“I’m having a barbecue this weekend. What do you recommend?” asked the customer in front of me at The Butcher’s Table in Clapham, London.
If I wanted an early indication of Rob Buchanan’s passion not just for meat, but cooking it outside over fire, my timing could hardly have been better as the butcher made his recommendations, not to upsell his produce, but simply to share his knowledge and enthusiasm.
By the end of the conversation, not only had I learnt plenty but was determined to make friends with the customer to blag an invitation to what, if she followed Buchanan’s advice, would be some feed.
Butcher Rob is straight out of central casting. The biceps and shoulders portray a man who can comfortably break down a cow, but they also highlight his previous profession, where strength and indeed work at the breakdown are essentials.
Buchanan spent 12 years and 120 games as a professional rugby player in the English Premiership with Harlequins, winning the Premiership title with the London club in 2012 and playing in the 2011 Junior World Championship final for England against New Zealand.
But Buchanan’s career, narrowly missing out on a full England cap (he toured Argentina with England in 2013), was plagued by injuries and he was forced to retire last year, aged just 29.
His position was hooker and Buchanan’s front-row frame dominates the door of his butcher’s shop as he shyly poses for the photographer. We even get him in a BBQ magazine Pitmaster beer cap in a shameless piece of brand positioning, although such is Buchanan’s learning trajectory, he is rapidly elevating his cooking to pitmaster status.
“When my surgeon said I’d need to start thinking of options for life after rugby, my wife Harriet and I were racking our brains about what to do,” says Buchanan.
“So we focused on my hobbies and interests. This stemmed from an interest in regenerative farming and talking to my father-in-law Tim Perkin, a farmer. I always loved meat, cooking and barbecue. I liked the idea of learning a new skill, so looked into butchery.”
He started out with T&G Wholesale Meats, before moving on to The Meat Room in Twickenham, serving his apprenticeship and learning the craft fast.
He now runs The Butcher’s Table just a short stroll up St John’s Hill from Clapham Junction station and the business is a go-to butchers for south-west London foodies, as well as the casual passing trade.
“I’ve always seen The Butcher’s Table as being more than the process of selling meat. It’s about the experience, the full circle of farming, through to cooking and enjoying the produce.”
His ambitions don’t stop there and Buchanan would love to do more catering over fire with a burger truck or BBQ cooking unit to build the brand and expand his repertoire.
Living in Wimbledon, Buchanan would be a worthy addition to firepit cooking at Tom Kerridge’s Pub in the Park events next year, with Wimbledon, as well as Chiswick, a regular on the circuit.
For Buchanan the importance of the provenance of meat, animal welfare, low food miles and the farm to fork ethos is paramount.
“I only purchase from farmers and producers who I know and who I trust to have the same values. For me it is about best of British.”
I congratulate him on his facility to communicate his knowledge of cuts and cooking – the patience to inform and engage his customers, rather than the rush to shift sausages at volume.
“Education is key to pushing the value of sustainability and ensuring nose-to-tail eating. It’s easy to sell something like ribeye as everyone is familiar with it. But I like to spend the time educating customers about some of the lesser-known cuts, which still have phenomenal flavour, such as hanger, flat iron, or Denver steaks,” says Buchanan.
“We’ve built up quite a following with these cuts at the shop and now as soon as they’re in the counter they sell out.”
He winces slightly as he names shoulder of lamb (Buchanan suffered a serious shoulder injury playing for Harlequins) as his favourite cut of meat, slow cooked over fire.
“I love it when the meat falls off the bone, but you still have lots of crispy lamb fat. Pull it apart, put it in a flatbread and serve with roast potatoes and coal-roasted vegetables – caramelised leeks and butternut squash. That’s my perfect Sunday roast. Live-fire cooking is a simple method, but with so many levels to it so you never get bored and are continually learning and experimenting as you go.”
For sportsmen and women, seeking new professions and employment is notoriously difficult and often taking a toll on their mental health too, as they question who they are and what the future holds outside the exhilarating, if cloistered and short-lived environment, of professional sport.
“Moving from one passion to another and being able to create something of your own has made leaving rugby much easier to deal with.”
He may have left rugby, but not his mates, who would be foolish not to keep in touch with a man who supplies meat for a living and can cook it too. Former Harlequins teammates Olly Kohn of The Jolly Hog and Will Collier, still going strong in the Quins front-row, are hugely supportive, as is another Quin George Lowe, co-founder of Clapham Junction gym Milo and the Bull, who helped build the shop.
“The benefit of the shop being in south-west London is there are a few of my old teammates who live nearby and pop in for their meat.”
The Butcher’s Table has all the carcasses and hooks, boning knives and aprons you’d expect. There is Woodsmith lumpwood charcoal for sale in the shop, as well as drinks including Rathfinny sparkling wine and also rubs, sauces and condiments from the likes of Hoots, Chimilove, Relish and Tracklements.
But perhaps the biggest clue to Buchanan’s cooking passion is out the back of the shop. Here stands a Drumbecue, a Big Green Egg and a Bradley smoker, with Buchanan running butchery classes before the students’ cuts are cooked over fire and a feast served up.
It was time to go. The next customer was deciding between a pork butt and a boneless shoulder of hogget for Sunday lunch. There was genial advice to dispense.
Had Buchanan had the time, he probably would have taken the meat out the back and cooked the lunch himself.
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