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Raising the steaks

BEHIND THE SCENES

Waitrose executive chef Neil Nugent visits a beef farm for the first time to learn more about the key ingredient in his new dish.

Cows

Neil Nugent, executive chef at Waitrose, gazes out of the train window as the fields and countryside speed by. “I’m a city boy,” he says, “and this’ll be the first time I’ve visited a beef farm.” He’s travelling to Nottingham to meet farmer David Prince, who supplies meat-processing company Dovecote with beef, which in turn is sold to Waitrose for use in everything from ready meals to the rarer cuts. 

“I’ve seen plenty of chickens and pigs,” Neil adds, “but this will be new to me. I spend a lot of time chopping up cuts of beef, so it’ll be fascinating to check out an earlier stage in the process.” It’s also part of a personal journey for Neil because, along with famous chefs such as Pierre Koffman, once of three-Michelin-starred La Tante Claire, he has developed a new range of ready meals called Menu From… It’s given him the chance to work with some of the culinary talent he came across in his years working in the restaurant industry. “The beef I’m going to see is what goes into a beef bourguignon dish. I developed it with Pierre and we use ox cheek. It’s so succulent. It’s cooked very slowly - simmered for hours in wine - and the meat is really soft in texture, but the flavour is massive. It knocks the socks off fillet steak any day.”

The farm in question is a stone’s throw from the centre of Nottingham. It is screened from the city by what looks like a low natural ridge but is actually an old slag heap planted with shrubs and trees. On his arrival, Neil meets David and his wife Rachel in a room that was an old milking parlour. “My father had a dairy herd,” says David, 45, “but he retired when he realised he would have to invest massively to bring the place up to speed with modern requirements. So I took over and decided that beef was the way forward.” David buys beef cattle of various varieties direct from farms across Britain. Some are as young as three months – David rears them until they are aged between 18 and 30 months.

“How do you know when they’re ready?” asks Neil, ever the hungry chef. “You can feel them cooking,” jokes Rachel. “She’s not wrong,” adds David. “By looking and feeling them I can tell if they’re ready for slaughter. And my main aim is to give Dovecote and Waitrose quality meat.”

At which point it’s time for a trip around the farm. There are some 650 head of cattle, kept in pens for the various stages of their lives. They are kept indoors or put out to graze depending on the weather and the season. When indoors, they are fed on rations grown and mixed by David himself - a seemingly delicious mix including silage, rape meal, straw and fodder beet. The cattle are also brought inside closer to slaughter time so that their feed is controlled.

David points out one particular group of cattle to Neil. “These came to me in November,” he says. “They are calves from Waitrose Select farms.“I feel like patting them,” says Neil. “Can I give them a little tickle behind the ear?” He jumps into the pen and wanders around a variety of cattle from Aberdeen Angus to Charolais, then pauses by some Highland cattle.

David climbs into a tractor and as he revs the engine there is a chorus of mooing. It’s feeding time.

“Look at this one,” he says, “very sexy with his hair over one eye. He’s saying: ‘Ooh chef, chef!’ ”Sprightly Neil, 42, has long had a passion for food. Brought up in Rochdale, he wanted to cook from an early age. “I remember seeing this chef, Roger Vergé, cooking on telly, when I was12,” he says. “By the time I was 18, I was doing an apprenticeship at his restaurant in the south of France.”

His parents - a policeman father and telephonist mother - were happy with his career path (“I wasn’t achieving much academically…”) and his life as a chef saw him working at Bibendum and on private yachts off Monaco. Today, as well as his Waitrose job - which he calls, “getting retail food to bite at the heels of quality restaurants” - he has a share in J Baker’s bistro in York, his new home town.

While Neil is getting close to his ingredients, David climbs into a tractor and as he revs the engine there is a chorus of mooing. It’s feeding time. The chef clambers out of the pen as the cattle charge forward to get their tasty ration, which pours from the side of a trailer. “It’s like one of those restaurants,” shouts David, “all you can eat for a tenner!” Later, over in the bungalow where David and Rachel live with their three kids Maddie, 17, Greg, 15 and Poppy, seven, the couple reflect on their lives. “It’s tough - it’s very hard to ever get away,” says Rachel, who also earns money doing livery, “and the children are used to seeing their dad stressed out. But we get up to a fantastic sunrise”. “It’s self-inflicted,” adds David, “but I do enjoy what I do.” He gazes out to fields dotted with horses and woods beyond.

“And that’s what I call sanity.” Back on the train south, Neil reflects on his farm visit. “I’m so impressed by what I’ve seen. The farm was a very happy and tranquil place. And it’s obvious David loves his cattle as much as he loves good beef. But he’s not into his vegetables. He told me, ‘unless it’s looked over a gate at some point in its life, it’s not worth eating.’ ”

Neil licks his lips, and looks back out of the window, no doubt contemplating his beef bourguignon with renewed vigour.

This article is from Waitrose Kitchen Issue April 2010