“You grab its feet, I’ll get the shoulders.” The headless red deer was remarkably heavy. It had been shot in Windsor Great Park by one of the local gamekeepers the week before my stage at The Oxford Blue. The head and skin had been removed and, after having been hung for seven days off-site, it had been delivered to Steven Ellis, chef-owner of the pub and a man with a serious love of game.
Making game ‘cool’ is at the heart of his philosophy. The likes of rabbit, pheasant and deer, he says, shouldn’t just be reserved for wintery stews and pies. Why not use game to make bacon? Or a parfait? Or even chorizo? I had chosen to stage at The Oxford Blue to learn more about game and Steven, once senior sous at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, would be showing me how to break down the deer from start to finish – priceless education for an eager stagiaire.
“I really believe that chefs should be able to butcher a whole animal,” Steven says as we both washed hands after having heaved the deer onto a countertop in the kitchen. “As a chef, you have to have an appreciation of what you’re using and where it comes from.”
That afternoon, we would be using mean-looking hacksaws and razor-sharp knives. And, of course, we started with the everyday task of sawing through the neck.
It was bloody hard work. My whole body vibrated as I sawed back and forth, my other hand finding one of the shoulders as I tired, my ears stinging with the sound of metal on bone. Some of this hard-earned neck would be braised and used for croquettes and some smoked for ‘burnt ends’ on Steven’s smoke pit main. He hates waste and tells me that pretty much all of my deer would be going into something on his menu.
Steven, who is as patient as he is skilful, has shared his knowledge of butchery with the two other chefs in the kitchen and I caught the eyes of both Aaron, the sous, and Luke, the demi, as they watched me fumble over the carcass that afternoon, clearly remembering their own first steps with game.
Steven’s wife Ami is the head pastry chef. He fell for her (and game, incidentally) while at Andrew Pern’s The Star Inn at Harome and she shot me an encouraging smile as her husband and I grabbed a knife each and moved on through the shoulders, slicing around the joints while tugging the limbs away. Next were the legs, which came with a horrific cracking of ball joints.
Steven explained that there are natural butchery cues for where to put the knife as we started on the belly, which was a good example considering the fragile membrane between it and the rib cage that acted as a guide for me. He also told me (more than once) not to hack and to use a sweeping motion with the knife while pulling and using the weight of the animal.
With headway being made, we returned to the hacksaw for the two parts of the rib cage, then tackled the middle (which Steven would strip and air dry into deer bacon). We then gently retrieved the loin (reserved for an upcoming venison wellington party), separated individual muscles from the limbs and, finally, cleaned and trimmed our take.
Butchery is hungry work and I demolished a staff curry in the kitchen with the team. We then got ready for a 34 cover-strong service featuring a tasting table of 17, an anniversary, two birthdays and a clearly lost pescatarian.
I was to plate tasting menu dishes with Amy, who had jumped in from pastry, at the pass. Aaron and Luke would flit between sauce, fish and the larder. And Steven manned meat.
First up was the braised wild boar trotter – a signature of Steven’s. Before hitting the deer during prep, I had helped Luke layer hundreds of slices of red and green local apples doused in stock syrup as a carpaccio mosaic, which was then frozen. For service, we carved circles out of it to lay underneath braised, ballantinebound, red wine-stained chicken mousse and boar hock-stuffed trotters (poached to order).
Around the trotter (perched on blobs of sauce gribiche) would be a homemade black pudding croquette, a shaped quail’s egg, a ciderpoached crab apple (picked by Steven’s mum) with apple mousse and a garnish of chickweed from the garden.
“Three minutes on trotters,” I heard Steven shout as I placed wafer-thin swirls of pork crackling into little wooden holders that would go to tables with maps showing the pub’s suppliers. These were rolled into empty shotgun shells and sprouted previously plucked feathers. I did say Steven hates waste. With the trotters away, 17 shellfish rarebits (with lobster, scallops, cockles and gruyère) were up next for me, leaving the kitchen in a box of shells, before a loin of roe deer with girolles, one of the braised neck croquettes and potato and summer truffle terrine.
With service taken up a notch by a flurry of à la carte orders, I started to see things like wild rabbit liver parfait, blitzed with foie gras; wood pigeon ‘ham’ on the roast crown dish with a miniature pigeon offal cottage pie; Steven’s southern-style, smoke pit dish with wild rabbit chorizo; and a fascinating fry-up featuring four species of deer (roe, red, fallow and muntjac) and their own brown sauce.
As the night ticked on, Ami dished up soufflés with homemade blackcurrant leaf ice cream; and strawberry mille-feuilles. And, with the last away, Steven threw on the main lights and flashed me a knowing smile. He wanted cool, and he’s got it.
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