You don’t have to grow up in the countryside to have an affinity with country sports, as Marcus Janssen was reminded when he met chef José Souto.
(Photography: Steve Lee)
Within minutes of meeting chef José Souto, I am reminded of a quote I once read which went something like this: “In deciding what to do with your life, don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” José is a man who has discovered what makes him come alive. And he found it in an unlikely place.
José is a London boy – he was born in London (his parents are both from Spain), grew up in London, studied in London, and works in London – and yet the thing that captured his imagination and would ultimately define his career, was a pheasant. “I vividly recall the day when I saw a pheasant in the feather for the first time,” he says. “I was a young, impressionable student at catering college and the lecturer arrived in class with a brace of pheasants and a hare for us to prep and cook. That was the moment when I discovered my passion in life – game.”
Not only has José gone on to establish himself as an authority on game and venison butchery and cookery – he works as a senior lecturer in the Butchery Department at London’s internationally-respected Westminster Kingsway College, is a demonstrator chef for BASC’s Taste of Game and has written a critically acclaimed book on venison – he is also now an experienced stalker, an avid falconer and austringer, and a keen game Shot. “I guess you don’t have to grow up in the countryside to be keen on country sports,” he adds. “At the end of the day, you make your own luck in life. When you’ve got a passion for something, it’s amazing how opportunities arise. But you’ve got to take them.”
I first met José in October last year when he kindly invited me to join him for an amble around a piece of ground in Norfolk that he has the stalking rights on, in the hope that we might chance upon a roebuck. We met at 5am at his home in rural Cambridgeshire and as he opened the door, the first thing that struck me was a loud throaty screech coming from his sitting room. Noticing the look of alarm on my face, he quickly explained. “Oh, that’s a barn owl,” he said, nonchalantly, as he grabbed his jacket, pulled on his boots and sleeved his Sako .243. “We have quite a few birds of prey.”
As it happens, this was somewhat of an understatement. When we returned to José’s house later that afternoon, he showed me around the aviaries which he and his wife Charlotte built at the rear of their house. Home to more than 40 birds including a number of little owls, barn owls, a great grey owl, several peregrines, Harris hawks, goshawks, kestrels, one or two steppe eagles and an African crowned eagle, it is clear that falconry is a big part of their lives. In fact, Charlotte, along with her father John Hill, is a director of CJ’s Birds of Prey which specialises in falconry displays across the UK. Indeed, if you’ve been to the CLA Game Fair, you’ve probably seen her flying any number of birds in the main arena.
Although our stalk proved unfruitful in one way – we saw several roe does but no bucks – it was certainly time well spent, for I got to know José a little better. His love of the countryside is palpable and infectious; the minute we got out of his truck and started to creep our way along a hedgerow, his face lit up; he came alive. “This is why Charlotte and I moved out to the countryside. Although I work in London, this is what I live for,” he whispered as we watched a pair of roe does browse their way along a strip of woodland on the far side of the field.
Although José has been hunting with birds of prey for over 20 years – he even releases a number of grey partridges onto the ground surrounding his home to hunt with his peregrines, and to encourage the breeding of grey partridges in the area – he got into stalking more recently. “Mick Collins, one of the head forest keepers at Epping Forest took me out for the first time, and I shot my first deer with Julian Stoyles at Houghton Hall. Both have been brilliant tutors. Their knowledge and experience are well known in the stalking world and they have really taught me a lot. But that’s the thing with country people – they tend to be generous with their time and knowledge. Because of people like Mick and Julian, it really isn’t difficult to get into shooting, stalking or falconry – you just have to have that thirst for knowledge. But a lot of people don’t realise that.”
Indeed, that passing on of knowledge is one of José’s main driving forces. He is truly passionate about educating the next generation, and for the past nine years he has conducted game seminars at Westminster Kingsway College through which he introduces the chefs of tomorrow to the world of game and venison. “This is crucial,” he says, “because these are the guys and girls who are going to go on to run their own kitchens and restaurants. So if I can plant a seed in their minds that game and venison are fantastic, healthy, delicious, exciting ingredients to cook with, then we will start to see more and more on restaurant menus.” Indeed, José also ensures that his students know exactly how, when and where they can source game and venison from, so that they will have no reason not to serve it in their own restaurants.
In addition to his full-time job as a lecturer, José travels around the UK doing game demonstrations at country and game fairs and also does bespoke courses on game preparation and cookery for private clients in their homes. One of the key messages in all of his lectures is provenance. “Every gamebird, every piece of venison has a story to tell,” he explains. “And we should know that story so that we can better understand our food, its provenance and how truly special it is. For me, that is an integral part of cooking and why I love my job so much.”
And this is exactly what he and photographer Steve Lee have done with their stunning new book, Venison: The Game Larder. To call it a cookery book would be wide of the mark for it is as much about the deer, deer management and stalking – the harvesting of the venison – as it is about the preparing, cooking and eating of it. Illustrated with hundreds of Steve’s beautiful images, it is as aesthetically pleasing as it is informative.
One part of the book which José feels is especially important is the section on deer management. “In the UK we no longer have any predator species to prey on venison because we got rid of all the bears, wolves and lynx,” he explains. “So we have a moral obligation to manage them. And what people perhaps don’t realise is that stalking is a very ethical way of doing that. The deer have not been transported anywhere in trucks, or been put through any adverse trauma. They spend all their life living outside in the countryside, doing what they are supposed to do. And there’s no suffering or stress when they are killed.”
Granted, we who shoot, stalk and fish are well aware of these facts, but, significantly, this is the message that José imparts to his young, impressionable students, the chefs of the future, many of whom will, like José was all those years ago, be looking for the thing that makes them come alive.
They’re clearly in good hands.