Jon Finch Spring 2021
“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” goes the saying. If there is one person that epitomises this, then it’s Nick Weston, founder and owner of Hunter Gather Cook.
Hunter Gather Cook is a foraging and cookery school that specialises in game butchery, fire cookery and wild food. Weston’s philosophy is simple: “Eat the best food you possibly can in the best place you can.”
Born in Cuckfield, West Sussex and then later moving to Ashdown Forest, Weston grew up quite a feral child, spending his time outdoors making fires, hunting and fishing. He showed interest in cooking at an early age, baking cookies and the like with his mum in the family kitchen. Illicit trips to the local lake to fish for trout came next and hunting soon after.
“I got my first air rifle at 12 and no bunnies or pigeons were safe in the surrounding vicinity. That’s when the cooking came into it. I think my mum got fed up with having to process and cook them, so that’s how I learnt to deal with them from field to fork. As I got older, I began using a shotgun and getting on the pigeons and pheasants, then moved into deer stalking,” says Weston.
Aged 15, employment came his way as a kitchen porter at a local hotel, scrubbing dishes for a living. Many commercial kitchens back then were not particularly pleasant places to be especially as the new kid on the chopping block.
“I got thrown in the sink once by some of the chefs and had a load of hot pans thrown on top of me burning me badly.”
After five years in tough London kitchens, Weston was craving the great outdoors of his childhood and moved back to the Sussex woodlands, where he constructed a treehouse out of natural and recycled materials. Eschewing the creature comforts of most homes, Weston went full-on back to basics, living in the treehouse and off the land surrounding it for six months, cultivating his own small allotment to make his culinary life more interesting.
“It was about living with the land and understanding more about how to utilise fire in every sense, from heating the treehouse to everyday cooking. No gas was involved in the process. Fire is the most versatile of ingredients and it formed the heart of what Hunter Gather Cook is all about,” says Weston.
“It was then the process of thinking that, actually, this experience has taught me so much, maybe other people might want to learn about it too in a condensed version. That’s how our courses were designed and the concept born. There is a book about that experience called the treehouse diaries, if you can find a copy; they’re like gold dust!”
In 2011 with £500 and a plot of land he’d managed to rent, Weston set up what was to become Hunter Gather Cook HQ. A large A-frame shelter in the middle of the woods with a sandstone hearth and clay oven and a couple of big old oak tables made by Weston and his landlord.
A successful £5000 Kickstarter campaign in 2015 enabled Weston to construct his iconic treehouse, allowing space for dining upstairs with a big open kitchen and workshop below.
More recently came the Shepherd’s Barn, a larger more permanent structure that has since become the main hub for Hunter Gather Cook. Weston and his 15-strong team of experts run courses most weekend across both sites. Mostly self-taught, Weston has spent lots of time in the field and reading books to broaden his impressive knowledge and skill base, but still learns from people whenever the opportunity arises.
“The best bit of advice I’ve ever had was when fly fishing in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa and I asked the river keeper what the best fly to use was. He turned round and said: ‘The best fly to use is the one tied to the end of your line.’ Genius. It also loosely translates as, work with what you’ve got and get on with it. “
Cooking over fire was a regular occurrence for Weston growing up, whether in the woods alone or with his parents, who had lived in Jamaica and Oman and loved to cook BBQ with big, bold, punchy flavours.
“I quite like the process of fire cookery and the things you have to do before it’s ready to cook on. It has a self-sufficient appeal that you can recreate anywhere in the world. We are meant to cook on fire. We have a ridiculous amount of fire kit at Hunter Gather Cook – Big Green Egg, Ooni, Weber – all sorts.
We recently got a massive Portuguese oven from my friend Tim Reeves at PRO Woodfired Ovens. It’s a beast and I love it,” says Weston.
“However my favourite thing to cook on is the turfed square in my garden that has some bricks and a small grill. I just play around with different techniques. I am also a big fan of antique cooking gear and always on the hunt for it, with my personal favourite a clockwork spit. For general use, a Weber kettle is my go-to.”
Weston’s beautiful book ‘Hunter Gather Cook: Adventures in Wild Food’ came out in 2019 and is quite the bible for those looking to source and cook their food ‘off grid’ whether that’s hunting, foraging or cooking with fire.
Weston offers good advice for those wanting to learn more, “Start with getting some foraging books and try learning about it yourself. The most important rule of foraging is to not eat anything unless you’re 100% sure of what it is. The adventure behind finding out about wild foods is an addictive one. But it is also very handy to do a course that can start you off on the right path and place a lot of knowledge in your hands in one fell swoop. That’s why Hunter Gather Cook exists. Come do a course. “
Weston will be cooking live on stage at the Black Deer Festival this June. He knows the site very well for rather different reasons.
“I love Black Deer – such a great festival. It’s fresh, different and the music is awesome. It’s a bit weird walking around the fields of Eridge Park in Kent when the festival is on. All the deer we use comes from Eridge and we do a fair bit of deer stalking there. So walking around with a beer, as opposed to being dressed in camo with a rifle on your back, is a bit odd. I once shot a fallow deer directly under where the main stage is!”
Photo credits – David Loftus
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