A champion of game and venison who doesn't shoot or stalk? Culinary talents such as André Garrett are real cause for optimism, says Will Pocklington.
Standing proud amid picture-perfect formal gardens and woodland, Cliveden House has a fascinating history stretching back over 300 years. Originally built as a hunting lodge by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1666, its history ever since has been peppered with notable events: battles to the death between Dukes and Earls for its ownership; two devastating fires which destroyed the entire main house in 1795 and 1849; a visit from President Roosevelt in 1932; and the infamous Profumo Affair in the early 1960s.
Fast-forward to more recent times, however, and a new stamp has appeared on the Buckinghamshire country house hotel's busy timeline. In 2013, widely acclaimed culinary talent André Garrett was appointed as executive head chef. And he's doing some exciting things.
André's CV is impressive, and the spark of inspiration born from observing his mother in the kitchen at home and regular visits to the kitchens of the Pump Rooms in Bath as a child, where his grandmother was maitre'd, now blazes like a bonfire.
His career in hospitality started in the late 80s as a commis chef at Hunstrete House Hotel near Bath, and he has since held positions as commis, sous, and head chef at nine of the UK's top restaurants – each no stranger to the Guide de Michelin. He has worked under and alongside chefs including Nico Landenis, Bruno Loubet, and perhaps his greatest influence of all, Chris Galvin.
“It was when I joined Chris at Orrery in Marylebone that things really started to kick off for me,” André says modestly. By kicking off, he means being promoted to the position of head chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant within a year of joining as senior sous chef, and then going on to win the Roux Scholarship – the pinnacle of chef competitions in the UK – in 2002.
Part of the scholarship is a three-month stint at any three Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. André joined Guy Savoy in Paris – another great inspiration and somebody who has played a part in the development of the elegant, modern French cuisine that André is now synonymous with.
Of course, the brimming trophy cabinet and Cliveden's extensive history are worthy of an article in their own right. But the real reason I was so keen to talk to him? His menus are practically moving with game and venison.
In previous issues of Fieldsports we have spoken to a number of the country's top chefs: Tom Kerridge, Sat Bains, Brett Graham, Claude Bosi, Clare Smyth – you get the idea – and the one thing that each of these big names have in common is that they all shoot, fish or stalk. And so when I posed the hunting, shooting, fishing question to André, I was admittedly a little deflated to hear that he didn't actively partake in any country sports.
But I soon changed my mind.
André's excellent knowledge of game and venison is encyclopaedic. And he believes many of his customers are also becoming increasingly aware of the provenance of what is on their plates – both shooters and non-shooters alike. “The understanding of our guests is growing. Grouse, mallard, woodcock, it is all very popular, and people who eat in the restaurant have an increasingly sound knowledge of where it comes from,” he tells me, matter-of-factly.
“We are so spoilt for choice in the UK when it comes to game and venison,” he says excitedly. “We source most of our venison from stalkers on Salisbury Plain, and have our suppliers in the north who provide us with grouse, and in the south from whom we source most of our pheasants, partridges and wildfowl.
“As a chef and a consumer, it is good to know where all of the ingredients that you are cooking or eating are coming from. In the UK we have so many systems in place now for farmed animals and fish so that their origins are clear, and I think it is important that we are equally aware of the provenance of our game and venison. Out of respect for the animal, if nothing else,” he continues.
My brief mid-interview concern had vanished. Completely. The longer I listened, the clearer it became that André not venturing out regularly with rod or gun was what made his extensive use of game (and infectious advocacy of it) so encouraging.
Let's face it, for those people less-accustomed to – or simply not as interested in – actively participating in country sports, eating the end product, served at its absolute finest, is a pretty damn good alternative and a great starting point from which they can learn more.
● Get to know your butcher or supplier, so that you can easily find out how fresh their produce is. Was it shot yesterday or a week ago?
● Select game whole and look at its condition (beak colour, eyes etc.) – this is a good indication of freshness for gamebirds
● Unless you are fond of very strong, intense, gamey flavours, do not over-mature your meat. Milder, fresher flavours tend to be preferable for most people
● Try slow cooking game off the bone, particularly with the likes of pheasant which can easily dry out if not cooked in the correct manner
● Most importantly, don't be scared to experiment and stray from traditional recipes. Have fun in the kitchen and try something different