Wild meat is an all-consuming passion for the famous British chef Mike Robinson.
If you don’t know what kind of cuisine is Chef Mike Robinson’s specialty, the décor inside his famous restaurants offers quite a few clues. Once you’re seated, it won’t take you long to realize what sets these places apart from so many other eateries around the world.
“When you first walk in, there are subliminal suggestions everywhere,” Robinson says in his warm but crisp English lilt. “There are heads of animals on the wall of the dining room, images of deer and pheasants, and old prints of hunting. It’s very classy and British. We basically tell our story with our menu.”
Wild game is the central theme of that story, and venison is a main character, whether it’s at The Harwood Arms, his legendary London gastropub, at The Elder in Bath, or The Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon. These are among the in-demand dining establishments that Robinson co-owns along with partners, and local wild venison, Robinson says, accounts for about half of the protein orders coming into their busy kitchens from those carefully appointed dining rooms. That’s a huge contrast to restaurants in America, where it’s illegal to sell domestic deer as food.
Robinson describes his culinary approach as simple, with an accent on fresh, seasonal flavors, but guests are often bowled over by the inventive flavor combinations and elegant presentation. And many of them are quite taken with that story that Robinson alluded to, which tells a captivating tale of where all this wild deer meat comes from. “We don’t go preaching to people, but we do say on the menu that all of our venison is harvested by me and our team on areas of land that we manage,” he says.
Meet Chef Mike Robinson
An Expert, Hands-on Approach
Besides being a busy restaurateur and a celebrated chef trained in classic French techniques, Robinson is a longtime outdoorsman with an entrepreneurial spirit who has turned his passion into several thriving inter-related businesses. He’s well-known not just for his highly acclaimed restaurants but also for his television and internet shows that combine his different interests to attract millions of viewers.
Many call cooking an art, and Robinson says the same about hunting, which also brings him enormous satisfaction. “I’m not talking about the killing part,” he says in an episode of his show Farming the Wild, but what he calls the “field craft” of the sport, which includes the outwitting of what are very intelligent animals. “Indeed that’s why in Britain we don’t call it ‘hunting,’ we don’t call it ‘shooting.’ We call it ‘stalking,’ and there’s a good reason for that.”
Six Species of Deer? Yes, Please
Stalkers like Robinson can target six separate species of deer in Britain, including muntjac, roe deer, and sika. Another common one, the fallow deer, is his “mainstay” that yields the coveted pavé steaks. He cuts them from the haunch, or hind leg of the deer, and starts them on a grill before gently roasting them at a low temp. The result, according to many glowing guest reviews, is succulent perfection.
And judging from his enthusiasm for his favorite main course, it would be difficult to find a more ardent fan of deer meat no matter where your travels take you. It’s something he became thoroughly enchanted with around 30 years ago when he first tasted the freshly grilled meat of a deer he’d just shot. “To me, it’s like the perfect ingredient,” Robinson says. “It’s lean, healthy, delicious, and easy to cook.”
And for those who focus on fitness, he can also point out that wild venison packs a lot of protein and very little fat. Fourteen ounces of deer steak, for instance, offers about eight ounces of protein with just two percent saturated fat. By comparison, that’s about 50 percent more protein than chicken, and with 40 percent more calories, he says. Venison is also high in iron, zinc, and vitamin B and has a beneficial ratio of Omega fatty acids.
Freshly Harvested, From the Woods
Robinson and his team of about 60 people personally harvest and process the venison from nearly 60,000 acres of private lands they manage. Shot by shot, they’re helping to alleviate a tremendous overpopulation of wild deer. He says there are at least two-and-a-half million deer in England and maybe as many as four million, and this is in an area about the size of Alabama with a human population of around 70 million.
“The humane, sustainable harvesting of wild deer is crucial to protecting our woodlands and our environment,” Robinson says, and they certainly do their part. They cull the herds by about 1,200 a year, and he says that at one point earlier in his career he personally killed 600 a year for food. “Realistically, what I’d do is I’d be out three or four afternoons or mornings a week, and on each one of those outings we’d usually shoot three or four deer,” Robinson says. “Nowadays, I shoot far less than that—maybe 100 a year—because I don’t have a lot of time.”
