The Man Behind The World’s Wildest Burger
A Highland adventure with Mr Andy Waugh, the Scottish chef wowing London.
The Highlands of Scotland have been referred to as the last great wilderness of Western Europe. Certainly, after spending a day exploring its mountains, lochs and glens, it’s hard to imagine many places more isolated. But what of the other defining qualities of a wilderness? Inhospitable? Perhaps, at first. But not once you get to know the place and meet the people. What about barren, desolate, sparse? Not a bit of it.
Just ask Mr Andy Waugh, who champions the richness and diversity of Scotland and its produce through his two London restaurants, both called Mac & Wild. Since opening the first in August 2015, it has received rave reviews from two of London’s most influential food critics, Ms Grace Dent and Mr Giles Coren, and its Veni-Moo venison and beef double-patty burger has been named London’s Best Burger and Best Burger In The UK in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
No, Scotland is a larder fit to burst, a bounteous cornucopia of a country.
And beautiful, too. Between the heather-strewn uplands, where herds of red deer roam, and the shores of the North Sea, where brightly painted cottages huddle around old granite harbours, you can’t fail to be struck by the sheer, untamed beauty of it all. There is a tendency, when describing beauty, to borrow from the language of imprisonment: to use words such as “captivatingly” or “arrestingly” beautiful. As if beauty has the power to steal something from you and lock it away. Which, of course, it does. Anybody who has spent long enough in a place of real beauty knows that you always leave a part of yourself behind.
This much is demonstrably true of Mr Waugh. A born Highlander and the eldest son of a game butcher, he grew up in Ardgay, a hamlet on the Dornoch Firth about an hour north of Inverness. He left Scotland in 2010 and since then has lived in London, where he now runs both branches of Mac & Wild, along with his meat supplier business, The Wild Game Company. Despite the 600 miles that now lie between him and his childhood home, it’s clear where his heart still lies. If anything, the separation has made him all the more aware of what he has left behind.
“I don’t think I ever really appreciated having all of this on my doorstep,” says the 34-year-old as he watches the sunrise creep into the valley at the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, a Highland estate just a few miles west of Ardgay. “As a kid, I didn’t hate the place. But I didn’t love it either. It was just… there.” He pauses for a moment to take it all in. “But the more I come back now, the more beauty I see.”
It has just gone 6.00am. A cloudless night has left a hard frost, and the chill seeps up fast through the soles of our boots. Ryan, the estate’s junior ranger, fills a Thermos flask with boiling water, which he’ll use to unfreeze the padlocks on the gates. He tosses it in the back of the Land Rover and climbs up into the cab. We follow him in, walking past the truckbed, which is thick with frozen blood.
We make slow progress through the glen, stopping every minute or so to pick out the silhouettes of female deer in the distance. Alerted to our presence by the grumbling of the diesel engine – an alien noise in this most pristine of environments – they’ve scampered up the valley and come to rest on higher ground. Ryan eyes them with his rangefinder; they’re 400m away at least. “They know their range,” he mutters. A stalker would never take aim from that distance. Ears pricked and frozen still, they watch as the convoy trundles by.
They know their seasons, too. The annual stalking season for hinds came to a close on 15 February, but the Alladale Estate has applied for an extension until the end of the month in order to meet its seasonal quota of 160 hinds. That extension ends today. The current tally stands at 158. So that explains the blood.
There’s a good chance that the two remaining deer, once they have been butchered and processed at Ardgay Game, will end up as venison burgers or chateaubriand on the plate of a hungry Londoner at Mac & Wild on Great Titchfield Street, or its sister in the City on Devonshire Square. Indeed, the walls of each restaurant are decorated with black and white photographs, taken at the Alladale Estate, which show the various stages of the hunt. To the uninitiated, these pictures might seem rather grisly. The same goes for the butchery hooks that hang from the restaurants’ ceilings. Mr Waugh has received a few complaints. “I suppose it is a bit shocking,” he admits. “But I believe in being able to vouch for what you’re eating.
