‘Finding young chefs willing to learn butchery skills is harder than ever’

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th November 2019

Mike Bullard is the chef DIRECTOR of The Butcher's Social in Warwickshire. 

Born and bred in Birmingham, Mike started working in kitchens when he was still at school. He worked in various pubs and restaurants in the city while he did an apprenticeship at the Birmingham college of food, where he would work as a lecturer before heading to the US to stage in New York restaurants. 

His career took a different turn when he returned from America and was named executive chef of the Bromwich Albion Football, where he oversaw the whole food operation - feeding up to 3,000 people in an hour timeslot. 

During that period the chef also worked on luxury yachts and privately catered for footballers, and dabbling in different sectors gave him the exposure and experience he needed to finally start his own business.

The Butcher's Social started as a pop-up in a butcher's shop in the outskirts of Birmingham, serving flavoured chicken wings and craft beers. The idea was for it to be a one-night only event, Mike explained, "but the first night we had 200 people turn up, there were a hundred people queuing at the door to get in.

"So that turned into another weekend and another weekend and eventually we decided to do it for nine months and then after those nine months it was time for me to find a more permanent home which, looking around, Henley-in-Arden was the perfect spot to do that."

Aside from the chicken wings which remain on the menu to this day - a highly successful example being salted caramel chicken wings finished with salted caramel sauce and topped with cripsy bacon and honeycomb - the food at The Butcher's Social sits somewhere between a gastropub and a fine dining restaurant, according to the chef. 

Artichoke risotto, confit egg yolk, 'scraps'

WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE BETWEEN A gastropub AND A FINE DINING RESTAURANT?

"It's really difficult to define what we do because - what is a gastropub?

"There's plenty of pubs, there's plenty of chains, there's plenty of mediocre places and there's some great fine dining restaurants at the top of their game but there's nothing in the middle.

"We probably sit just above a gastropub but just underneath those fine dining Michelin star restaurants."

The menu at The Butcher's Social - which customers can trial a la carte, or as a tasting menu - is seasonal and ecclectic, from miso glazed pork rib with sweetcorn and pickled mulli to fresh Cornish crab tartlet with kimchi and pickled cucumber, as well as a selection of steaks and what Mike describes as "really good quality" meats.

The whole menu is changed every four to six weeks, with ample opportunity for the kitchen team to test and develop experimentally, and the chef doesn't hesitate to trial new dishes on his customers. 

"Food shouldn't be rigid, it should be about enjoying it and seeing what you can come up with and going from there and if it comes out great, happy days, if it doesn't, then okay, you try something different," he said.

Venison loin, venison faggot suet pie,
three colours of cauliflower

This results in dishes like jerusalem artichoke risotto - substituting rice for the root vegetable - served with confit egg and scraps; venison loin served with faggot mix suet pudding, a tricolore of cauliflower and "a nice port and juniper jus;" and Mike's take on a classic Sunday roast: orchard-fed pork served with buttered kale, black pudding granola, goose fat roast potatoes and seasonal roast vegetables." 

With such a meat-focused menu, it is unsurprising that the chef and restaurateur often brings in whole carcasses to work with - as it is not just more cost efficient, but it teaches the team how to break down an animal, something of a lost practice in kitchens. 

Is butchery a dying art? 

"It keeps the chefs interested, it's exciting for the FOH staff to see a whole beast arriving into the kitchen and sometimes the customers enjoy that experience as well," he said. 

"Sometimes when people have been out shooting, I get a few pheasants and partridges brought in by the customers. It's quite theatrical, people love that sort of thing."

For the chef, who honed his butchery skills at college, but also alone, using books and online tutorials, finding young chefs willing to learn butchery skills, however, is harder than ever. 

Pan-fried sea trout served with sea vegetables,
salty fingers, samphire,
hen of the wood mushrooms

"I'm not going to lie it's getting really difficult to find good staff and to find people that are really passionate. I think there are certain things that have ruined that within our industry.

"I think people aren't bothered about it but I think it's really important for the younger generation coming into the industry to know how to take a bone out of a leg of lamb - yes suppliers will do that for you but I think it's so important that we teach these skills to the younger generation and not lose that."

ARE YOUNG CHEFS' EXPECTATIONS OUT OF TOUCH WITH REALITY?

"I don't think you can ever point your finger at one particular thing," said Mike. 

"I think there's a lot of stuff on the TV now, you've got GBM, Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch, MasterChef and the younger generation watch these TV programs, which weren't around when I was younger and all of a sudden they've done a year in a kitchen and they think they can be a head chef and that's not the case.

"You've got to earn your stripes and work your way through the ranks as much as you can. I think the thing is, you do get some of the younger generations coming into the industry demanding a certain amount of money and if they don't get paid that certain amount of money they'll go somewhere else.

Ingredients on the menu @ The Butcher's Social

Adding to the problem, he said, are agencies, which are happy to overcharge for underqualified chefs.

"I doesn't help that they get a little grasp of that, and they're like, 'well I got paid x amount at such and such place so that's what I want when I come here.' 

"I'll pay whatever it takes, I give the chefs and the FOH the opportunity to show me that they're good enough to be paid that and if they are then of course they can be paid that but I think you find that you get a lot of people that come in demanding thirty, forty grand a year but they can't make a Yorkshire pudding or they can't make a cheese sauce.

"They can't get the basics right and so they don't last very long, then they end up going to a place that probably doesn't make food from scratch, they probably buy a lot of product in and that's where they will get their thirty or forty grand a year - but that's not cooking to me, that's just process."

The Butcher's Social

IF YOU FIND A GOOD CREW, Keeping hold of IT takes time, and effort 

And so, to keep his young staff engaged, the chef tries his best to look after them and nurture their education.  

"If you can, really make sure they are looking for that kind of learning and development because you can't teach passion. But what you can do is give them as much knowledge as you possibly can, which they can take on and move forward themselves."

 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th November 2019

‘Finding young chefs willing to learn butchery skills is harder than ever’