It's that very rare kind of crisp, bright autumn morning that illuminates the sweeping Scottish landscape into glorious shades of green, gold and auburn, and chases away any whiff of a whisky hangover. It's 8.30am and I'm standing at the foot of a grouse moor with chefs of varying nationalities who, just a few hours ago, were playing snooker in a haze of single malt and Bruce Springsteen.
If they're tired this morning, they're hiding it well – but, then, sleep deprivation comes with the territory when you're a chef. A few others have already been up for hours and are trudging through bog in another part of the Scottish countryside on a deer stalk as we ready ourselves for the task in hand: shooting grouse.
This crash course in game has been curated by London chefs James Lowe (of Lyle's restaurant) and Brad McDonald (The Lockhart), both of whom hold game cookery close to their hearts, feeling that it deserves a place on the global culinary stage. McDonald, who cooks elevated Southern fare at The Lockhart in Marylebone, grew up hunting deer in Mississippi ("If we made burgers, sausages or lasagne, it was with deer meat"), where it's a way of life to hunt it, but illegal to cook it in restaurants. Lowe, on the other hand, grew up in the school of St John, teaching himself about what he calls the "visceral, slightly farmyardy" flavour of game by eating it at Fergus Henderson's fabled restaurant throughout the season as a nascent chef. He has used it in his creative British cooking ever since.
"I always put game on as a main during the season," he says. "It's a brilliant expression of our fantastic seasonality because it's only around for a limited time, and it offers flavours unlike any others. Our culture of game cookery is something that really sets us apart from other countries, and I want to show it off. I'd like this [hunt] to be something we do every year."
Lowe thought carefully about who to invite to share in the season's spoils, asking a selection of exciting, culturally diverse chefs. "I chose to invite chef-owners who are in a similar situation to me: they're in the first couple of years of owning their restaurants, doing interesting, inventive food," he says. "We're all very different in our cooking styles but we share a similar philosophy. These are the people who I believe are going to be the ones everyone will be talking about in the next year or so."
Yesterday, many of them tasted game for the first time, over a lunch of roasted grouse, English partridge, mallard and teal cooked by Lowe at Lyle's. The differing wild diets of the birds means each has a significantly different flavour, making them a new and intriguing prospect for the chefs. Fredrik Berselius, the Swedish chef of acclaimed, tasting-menu-only restaurant Aska in New York, was taken with the "funkiness" of the grouse. "Next to it, pheasant just tastes like nothing. It's got a real savoury funk to it that I'm excited about playing around with."
In just two days' time, McDonald, Lowe, Japanese chef Junya Yamasaki of Koya (also in London), and the five foreign chefs: Pasi Petanen (Cafe Pasi, Sydney); James Henry (Bones, Paris); Jeremiah Stone (Contra, New York); Berselius; and Edgar Nuñez (Sud 777, Mexico City) will collaborate on cooking two consecutive game dinners at Lyle's, giving their own interpretations of this distinctly British ingredient. But before they decide on their dishes, the chefs are seeing first hand what's involved in hunting these creatures in their natural habitat.
Lowe's game supplier, Ben Weatherall of Yorkshire Game, has brought some of us high up into the hills of the river Nith, north-west of Dumfries, to shoot grouse – the indigenous British wildfowl that lives among, and feeds entirely on, heather, giving it its unique flavour.
Following his lead, we form a fractured line at the foot of the hill and walk very slowly up, Weatherall's legs moving with gazelle-like expertise across the uneven terrain, his black Labrador Audrey panting alongside him. "No pressure, guys, but you've got to shoot some game now," he says, as we squint into the sun and across the seemingly deserted horizon, desperately trying not to lose our footing.
There's a flutter of wings somewhere in front of us, then the shocking, sudden bang of a shot rings out, followed by the sound of a soft thud in the distance. McDonald has hit a young grouse just over the slope. Minutes later, he emerges holding the bird by the feet.
The chefs gather around him to quietly binspect the bird, stroking its feathers to examine where it's been shot. These are passionate, cerebral chefs, and the respect for this fresh, precious bird is palpable.