“Most people will go out and unthinkingly buy a chicken breast wrapped in plastic from an animal that has had a lifespan of 35 days,” he continues in his soft Scottish lilt. “It’ll have been through the hands of dozens of people en route to your plate, none of whom have any kind of accountability whatsoever. But with the venison we serve, I can tell you the whole story. Where it came from, where it was shot, who shot it, who butchered it. Not only that, but I can probably tell you where the butcher lives, the pub he drinks in, the name of his wife, and where he went to school.”
There’s a business case for this extreme accountability, as Mr Waugh succinctly explains. “When someone puts their name to something, it generally means they’re not going to sell you shite,” he says. But the point is not to have someone to blame if and when things go wrong. “We’re doing it as a celebration,” he says. Hence why his brother, Mr Ruaridh Waugh, is listed on the menu as the restaurant’s venison supplier alongside Mr Guy and Ms Juliette Grieve, of the Isle of Mull, who supply the hand-dived scallops, and Mr John Munro, of Dingwall, who makes the haggis. Even the oil producer warrants a mention. Mr Robert MacKenzie, with whom Mr Waugh played rugby as a kid, now makes fragrant, cold-pressed rapeseed oil on Culisse Farm, his family estate near Tain.
As its reputation grows, Scotland’s larder serves an increasingly global market, as we discover later that day on a trawler half a mile off the coast of Helmsdale, a port town halfway between Ardgay and John o’ Groats. Fisherman Mr Andrew Sutherland, showing off the spoils of his crab and lobster pots, holds up a monster lobster, as big as his forearm. “This one’s off to a Michelin-starred restaurant in France,” he says. The small crabs – and small is a relative term here – are due to be shipped off to Japan at the end of the week, where they will be highly prized as an exotic delicacy.
His son, Mr Ewan Sutherland, joins us on the trawler. He is in his early thirties and has spent most of his career working in the North Sea oil industry. But the sector has been hit hard in recent years by a sustained fall in the price of oil, and he now puts his expertise to use as a fire safety instructor. Out on the boat, he admits to a growing desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. Mr Waugh can fully understand the appeal. “Back in the day, if your dad was a fisherman, he was just… a fisherman,” he says. “There was no glory in it. I should know. My dad’s a butcher. But something’s changed. The once-glorified jobs, like going off and being an engineer for an oil company, now seem a lot less aspirational. Meanwhile, food’s really taking off. People are now asking my dad if they can come and work for him for free.”
What’s behind this rising appreciation for Scottish produce? Mr Waugh cites the recent success of restaurants such as Noma, in Copenhagen, which have boosted the profile of northern European cuisine. “Scotland was invaded by Viking and Norse settlers, so there’s a shared cultural heritage with Scandinavia, not to mention a similar climate and terrain,” he says. “My gran would spend her days making preserves, chutneys and ferments; my dad and his friends go trout fishing and do the occasional bit of foraging. Now, thanks to the Scandi movement, all that stuff is trendy again.”
While it’s tempting to pin it all on the celebrated Scandi movement – that rising tide that lifts all boats, and those for fishing in particular – the Scottish Highlands are clearly developing a culinary identity all of their own, and one that reaches beyond the national dish of haggis, neeps and tatties. In our video, which you can watch in the next story, Mr Waugh cooks up a venison burger inspired by the area, and featuring ingredients that all came from within a few miles of his home (and some from inside it; the rowan jelly was made by his mother).
One of his future schemes is to open an academy, he says, which would educate people about Highland food via foraging, butchery and cooking demonstrations just like these, and would serve his ultimate aim of closing the conceptual gap between the deer roaming the hills and the venison that arrives as a pink slab on your plate. There are vague plans, not yet set in stone, to expand Mac & Wild overseas, too. Eventually, he’d like to return home to Scotland – but his wife, Holly, and their eight-month-old baby girl, Iona, in London might have something to say about that.
“I have a strong sense of home,” says Mr Waugh. “I think it comes from growing up in such a sociable, hospitable environment. The door’s always open for people to walk in and out. They might stay for a weekend; we’ve had people stay for months. There’s always food on: a big pot of soup or a stew. And we’ll always end up in the kitchen at the end of the night, sharing a dram. That, ultimately, is what Mac & Wild is all about.”