Mike Robinson wants to change the way people think about venison.
Barely a minute into a conversation with Mike Robinson, prominent game chef and champion of wild cooking, and I’m getting told off. I’ve confided that, attempting to be more sustainable, we rarely eat meat as a family. But I still serve my children salmon weekly, supposedly sustainably sourced and RSPCA-approved. Robinson dismisses these stamps as meaningless. “Open-cage salmon farming is absolutely devastating to the species of wild salmon, not to mention the toxic sludge that seeps into the sea around salmon farms,” he argues. “When it comes to fish, I only buy from dayboats that catch very selectively. We pay a lot for our fish but that is how it should be with animal products. Eat less, but better quality and sustainably sourced.”
As a restaurateur who specialises in game and an entrepreneur with a venison business, Robinson obviously has a vested interest in turning people from fish on to game. But he does have a point. Wild-deer herds are at their highest level in around 1,000 years, according to the Deer Initiative, a UK non-profit that promotes “a sustainable, well-managed deer population”. Deer herds, which can grow at some 30 percent annually, have gone relatively unchecked during the pandemic, and now farmers and conservationists are concerned about the impact deer are having on crops and nature. The deer population in the UK is estimated at between two-to-five-million red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese deer. Scientists argue that culling is now essential to keep shrubs and young trees essential to forest growth, as well as keep the deer themselves healthy.
“Without population control, food would become scarce and more animals would ultimately suffer. There would also be other welfare issues such as low body fat, malnutrition, high incidence of death from exposure to cold in winter and a build-up of parasites and diseases in deer,” according to a Royal Parks London representative.
Robinson does herd management for country estates in the Cotswolds, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Hampshire, catching around 2,000 deer annually and selling venison to restaurants and individuals through his company Deer Box. It supplies whole FSA-stamped fallow and muntjac carcasses, wrapped in muslin, to some of the UK’s top restaurants. “We encourage purchasing the whole carcass because there is nothing on a wild deer carcass that can’t be eaten,” he says.
Robinson wants to change the way people think about venison and even get it onto the menus at schools. “Venison is regarded as a rich ‘gamey’ meat only suitable for special occasions,” he says. “But actually, we have this amazing, wild, healthy, environmentally sustainable meat source at our fingertips. Deer, compared to the horror stories of farmed pigs, chickens, salmon or cattle, have a brilliant life and a quick death.”
He supplies not only top London restaurants and Deer Box, but also his own restaurants: The Harwood Arms in Fulham (the only pub in London with a Michelin star, which he co-owns): The Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon (which won the Good Food Guide Best New Entry 2020 and Champion of Champions in this year’s Eat Game Awards); and The Elder in Bath; in addition to The Jib Door, a private members’ club in Bath.
The Elder is the latest addition to Robinson’s mini-empire, having opened in May after five years in the making and a pandemic-induced delay. Named after the 18th century architect John Wood the Elder (whose son, the John Wood the Younger, also contributed to Bath’s architectural beauty), the restaurant is situated on a Grade 1-listed parade of chocolate-box Georgian townhouses. Robinson has a partnership with IHG Hotels, a hospitality group that owns the buildings while he manages the businesses. The Elder is officially the restaurant to next-door Indigo Hotel.
Inside is ‘huntsman chic’, decked in hues of forest green, dark oak floors with rich caramel leather banquettes, antique scenes of the hunt and taxidermized deer and pheasants offset with mid-century chandeliers reminiscent of Soho House. It’s masculine, but cosy and intimate, and the food is next level, thanks to the wizardry of head chef Gavin Edney. Our lovely waiter brings us a ‘Hunter’s tea’ to begin with: a rich, comforting bone broth topped with a sprig of rosemary, for my husband, served with a hunk of sourdough and butter; and a mushroom version for me, equally savoury and delicious. The delightfully fragrant crab tart, which has been on the menu since opening, is utterly gorgeous, with its buttery crust and burst of spicy chimichurri on the top. I opt for a melt-in-your-mouth fillet of cod, nestled in a bed of briny samphire and tagliatelle in a tangy shellfish bisque. My husband has a beautifully cooked piece of wild venison, hunted by Robinson’s team and processed in a dedicated butchery downstairs, as is later pointed out on our tour of the restaurant.
Which brings me back to my phone conversation with Robinson, a few weeks later, on the subject of eating wild venison as a humane and sustainable meat.
I ask him, as someone who loves nature so much, why isn’t he running a vegan restaurant? “It does get to me when people suggest the world stops eating meat entirely. The key to everything in life is balance: go out to eat less often but go somewhere good,” he reasons. “Humans are always going to want to eat meat but people have to learn that if they want to do so they are culpable of killing animals. Much better to do so humanely, from the wild.”
Robinson channels his passion for sustainable and seasonal eating into education about wild farming through his TV show, Farming the Wild, which aims to inform viewers about responsible culling (he calls it, somewhat euphemistically, “harvesting”) animals for food as opposed to hunting for pleasure. He catches fish, and guides viewers through a step-by-step preparation to transform catches into delicious meals. This informed the beginnings of Deer Box, the wild venison business he set up last year that also has a philanthropic angle. Last year, Deer Box donated some 20,000 venison meals to the Country Food Trust, of which Robinson is a patron; and the Felix Project, a London-based food-redistribution charity, helping to feed the hungriest people in the UK.
In a bid to further persuade me to change my ways, Robinson sends me a box of venison to trial at dinner time and, in return, I promise to avoid buying salmon. I whip up a spaghetti Bolognese with some fallow deer mince and my kids practically lick their plates clean. Clearly, even for the time-poorest parents, it doesn’t take much to make a positive change.
This article was originally published in Billionaire's Culture Issue, Autumn 2021. To subscribe contact