It’s not just about game, I like the flavours at this time of year,’ says Andy McLeish, Chef Patron of Chapters in Blackheath and Chapter One in Locksbottom. ‘Strong, pungent flavours, served with a great bottle of wine.’ Andy is known for his love of game and the advent of ‘the season’ is my opening gambit.
‘Now the weather’s coming in, it’s all about braising,’ he says. ‘If I was cooking at home with kids it would be stew and dumplings – stodgy comfort food. At the restaurant it’s different, we’ve got venison, partridge and grouse in now, and when the frost comes in we’ll get pheasant on the menu too.’
We meet at Chapters in Blackheath, aptly on the day of the autumn equinox, and though the sun is shining over the heath, the casseroles are on the horizon. Just listening to Andy talk about seasonal food in his deep, booming voice has me hankering after a huge Sunday roast.
Andy is very passionate about food provenance – from field to fork, he wants to know about the journey – which is one of the reasons he’s also a keen hunter, often shooting, butchering and cooking up his own kills at Chapter One. That may sound a little brutal to those of us who are less familiar with country life, but it’s certainly impressive.
‘Whether I’m talking about hunting or farmed meat like pork, I want to know where my meat comes from,’ he says. ‘I want to know where everything comes from because there’s horrific meat out there, cheap meat, and it just shouldn’t be allowed for the welfare of the animals. With farming, we need to try and farm animals the best way we can, not necessarily organic, but free range with no invasive methods. But when you’re talking about hunting, it’s one step purer, it’s the food of our ancestors before we tamed animals to put them in a farm, before we changed the makeup of a cow to make it have larger sirloins and smaller rumps.
‘Deer is a real wild food that hasn’t been messed with by man. So for me, to stalk a deer, to shoot it, it sounds horrific because you’re taking a life, but we take the lives of animals on a farm. This deer has had a great life, hopping around a field, and the first he knows of it he’s on the floor, instantly dead. It’s the food of our ancestors before we started messing around, and the meat is fantastic. So that’s what I like – I like seeing the animals from that field all the way through to the fork.’
Andy, who has worked under Nico Ladenis at bistro Simply Nico and Chez Nico, at The Ritz as sous chef and as senior sous chef at the Mandarin Oriental in Koh Samui, Thailand. He also headed up the kitchen at The Landmark in Marylebone, gaining three AA rosettes within his first year. In 2001, he accepted the role of executive chef at Kent’s Chapter One restaurant, where he has been for the past 15 years. He took a bit of persuading to take on the role, however, as at the time he was young and competitive and wanted to be working in central London. But after meeting the owner of the restaurant and getting on board with its ethos, he decided to go for it.
‘Eventually I said, yeah, let’s give it a go, and we got a Michelin star in the first year, which we held for years, but I did lose it last year,’ says Andy, looking remorseful. He’s brought up the topic I’d been working towards. Asking a chef about the Michelin star they lost requires more chutzpah than I naturally possess.
‘You’re asking a chef how important Michelin stars are? Extremely important.’
‘Obviously it’s horrific,’ he says. ‘The first three years I was at Chapter One we got the star, AA’s UK Restaurant of the Year and four AA rosettes, so it was all on the up. But then where do you go from there? We could get better and better and better, we’d like to think we did, but we had some problems that made me grow up and realise it’s not just about the accolades, it’s about improving the business [Andy is also a business partner in the venture] and, most of all, making sure our guests are happy.’
The Michelin guide has its detractors, those who think that chefs pander to the desires of the inspectors and that it encourages a dated style of formal dining. So I ask how important those stars really are these days anyway.
‘You’re asking a chef how important Michelin stars are?’ says Andy. ‘Extremely important. It’s your benchmark. But if I’m sensible and put my business head on then yes, it’s not as important. We were after a star at Chapters for many years, but we never achieved it. People got fed up with fine dining and it got quieter and quieter here. So five years ago we developed the all day dining menu, and business came back. That’s the trend in London. Not fine dining, just great food cooked beautifully, and that’s what Chapters is all about. Do we want a Michelin star here? No we don’t. I’d love a Michelin Bib Gourmand because it stands for value for money and quality. At Chapter One, yes I’d love the star back, but it’s going to take us a couple of years to prove we can get that consistency again.’
Regardless of the star, with a chef like Andy at the helm, whether you choose to dine town or country style, you know you’ll be served up the season’s best at a Chapters establishment.