Arguably the UK's most highly regarded game chef, Mike Robinson is a man on a mission, several of them in fact, as Marcus Janssen discovered.
There is no quick and easy way to master shorthand – it's a simple case of hard work and perseverance. For six months I had two hours of Teeline tuition every day with the Robert Mugabe of the shorthand world who then insisted that I go home and practice for at least an hour each evening. My weekends, too, were spent listening to Radio 4 podcasts, frantically scribbling away trying to keep up with Eddie Mair. But I got there in the end and am now the proud holder of a 100-words-per-minute certificate. Which is no use to man nor beast if you are interviewing Mike Robinson.
With my notepad at the ready, we sat down for a chat in Mike's Berkshire country cottage. But anyone who knows Mike will know that he operates at a different speed and tempo to other human beings. What was I thinking?
I ditched the notepad and pen and started to look for my dictaphone, but before I could find it he was up and out the kitchen door.
“Follow me,” he said as we charged across his garden and into a shed where he home-loads the 1,000 rounds of stalking ammunition he gets through each year, and also makes hunting knives in his spare time. The conversation soon veered from knife-making and reloading, to Cape buffalo, the joys of mountain climbing, the merits of the .300 Winchester Short Magnum, the tastiest venison, lamping foxes on stubble fields, and salmon fishing on the Kharlovka.
Every question I asked about his award-winning food, his restaurants, or his career as a chef, invariably led to answers about deer management, rifle ballistics or the allure of hunting big game with a compound bow. It was the most entertaining interview I have ever done with a chef; and trust me, that's saying something.
What was meant to be a leisurely discussion quickly developed into an afternoon of adventure involving stalking axis deer, the restoration of a British military vehicle and vintage Range Rover, a road trip in an Isuzu pickup that smelt of old sardines (something to do with a recent lobster fishing expedition, apparently), and an impromptu photo shoot that incorporated both chef whites and hunting rifles.
But as we headed back from Mike's deer park to his cottage, I realised that, although I had enough material to write lengthy essays on deer management, modern rifle ballistics and bow hunting, I still didn't really know much about what makes the man tick or how he became so prominent in the world of game and venison cookery.
With most top chefs, it is their sheer love for food and cookery that keeps them striving for the next accolade or outstanding review. Often the financial reward is barely a consideration. But with Mike Robinson, it's a bit more complicated than that.
After all, he never really set out to be a chef. In fact, he studied forestry management at Bangor University before moving to the French Alps to pursue a passion for mountain climbing. And that's where he got his first job in a kitchen, washing dishes. But before long he had progressed up the ladder, had a burgeoning career in television and was writing cookery books in his spare time. He now has an award-winning gastropub in Berkshire, an outside catering company, his own cookery school, a Michelin-starred pub in Fulham with fellow chef Brett Graham, and he is pretty much permanently on television. Along the way, he also became a professional stalker and deer manager and, most recently, a venison supplier to a number of London's top restaurants. Oh, and he also has his own deer herd, is in huge demand at shows and exhibitions for his cookery and butchery demonstrations, and is currently planning on opening a third restaurant in a trendy part of London. Strewth.
I once watched him making pizzas for stall holders at the CLA Game Fair until well past midnight while we drank cold beer and chatted idly (yes, he has a mobile wood-fired pizza business, too. Did I not mention that?). And the following day he was back in the CLA Game Fair cookery theatre doing a demonstration with a roebuck that he had shot that very morning. “Have you even been to bed?!” I asked him, later. “Sort of,” he said, whatever that means.
But what is it that keeps this man going at 100mph while the rest of us totter off, exhausted, to find a dark room? So I asked him. His answer, which came after a three or four second pause – the longest break in conversation all afternoon – took me by complete surprise. “It's the kick I get out of turning a business into a success,” he says. That's the thing with Mike, everything he touches seems to turn to gold, although he assures me that isn't the case. “I have learnt by trial and error,” he says, earnestly. “I've made mistakes along the way and learnt from them. And I now know that to be successful in business you need to focus on what the customer wants, not what you want or love to do.”
And one thing that Mike has realised his customers want, is top quality wild venison. What started out as a way of providing his own restaurants – The Pot Kiln in Berkshire, and The Harwood Arms in London – with a regular supply of good quality venison, whilst at the same time getting his stalking fix, has turned into another rapidly growing business enterprise with the Mike Robinson name on it. “The logistics of delivering anything into the centre of London has put a lot of suppliers and game dealers off,” he explains. “So finding a consistent and reliable supply of wild venison can be almost impossible for London chefs. But because I was delivering a couple of fallow to the Harwood Arms in Fulham each week, I started getting requests from chefs to provide them with venison, too. And I guess it has just grown from there.”
And indeed it has grown, to the extent that Mike now looks after the deer management on more than 20,000 acres of land in Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, from which all surplus animals are harvested and then taken to Vicars Game (near Reading) where they are skinned, inspected, stamped, and wrapped in muslin cloth, ready for Mike to deliver to London's finest eateries. Each carcass is accompanied by a laminated information card detailing the species, its sex and age, and where, when and by whom it was dispatched. “People are becoming more and more aware of the provenance of their food,” he says. “So the more information we can provide, the better.”
And with such attention to detail, it's no wonder Mike can't keep up with the demand from the Capital's most discerning chefs. As a result, he has taken things a step further and established his own red deer herd on a fenced plot of unused pasture and woodland in rural Berkshire that was once part of a now defunct dairy farm. “And with more and more dairy farms struggling to make ends meet due to the price of milk,” he explains, “it makes sense to try to use that land to produce something that is sustainable, easy to manage, low impact and environmentally friendly.”
But he is quick to point out that this 60-acre block of pasture and mature woodland is a prototype, the first of many, if all goes as planned. “If this works as well as I am sure it will,” he says, “I would like to roll this out on a bigger scale. I really want to change people's perceptions of deer. We should be viewing them as a valuable resource, not the problem animal that some people still see them as. They are perfectly adapted to their environment and, unlike cattle, are very efficient converters of forage. So they require very little in the way of management.”
That's the thing with Mike – his unique CV of experience and expertise allow him to straddle the divide between the countryside and the culinary world so well. And this unique position, coupled with his apparently boundless energy and drive make him a formidable force. He may just be one man on a mission, but I certainly wouldn't try to keep up with him.