Minutes later, we spot a hare dashing across the headland. Weatherall stops it in its tracks k with one shot, and Audrey retrieves it. Soon, all eyes are on Lowe to bag a grouse, and after a couple of near misses, he takes one down.
Back at Craigadam lodge, we catch up with Petanen, Henry, Stone and Berselius, who have been out on the deer stalk since before sunrise. "It was intense," Henry says. "We were walking for about 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.
"We started walking at 6.30am and we didn't shoot the deer until 10.30am," he says. "It was hard work, but it shouldn't be easy. It was very humbling to shoot a deer; I've never shot anything before. 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 waste a life."
"It was interesting because the deer are so elusive," adds Stone. "The States is overrun with deer – I could go into a forest, close my eyes and shoot one. I definitely felt how special the meat was because they were so hard to track down."
Soon we're back outside for one last shoot, this time in a valley flanked 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 to take back with us.
The next morning, in London, we meet at Lyle's for menu planning. The chefs discuss what they're going to cook, divvying up the different game and deciding which cuts they are going to use. McDonald will do something Southern – perhaps a riff on his famous Southern-fried chicken using 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 US.
Stone will take teal. "I want to do something quite simple, because the birds have so many flavours themselves, it's nice to leave them be, so I'll serve the breasts and legs together, maybe with some cabbage mustard."
After shooting the deer, Petanen has decided on venison: "I'm thinking raw venison haunch with red fried rice, wakame and white sesame seeds," and Henry has an idea for "a course without any protein – a game jelly consommé with an egg underneath and some herbs".
It's fascinating to watch the chefs brainstorm, each with a clear style, heritage and personality that have an impact on their vision. On top of that, they have to make sure the tasting menus are achievable in the next 48 hours. It's apparent that there is a lot of prep work to be done.
Yamasaki, who will serve hay-smoke-seared red-deer sashimi with wild onions and crab apples foraged from a park near his home in east London, is called on for Japanese ingredients from Koya for Petanen's dish; and McDonald (who has a deep knowledge of Mexican k cooking) for some Mexican ingredients for Edgar Nuñez, whose kitchen bag has been lost in transit, but who wants to do mallard tacos. There are birds and deer haunches to be broken down and prepped, stocks to be 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 are busy working the pass at Lyle's, turning out almost impossibly evolved versions of the dishes they had discussed earlier. Nuñez's mallard taco is a succulent, sous-vide-cooked, plancha-seared breast of the wild duck, which has been marinated for 12 hours in achiote – a Mexican ingredient used in the famous Yucatan dish of pibil. It's a balanced and radical interpretation of game.
"We're used to cooking duck in Mexico but it's quite different," says Nuñez. "Mallard has a stronger, more bloody flavour that works well because achiote is a strong flavour too. This experience has been amazing, and it's given me lots of ideas to take with me to Mexico."
Petanen'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 orange zest, thyme and rice, and puffed into a cracker, then scattered over with black sesame and wakame."
Henry's dish is an intense jellied game consommé spilling out of a perfectly soft-boiled Burford Brown egg. It is sat atop an umami 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 says. "I felt it would be nice to showcase the game in a form that wasn't a piece of protein: I wanted to do something a little fresher. This is quite a traditional French dish, but I've lightened it up."
To clarify his consommé, Henry made a "raft" (a ground meat, mirepoix and egg-white mixture which is simmered in stock to suck up impurities) out of Petanen's deer trim. This resourceful attitude to the produce is carried through the dinners, with Lowe cooking a dish using the offal and his trademark celeriac ribbons, which he dehydrated, rehydrated and cooked in apple juice and butter with tarragon.
Petanen had the brilliant idea of making a duck-fat caramel to go on a dessert of pumpkin and milk ice cream, and it's a revelation – the sweet, caramelised duck fat offering a savoury depth most salted caramels can only dream of.
The menus that emerged over both nights not only speak of the fabulous wild produce available to us during game season, they sing with the unbridled creativity of these eight very different chefs.
For Henry, it's not an experience he will soon forget. "I didn't come here with any preconceived ideas of what I wanted to do – the point was to highlight British products, see what was available and be creative. It's been a really great experience to see how the others work, and I also made a lot of friends."
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