Does are Best for Management
Most of the deer they take are female, he says, because preventing them from breeding further makes more sense from a management standpoint. He and his team also shoot bucks, just not as often, and impressively sized racks of antlers are never the goal.
Through a separate company called Deer Box, he supplies the venison to his own restaurants and distributes it to a few dozen others as well, both as cuts and as whole carcasses. He also sells to the general public, shipping to households throughout Great Britain. He notes that the laws in the United States, aimed at conservation, do not allow for the retail sale of indigenous venison. Being such a fervent proponent of the meat source, he would love to see the American regulations loosened if possible, but only in areas where it makes sense to do so, where whitetail deer are in great abundance.
“It Starts in the Field.” — Chef Mike Robinson
And speaking of whitetail deer versus the various kinds of deer native to the United Kingdom, he relates that many of his guests from America remark that his venison is not exactly what they are accustomed to. “They don’t often say that it tastes different, but what they generally say is that it’s more tender, milder in flavor, or juicy.” They wonder if it’s because it’s a different species, but Robinson says it may be related to how (and when) the meat is prepped.
For him and his team, that process starts in the field, very soon after the animal is felled. Springing into action quickly on a hunt makes a dramatic difference in how the meat cooks and tastes, he insists. Adding weight to his argument, he uses as an example the abattoir, or slaughterhouse, where animals are hung up and bled almost immediately after they are killed.
Avoiding the “Gamey”
“This is the single most important factor for meat quality,” he says. “If you can get the blood out of that animal while there’s still blood pressure in its system, the difference will be huge.” Otherwise, he explains, the excess blood remaining in the muscles is what causes the unpleasant “gaminess” that turns many people off from eating deer meat and other wild game.
“There are times when you can’t bleed an animal quickly, fine, but whenever you can, when you shoot a whitetail and find it dead on the ground, if you can walk up to the animal straightaway, elevate the hind quarters, allow gravity to push the blood out, and then get the animal into a cold place rather quickly, you will have a very good-eating animal, just as good as what I have in the restaurants,” he says.
This fundamental fact is an eye-opener for many hunters, he adds, partly because of certain customs or traditions. “I say to people: When you walk up to a deer, if it’s not going to be a trophy, instead of throwing it in the back of the truck, taking it out, hanging it up, and having a coffee or a beer and talking about it, dress it there and then, where it died.”
Wild vs. Commercial Meat
Though venison is much more widely consumed by non-hunters in the U.K. than in the U.S., some of Robinson’s restaurant guests are first-timers. If they are somewhat reluctant to try it, he’ll sometimes compare it to grass-fed beef, which he says is a pretty suitable stand-in if you don’t have a steady supply of deer as he does. And healthwise, either one is a smart alternative to grain-fed beef.
“Animals in the wild weren’t designed to eat processed grains. Grain-fed animals put on fat very quickly, they don’t do a lot of exercise, and they’re very tender. So they’re great, they’re delicious,” Robinson says. “But if you want to have something that equates to wild game on your table, I always tell people to buy grass-fed beef. It doesn’t have as much fat, and it’s got less cholesterol.”
Chef Mike Robinson is a Wild Meat Advocate
With his particular background and experience, Robinson is a uniquely informed advocate for venison as a regular, healthy food source. But he also sings the praises of feral swine, whether it’s the wild boar he encounters at home (and serves to customers) or the millions more giant hogs running wild in the United States.
“The world needs to eat wild hogs,” he says emphatically. “The problem in the U.S. is they’ve been demonized as an ingredient. Because these animals are wild and ugly and cause a lot of damage, people tend to talk about them as they’re sort of horrible, diseased, nasty animals. Generally, they’re not. We need more people eating them because there’s a huge wild protein resource out there that’s being wasted.”
So while you’re waiting to be seated or to have a server tell you about the enticing game dishes at one of Robinson’s restaurants, look around. You may also spot romantic images of wild boar along with deer and other gifts from nature that so clearly inspire this passionate chef.