What made you decide to open a restaurant inside a hotel?
It started two and a half years ago when I first met with the St James’s Hotel Group. They’re in the process of opening two boutique hotels under the Indigo brand; one in Stratford, and another in Bath. They came to me and recognised, correctly, that if you’re going to open a successful restaurant within a hotel, it needs to be an independent entity. And that is exactly what The Woodsman is.
Describe The Woodsman
The restaurant is built around a natural cooking scene. St James’s gave me carte blanche over the entire restaurant design, from the menu down to the décor. We have a wood oven, and a huge charcoal grill. There’s also a full-sized butchery in the kitchen space complete with hanging room. So instead of buying cuts of meat, I can buy bodies of Hebridean-cross lamb and Hereford-cross beef. We’re aging whole carcasses, and then working through them end to end with the menu changing daily to reflect what we’re using. Sustainability and seasonality are both very important to me. We’re using wild venison sourced from private land that I manage, which is then processed in our own FSA (Food Standards Agency) accredited deer larder. We describe it as farming the wild. I don’t think there’s anything else like it… certainly not in Stratford.
And the restaurant scene in Stratford is ready for something like this…?
When you think about it as a geographical location, it’s amazing. It has two million visitors a year, so is one of the most visited towns in Britain. At the moment it has a dining scene that’s tailored to tourism, there’s a lot of perfectly good restaurants that probably don’t see the same customer twice. I’m not cooking for tourists, although I welcome them with open arms. We have a large local community who don’t come here to eat anymore because the restaurants are so geared towards the tourist trade, and I want to change that. I want this to be unashamedly Stratford’s best restaurant.
How do you hope to achieve this?
Through quality and sustainability, but also through service. I want The Woodsman to offer the same levels of service you would expect from high-end restaurants in London. We’ve spent a month intensively training our front-of-house team on every element of our menu; they’ve stalked the deer and they’ve cooked with the chefs. We’re immersing them in the entire process.
How do you perceive the public’s attitude towards game meats?
It’s changing like you wouldn’t believe, and the positivity is amazing. The public’s palate is more adventurous, and we can see that here at The Woodsman. We have all this fantastic beef and lamb available, but it’s the butterfly haunch of muntjac deer that has been the runaway success.
Why do you think that is?
The informed eating public are more sensitive towards farming and animal welfare, but the thing about wild game is it exists in a world free from the stress of industrial farming. We have wide-ranging menu, and people trust you when you’re able to demonstrate your commitment to the welfare of an animal and the care with which you harvest it.
As a restaurateur who is passionate about welfare and sustainability, how do you see the rise of organised animal rights activism?
I don’t think it’s worth worrying about things you can’t control. Not to be flippant, but there is no restaurant that cares more about the welfare of its ingredients than us. A lot of animal rights activism is to do with foie gras and intensive farming, and I can understand those perspectives, although I think sometimes they are mis-informed. But I believe that if you’re going to eat meat, then professionally-harvested wild meat is by far the most ethical that exists.
What’s next for you?
We have The Elder opening in the Hotel Indigo Bath later in the summer, which will be similar in concept to The Woodsman, but with its own character. And we may also be announcing something further in the new year. I’m not a guy who wants to manage a repeatable rollout style, though. I like to focus on the project I’m managing, not just put my name to it. The Woodsman has been a personal crusade. It’s taking a concept to people who may not have seen food like this before, and my gut feeling from the people I’ve seen is that they’ll embrace it. I think we’ll do well here.