Food & Drink: The Rules Of The Game

A monthly series in which our leading cooks share their expertise, ideas and secrets with Michael Bateman
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Masters Of Modern Cookery

12: David Chambers

Born in Ireland, David Chambers, now aged 45, was educated in Lambeth. He trained at the Hyatt Carlton Tower under Paul Bocuse's protege, Bernard Gaume. David became head chef at Le Meridien Piccadilly in 1985, teaming up with its three-star consultant chef, Michel Lorain of the Cote St-Jacques in Joigny. The same year, David formed Fonds de Cuisine, a company dedicated to making real stock. He was executive chef at the Park Lane Hilton until two years ago, when he became chef and joint MD of Rules, the oldest restaurant in London

DAVID CHAMBERS crouches by the duck pond, grasping his gun with an air of unfamiliarity - he's more at home with a balloon whisk or a conical sieve. Dusk is closing in.

The first sign that the birds are coming is the sound of flapping wings. Then there's a blur as their silhouettes appear overhead. David swings his gun in an arc, as instructed, a yard or so ahead of the leading bird. He lets fly. Bang! A plump duck hits the ground beside him with a heavy thump. "Cracking shot, chef," the gamekeeper says.

David Chambers has been picking up wild duck and grouse from game suppliers (usually Allan's of Mayfair) for the last 25 years, but taking it on the wing was not a pastime he'd ever contemplated.

Then, in 1997, David became the chef and joint MD of Rules in Covent Garden, London's oldest restaurant - it celebrated its 200th anniversary last year. The owner, John Mayhew, gave David the run of Lartington Hall Park, his Yorkshire estate.

John Mayhew invited David to bring his entire kitchen shooting twice a year, and a most effective exercise in staff relations this has turned out to be. The guys in the kitchen who turn round a staggering 18,500 game birds a year have now acquired a real understanding of, and pride in, the process by which they arrive on the table.

For as long as anyone can remember, Rules has been a bastion of British cooking, with its great roasts and its impressive game menu. However, as the London restaurant world changed, Rules became something of a museum piece, rather like the Tower of London, to which you'd direct foreigners but wouldn't think of patronising yourself.

This has all changed under David, who has completely revitalised the menu without compromising the Britishness of the place, and without being distracted by the weight of its literary and theatrical associations. Rules was a favourite of Charles Dickens, and was frequented by HG Wells, Thackeray and John Galsworthy; John Betjeman and Graham Greene both celebrated birthdays here; and it was the haunt of thespians from Henry Irving to Laurence Olivier via Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, it was in a private room here that the winsome actress Lily Langtry encouraged Edward VII into inappropriate behaviour.

David himself is more stirred by another British tradition: our gastronomic heritage of cooking game. He speaks of it with the passion of a convert. As a sportsman rather than a cook, he is critical of the custom of selling game out of season - pheasant and partridge are now available all the year round. "As far as I'm concerned, the true definition of game birds is birds which are shot in season," he says. "After the end of February, you shouldn't be able to buy any wild game. It will either be illegal, or it will have come out of a freezer."

Partridge and pheasant are the most common-ly eaten game birds, but the true gourmet prize is that most British of them all, the grouse, and its lesser-known cousins the blackcock (black grouse), the capercaillie (wood or great grouse) and the ptarmigan, a lovely snow-white grouse.

The Rules menu also features the more uncommon birds, when they are available: woodcock (a long-billed wader) and snipe, which also inhabits wetlands. Uniquely, both of these birds can be eaten ungutted. The reason for this, according to David, is that they conveniently empty their guts before they take to the air.

David has developed a special fondness for wild duck, the mallard, and not just because it makes such a big target for his novice gun. He loves its slightly earthy flavour, and is satisfied that mallards are truly free-range game birds.

So many game birds are, in effect, semi-farmed he explains. "Pheasants and partridges are hand-reared from the egg. When their wing-feathers grow, the tips are cut so they can't fly for their first six months. During this time they depend on being hand-fed, and when their feathers are strong enough to fly they don't know how to forage for themselves. So they are essentially farmed birds when the beaters drive them to the shoots."

