcock are coming, because that’s when they can’t get their beaks into the ground. It’s normally after the full moon at the end of November.”

Minutes later, we spot a hare dashing across the headland. Weatherall stops him in his tracks with one shot, and Audrey retrieves him. Soon, all eyes are on Lowe to bag a grouse, and after a couple of near misses, he takes one down. “It’s interesting to see how the shoot is conducted,” he says. “We’ve only seen a few grouse, but if we were here during the height of season there would be anything between two and four hundred birds.”

“The range and quantity of game in Britain is unique,” agrees Weatherall. “Our European cousins are not that hot on conservation, but here grouse moors are managed very carefully and we stick to the seasons. Shooting is big business in this country so we protect it very well.”

Back at Craigadam lodge, we catch up with Pasi, James (Henry), Jeremiah and Fredrik, who have been out on the deer stalk since before sunrise, walking for six hours through mud and bog. In that time, they shot one deer, and it was the softly spoken, Finnish chef Petanen, who made the kill: a clean shot through the heart from 400 yards away.

“It was really hard work, but it should be like that: it shouldn’t be easy,” says Petanen. “At 6.30 we started walking and we didn’t shoot the deer until 10.30. We went up and down hills for miles and nothing, then we had to crawl because it was an open plane and the deer would see or smell us. I’ve never shot anything before, and it was a humbling experience. There is no game in Australia, where my restaurant is, and doing something like this really wakes you up to the reality of where the meat comes from. It doesn’t come from a bag—someone has to do it. I would do it again. Doing it yourself makes you appreciate that what you’re handling is a valuable thing—you don’t want to fuck it up and waste a life.”

For our final shoot we head to a more sheltered valley, surrounded by woodland and scrub, with beaters who walk through, ‘driving’ to rouse the birds. The chefs stand on one side of the valley and take shots as the birds fly across, landing some red-legged partridge and pheasant. McDonald is particularly excited about the pheasant and begins to contemplate a Southern riff on the game, perhaps some Southern fried pheasant based on his signature dish at Lockhart.

On the train back to London the chefs muse on which ‘proteins’ they want to cook, with much consideration given by the London chefs to the foreign ones. “I want to make sure these guys are happy with what they’ve chosen before I decide on what I’m doing as I’m lucky to get to cook with this stuff all the time. What’s good is that there’s a real mix of ingredients, and we’re not all fighting over one thing,” says Lowe.

The next morning the chefs discuss what they’re going to cook and what they need for each course, divvying up the different game and discussing which cuts they are going to use. McDonald is set on Southern fried pheasant; Berselius will focus on grouse, giving a nod to his Nordic roots by matching it to the fermented gooseberries and salted spruce tips he carried over in his luggage from the States; Stone will cook teal, because he’s taken with its complex flavours.

After shooting the deer, Petanen has his heart set on cooking with venison, and is going to incorporate some Asian influences, pairing a haunch tartare with some red fried rice, wakame and white sesame seeds; and Henry has an idea for a course based around a jelly of intensely gamey consommé with some fresh herbs. Yamasaki also bags deer, opting to make a version of a dish he served at his famous restaurant Koya—hay-smoke-seared red deer sashimi with wild onions and foraged crab apples. Nuñez, wants to do mallard tacos, and Lowe, keen to use up the bits the other chefs won’t use, plans a dish with the offal, using teal and mallard hearts and pheasant livers, cooking them with his trademark celeriac ribbons: dehydrated, rehydrated and cooked in apple juice and butter with tarragon.

Watching the chefs brainstorm, it’s clear to see that they’ve been inspired by their experience in Scotland, and their exposure to this very special British ingredient. Each one has their own very personal style of cooking which is informed by their background and geography, and seeing how that impacts their approach to the dishes is interesting. On top of that, they have to make sure the tasting menus have cadence, and that what they each wants to do is achievable in the next 48 hours. There are questions like “do you need a dehydrator or oven?” and “is there enough grouse fat for confit?” It’s apparent that there is a lot of prep work to be done. There are birds and deer haunches to be broken down and prepped; stocks to built and clarified; confit to be rendered and marinades to make, so I leave the chefs to their work.

When I next see them, they’re busily working the pass at Lyle’s, cooking to a dining room of London’s restaurant cognoscenti, turning out finessed versions of the dishes they’d discussed earlier. Game can have stuffy, old fashioned associations, something which Lowe was intent on challenging when he conceived this event and brought over this select group of exciting, culturally diverse chefs to share in the season’s spoils, and these chefs are doing just that.

Nuñez’s ‘mallard taco‘ is a juicy, SousVide cooked, plancha-finished breast of the wild duck, which has been marinated for 12 hours in achiote—a traditional Mexican ingredient used in the famous Yucatan dish of ‘pibil’. Its acidic twang is the perfect foil for the iron-rich duck, and it’s served with a sweet purée of Delicata pumpkin and onion ash on a corn tortilla. Some of Lowe’s salt-fermented radishes have been sliced super finely over the top, and micro basil is the garnish. It’s a vivid, experimental and clever take on game.

“When I get stressed I get super creative,” says Nuñez. “I was so stressed because I lost my bag with my chillies and knives in it at the airport. I made this because I wanted to bring the flavours of my country to London. We’re used to cooking duck in Mexico but it’s quite different—they’re not used to flying long distances. Mallard has a stronger, more bloody flavour that works well because achiote is a strong flavour too. This experience has been amazing, I’ve never made the things we’ve made here, and it’s given me lots of ideas to take with me to Mexico.”

Pasi’s tartare of venison haunch comes beneath a shattered red rice cracker. “That’s my play on the Japanese seasoning togarashi.” he explains. “I usually find it too spicy so I’ve made it with red pepper cooked with some orange zest, thyme and rice, and puffed up into a cracker, then scattered over with black sesame and wakame.” The confluence of soft tartare and crunchy cracker, along with the clean Japanese inflections are fantastic for the deer.

James Henry’s dish eschews any direct protein, instead offering an intense, jellied game stock (clarified with a raft made of deer trim) spilling out of a perfectly soft-boiled Burford Brown egg. It’s resting on a smooth slick of oyster cream, and topped with fresh flecks of lovage. “I had a few ideas I would have liked to do, but when you’re doing a meal with four or five other chefs you need to make a menu that’s coherent,” he explains. “I wouldn’t like to eat a meal of just meat, so I felt it would be nice to try and showcase the game in a form that wasn’t a piece of protein. I didn’t really come here with any preconceived ideas of what I wanted to do—the point was to highlight British products so I wanted to come here, see what was available and be creative. I was aware of British game before but I’d never worked with it. England and Scotland has a beautiful tradition and it’s great to be exposed to it and do something new with it.”