Animal Kingdom

Unique, delicious and full of tradition, game meats and whisky have much in common. In this feature from Unfiltered issue 25 in October 2014, chef Andy Waugh told Richard Croasdale about his mission to bring the two together


Andy Waugh has gone from stalking game to serving it up in the kitchen...with a suitable Society dram alongside his dishes

A doorbell rings and chef Andy Waugh leaps out of his seat to answer, before returning with a cardboard box, emblazoned with the name “Ardgay Game”.

He deftly snips the ties and opens the lid to inspect the tantalising mix of meats within. Pheasant, partridge, pigeon, duck, venison and hare; each counted out onto the wooden worktop, one by one.

“The thing about wild game, as opposed to farmed meat,” muses Andy, unconsciously weighing a plump pigeon in his hand, “is that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.

They’re not a uniform size or texture, and the subtleties of taste change greatly depending on the time of year, and what the animal has been feeding on. That’s the beauty of this kind of meat.”

Given this philosophy, it is little wonder that Andy joined up with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in September, to create a four-day pop-up whisky and game restaurant in London.

Timed to celebrate the start of the British game season (known as the Glorious 12th), the restaurant served 12 single cask Society whiskies alongside 12 specially created dishes of Scottish game tapas, including grouse, partridge and roe deer. The pairings were also available to diners at The Vaults and 28 Queen Street.

“Working with the Society has really opened my eyes to the range of flavours and characters you find in whisky. It’s a lot like wild game in that respect, so it’s been a real pleasure to explore some whiskies and pick out notes that would work well with particular dishes.”

Game food dishes being served up at the Society’s pop-up bar

Waugh says the pairing has been a steep learning curve, but that – working alongside Society ambassadors – he has created a truly ambitious menu that shows off the quality and versatility of both whisky and game. Waugh’s meat and restaurant business may be the talk of London – having scooped several awards for its stripped­ back, produce-centric ethos – but his background is in the estates of Inverness.

“My father was a hunter and gamekeeper on an estate, but became frustrated with being short-changed by the dealers who bought from him, so decided to go into business for himself,” he explains.

The business has gone from strength to strength in the intervening years. Andy himself spent many years shooting and bringing in game. He recalls afternoons spent stalking deer, before carrying the carcass back for butchering and sale. Indeed, he seemed destined to join the family firm before romance intervened – as romance has a habit of doing – taking him first to Edinburgh, then on to London.

“I worked briefly in an investment company when I first got here. This was 2010, at the height of the recession, so it was anything but glamorous; there was an air of despair about the place, and I could only stick at it for six months.”

Andy’s roe deer striploin with frites, bearnaise and rowan jelly

It was only after living in London for a time that Waugh saw an opportunity to bring the family business with him. Given his upbringing, he was surprised by the absence of game in restaurant menus, and – following the runaway success of his first pop-up food stand selling steak sandwiches in Borough Market – made it his mission to bring great Scottish produce to London foodies.

“We used to eat this food at home because it was cheap and plentiful,” he recalls. “My mum was very creative in finding different ways to cook it, so we’d have venison bolognese and pheasant curry. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realised not everyone ate venison on a regular basis.”

Waugh now runs stalls across London’s markets, and is set to open a permanent restaurant in the capital’s fashionable Soho district. He also supplies produce from his family firm to other restaurants and hotels in the city.

“I feel like I have a mission to bring game and other quality Scottish meats to a wider audience. It’s something I’m very passionate about, so I love sharing that with other people and seeing them become excited about it too.”

It is perhaps because of his background that Waugh’s dishes draw so heavily on the land itself, and that the value of authenticity and provenance play such an important role.

“I’ve looked to a lot of modern Scandinavian cooking, in particular its approach to localism, championed by restaurants like Noma. So we’ll often serve meat alongside the plants and berries the animal would have eaten, or which are at least from that environment. Where we can, these ingredients will also be foraged in the wild.

“As a general principle though, we try to let the meat do the talking, so we don’t use any heavy marinades or overwhelm it with relishes. When you have something that good, there’s no need to add to it or take anything away, which I suppose is another thing we have in common with the Society.”

*Job titles and information were correct as of time of writing in 2014 but may have changed. Since his collaboration with the SMWS in 2014, Andy went on to start up the Mac & Wild restaurants in London and will be opening up as part of the Bonnie & Wild food hall at the new St James Quarter development in Edinburgh