When wild duck is out of season, David uses Gressingham duck in its place for his signature dish (see recipe right). Cooking game is essentially very simple, he says. The only problem facing the chef is that the bird's breasts cook in up to half the time it takes to cook the legs. In some restaurants they get round this by bringing the bird to the table, carving the breasts, then returning the carcass (now known as the crown) with the legs attached to the oven to cook for a further 20 minutes.

If you are to serve the two together, as David does in Rules' classic recipe, then the breasts are taken off and cut into two slices, and the legs are taken out of their fat and crisped up in a pan. Served with a rich, spicy, stock-based sauce, this dish combines the best elements of traditional rare game breast with crispy Chinese duck.

David Chambers' Wild Duck With Chinese Sauce

Buy two ducks - wild, ideally. You can remove the legs to cook at once if you are not going to include them in the dish. Reserve the crowns for four or five days in the fridge to improve their succulence. The unctuousness of David's sauce depends on using real rich veal stock, which can be obtained from some supermarkets.

Serves 4

2 wild ducks, plucked and gutted

80g/212oz brown sugar

50mI/2fl oz water

6g/14oz grated ginger

14 fresh red chilli, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 Bramley apple, peeled and diced

50ml/2fl oz wine vinegar

300ml/10fl oz veal stock, if possible (other rich home-made stocks will do as well)

25g/1oz butter

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6.

Remove the legs from the birds and salt the crowns both inside and out. Fry the birds breast down in a pan in just a little oil to get some colour into the skins.

Transfer the birds to an oven pan and roast for 15 to 20 minutes in a very hot oven. Remove the crowns and stand in a warm place for 15 to 20 minutes, so that the meat continues to improve.

If using the legs in this dish, take the fat off them and cook them in the oven for 10 minutes, or until they are heated through.

While the bird is roasting, make the sauce. Dissolve the sugar and water in a frying pan over a high heat, cooking it to a thick, dark syrup without burning it. Add the ginger, chilli, garlic and apple and cook until the apple is soft.

In a separate pan, cook the vinegar until it is reduced by half, then stir into the sauce mixture. Cook until the flavours are blended smoothly, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Add the veal stock to the vinegar mixture, heat through and adjust the flavourings. Stir in the butter to give the stock a silky sheen.

Cut off the breasts and slice each into two. If the skin is pale, return them to a hot pan, skin-side down, to crisp up swiftly.

David Chambers serves his duck with baby spinach, cooked with butter and cinnamon, and pommes fondants - medium-sized potatoes trimmed into flat ovals and braised with butter and stock in an oven dish.

David Chambers' Duck Confit

If you have cooked the recipe above without the legs of your two ducks, David recommends that you turn them into this delicious confit.

Lay the legs on a mixture of salt and thyme for around six hours to take up the flavours. Mop the legs dry. Using goose fat (you can buy it from speciality food stores like Harvey Nichols), simmer the legs on the hob very, very gently, at the lowest possible heat, for between two and three hours.

Once ready, remove from the oven and leave the confit to cool in the fat. It will now keep in a glass or stone jar in the fridge for a good few months. Before eating, fry the confit to crisp it up.

David Chambers' Top Ten Tips For Game

l Buy game from a proper game dealer so that you know your source of supply

Choose as fat a bird as possible, as this means more flavour. Game birds can be too lean

To achieve flesh which is most tender and succulent, hang game yourself after buying it for up to five days. The word "hang" needn't be taken literally - just keep it in the fridge

The breast cooks in nearly half the time the legs take, so cook the breast and legs separately. This rule also applies to the larger poultry - chicken, goose and turkey

The legs can either be roasted separately or stuffed (in the case of large poultry), or the legs of game birds can be made into a confit (see recipe, right)

Season the inside of the bird with salt to draw out flavour

Season the outside of the bird with salt to help it crisp

Before roasting, saute the breast side of the crown (the carcass without the legs) in hot fat to brown it

After cooking, rest the crown for 20 minutes in a warm place to allow the meat to recover from the shock of roasting. Roasting drives the blood to the centre, and it needs some time to spread back evenly

To carve: cut out the wishbone first, then cut downwards, removing slices of meat parallel to the backbone