The pandemic may have delayed the opening of Mike Robinson’s new restaurant in Bath, but now he’s up and running and passing his love of game on to diners
South Parade in Bath was built in the mid-18th century by John Wood, the Elder (differentiated latterly from his son of the same name, the Younger, who continued his extraordinary work of making Bath an architectural masterpiece). Almost 280 years later, one man, Mike Robinson, is so grateful for Wood’s work that he has named a restaurant after him.
The Elder, which recently opened on this beautiful Bath street, comprises a bar, restaurant and private club and is nestled next to the Hotel Indigo.
My trip takes place on the eve of its opening in September. The kitchen and staff are about to flex their muscles and see how the place actually works after five years of delicate construction (this is Grade I listed) and acute planning.
‘It feels quite weird,’ says Robinson in almost a whisper. ‘It’s the poshest place I’ve ever done.’ He’s bristling with pride. He may not own the place – that’s the domain of IHG Hotels, a multinational hospitality company with more than 5,500 hotels in 100 countries – but the restaurant, bar and club is his business.
‘They have no input,’ he says, ‘and we have our own entrance and identity.’ Robinson has good form here, as his restaurant the Woodsman, in Stratford-upon-Avon, is also connected to an Indigo Hotel and the businesses seem to work with joyous independence. And it was time he spent cooking at a country house hotel in the late Nineties that taught him a salutary lesson. ‘I learnt that no one wanted to eat in hotel restaurants,’ he says. ‘I won’t say which hotel it was, but it was the type of place where all that mattered was how the food looked.
I was on the veg section being told how to hollow out and stuff courgettes…’ It was a style of cooking that also cemented in Robinson’s mind that he wanted to do the complete opposite. Now the Elder is an emphatic landing mark for Robinson as he heads into his fifties. For him it feels posh because its luxurious interiors – cute dining spaces with lush leather banquettes, smart wallpaper and dark green wooden panelling and exquisite, well lit artwork – give it a chic, very upmarket, Soho House-type feel.
And Robinson is a man who would be quite happy on a second-hand armchair with a wood-fired grill, if not actually sleeping outdoors. To many in the restaurant industry he is ‘the game chef ’, a man who manages land in Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire, where he culls and butchers venison, much of which is served at the Woodsman and the London restaurant he co-owns, the Harwood Arms in Fulham.
He makes videos for a UK audience on the subject of game and is a TV star on various networks in the US for his show Farming the Wild. But as he shows me around the Elder it’s clear that he’s getting excited at the idea of spending a little more time indoors and in comfort.
Robinson’s childhood was in rural Berkshire and he remembers the first rabbit he shot with a rifle inherited from his grandfather.
‘My father taught me how to skin it and I cooked a rabbit korma,’ he says. He then spent his spare time at his prep school, Bradfield, poaching game and cooking it in the school kitchens. ‘School food was like prison food and I became obsessed with eating better,’ he recalls.
After a degree in forest management in Bangor, North Wales, he went to the French Alps to climb and ski and earned money washing up in a smart restaurant. One night the head chef had a row with his commis, the latter walked out, and Robinson had some chefs’ whites chucked at him. It was an epic learning curve as he grappled with soups and duck, snails and beef, with orders coming every few minutes.
‘I learnt the mathematical computations of running a good and efficient kitchen,’ he says. His next stop was Australia, where, after sleeping under the stars in Northern Queensland, he got a job at a seafood restaurant in Port Douglas.
There, in between fishing trips on the restaurant owner’s boat, he says, ‘I learnt how to fillet and cook every fish in the world.’ By the early 2000s he was back in the UK and, having jettisoned that country house hotel, was running a Berkshire pub called the Pot Kiln with his first wife.
It then seemed that a career in TV beckoned as this handsome young man with a passion for game could fill a slot in the schedules. But Robinson walked away. ‘You can’t run a restaurant properly and do TV,’ he asserts.
Twenty years later, with his second wife Claude as a business partner, he has his own production company monetising his US ventures, with sponsorship and product placements from cooking equipment to fishing rods, guns to clothing. Robinson is firmly in control of his little empire, of which game is the essential ingredient.
‘Anyone who eats meat has to accept that they are culpable in the killing of animals. I prefer to kill animals, humanely, from the wild. And I want to educate people through TV and my menus about the sustainable use of what is available in nature,’ he says.
‘And venison has no cholesterol, is high in antioxidants and low in saturated fat. And God, it tastes good.’ It seems his customers are getting his venison message. ‘It’s only on 10 per cent of our menus, but it’s 50 per cent of our revenue.’
As Covid-19 sees the wealthy middle classes looking beyond London and eyeing up the idea of life in the South West, Robinson, with his restaurant and sustainable meat, looks like a man in the right place at the right time.
This piece was first published in the November/December 2020 edition of Spear’s