Mike Robinson is on a mission to get UK chefs to embrace wild venison, potentially helping to solve the deer population explosion
“I don’t try to put wild food on a pedestal, it’s just part of our DNA. On my menu there isn’t a game section. How you write a menu is largely how successful it is; there’s an art to it. We find that’s the best way to get the public excited. As long as we refer to game as this different type of food it will be hard to integrate it into the public’s minds.”
Mike is a formidably enthusiastic exponent of a field-to-plate philosophy, taking a hand in every part of the process from deer management to presenting fine cuisine. His four UK restaurants, including The Harwood Arms, London’s only Michelin-starred pub, all serve venison harvested on the thousands of acres he manages.
He supplies many other top restaurants too, playing his part in raising the profile and popularity of venison among restaurant customers. “We’ve managed to break the stigma that venison is bloody, smelly, strong. When I first started, that was everyone’s opinion, but we’ve broken that now – chefs are using it all over the country with great success and the public are embracing it,” he says.
Since the pandemic, however, a gradual embracing of venison as a core ingredient is no longer enough – the UK faces a huge deer population explosion, so serious that it threatens the stability of our countryside. Mike’s solution is simple – to supercharge the stalled venison market by way of a major initiative launched this spring: the Wild Venison Project.
“What’s happening is the perfect storm,” says Mike. “Two female breeding seasons with no restaurants meant that game dealers either stopped or dramatically reduced the amount of deer they were buying. It was down by pretty much 50 per cent. We’re going to see a single-year increase of 30 per cent in fallow deer. The maths is inescapable.
“At the same time we have ash die-back, which means 30 per cent of all the hardwood trees in England, particularly in the Cotswolds, have to be gone in two years, and unless we have a massive replanting programme we’re suddenly in this really shocking situation whereby Britain starts to be heavily overrun with deer.”
Mike, with Tim Woodward of The Country Food Trust, came up with the Wild Venison Project. “The way we’re going to do it is by getting chefs in restaurants to buy more venison. It’s that simple. To regard it more as a core ingredient on their menu,” says
Mike. “I’ve written an open letter to as many chefs as I can get it to in Britain that says here’s the reasons why we should be using it. The best way to get large numbers is through restaurants because they can take whole carcasses or large joints, process them and sell them at a profit. This is very apropos because many of our other ingredient costs have gone through the roof, so I’m appealing to their baser instincts! The numbers of wild deer are out of control, here’s a fantastic resource that you can put on the menu that makes you profit, and which the customers regard as awesome. It’s a win, win, win.”
The project is non-political and not aligned to any shooting organisation. “I don’t want it to have any connotations of sport. This is entirely about management – environmental and social,” Mike says.
The project is also intended to raise more funds for The CFT, of which Mike is proud to be a Patron. He already donates ten per cent of the venison he processes for his online retail business Deerbox, and is encouraging other deer management organisations to do the same.
To get to the next level, where wild venison becomes as ubiquitous in the food chain as chicken or pork, there would have to be a sea change in the way deer are harvested and processed. Currently supermarkets won’t buy it because it doesn’t conform to an abattoir-style quality control process. Deerbox, which Mike set up in one frantic week in 2020 when lockdown suddenly left him with 40 deer carcasses with nowhere to go, has set its stall out to conform to the highest standards, including a 4,000sq ft fully FSA-regulated larder. But the rules are so loose that it’s also legal to process deer in an unregulated facility, via local exemption.
“I have no problem with that, but we are unique in imposing our own rigorous standards,” says Mike. “We’re looking to the future. Every carcass is inspected by a government vet and stamped, and we have to follow brutal regimes of temperature testing and record keeping. Really, we’re trying to change the way the deer industry works.”
One of the standards Mike sets is that there will be no lead shot in any of the venison he produces. “We absolutely should move on from lead, but I don’t like the idea of imposing it on people. The move away from it has happened because of a drive by game dealers, and that’s now happening with birds too. As a restaurateur, I don’t want to feed my customers anything with lead in it. It may pass through you harmlessly, but there are a lot of species out there that are very intolerant to it.” As a chef, however, Mike’s also wary of steel shot, which has the potential to break a diner’s tooth if it makes it on to the plate.
Mike’s culinary journey began in France, where he took work washing up in a good restaurant to sustain his passion for climbing in the Alps. It kick-started a fascination with kitchen life. After buying his first pub at 32, he met game dealer Alan Haywood, who taught him about managing deer, and how to shoot, dress and butcher them.
What started as a point of difference quickly became a passion, which Mike has shared through the small screen, initially on shows such as CountryWise and CountryWise Kitchen, and more recently on his own series Farming the Wild for America’s Outdoor Network.
“My attitude to life is if opportunities arise within your sphere of influence and they excite you, go for it,” he says. “I’m not afraid of embracing opportunities. It’s a weird masochistic compulsion owning restaurants. They’re hard work, you don’t make a lot of money, but there is also nothing quite like it.”