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Nights at the oak table

Chef, teacher, food writer and business owner, the career of LUKE VANDORE-MACKAY has been forged in fire

 BBQ Mag   Spring 2022

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 #HighGrange

 
 

 

 

High Grange Devon is a feasting venue and fire cookery school near to the Jurassic Coast owned by me and my wife Sara. Our tagline is ‘Rural retreat, fine dining, fire’ – and that says it all really.

We cook the finest ingredients over wood and charcoal and host woodland feast nights at our oak table. We also teach people how to cook over fire – whether that be ceramic barbecues, fire pits, pizza ovens or just a big hole in the ground. With our yoga, reiki and sound-bath retreats, held either on the lawn in the sunshine or in our converted milking barn with the wood-burner blazing, we hope that we have created a place to escape the trials and tribulations of a scary world. 

I have been a chef, teacher, food writer and business owner for 20 years – High Grange Devon is the culmination of that experience. Previously I founded and ran Brompton Food Market and The Hour Glass in South Kensington. I also worked for 12 years as a consultant to Borough Market. I did hundreds of cookery demos there, as well as managing the Borough Market Demo Kitchen and conducting tours, classes and private events. Prior to that I was head chef at various establishments, yachts and chalets around the world. 

For many reasons the most important day of my life was a Sunday 12 years ago – I went on a first date with Sara, my now wife, in Clapham, south London. We chatted about food and then met for dinner a couple of nights later in Chinatown. We ate chilli crab and Sara was not impressed by chilli oil dripping down my chin. She left the next day on a month-long trip to the winelands of Argentina. I thought that was probably that and I’d never see her again.

We got together on her return and she gave me a present. She had been to Francis Mallman’s restaurant ‘Seven Fires’ and while there thought that the strange messy-eating man that she’d just met might enjoy the book of the same name. 

I devoured that book and it set in motion the wheels that have brought us both to High Grange. I was amazed to read about Mallman’s affair with fire – how each piece of wood, each flame, each whisp of smoke was different, nuanced. I loved that and from then on cooked whenever I could outside. I bought a massive barrel smoker, a much too big barbecue and various accessories; none of them suitable for a small Brixton garden and cooked outside in rain or shine whenever I could. 

In 2019, after the birth of child number three, we decided we needed a total lifestyle change and started viewing properties all over the country, including a cookery school in The Highlands and an old haunt of Winston Churchill in The Quantocks. 

We eventually found High Grange, a large house near Lyme Regis and Axminster in East Devon, just a couple of miles from River Cottage. It is surrounded by stunning views to the coast and across the fields and has three acres of gardens and woodland. As soon as we viewed it, we made an offer. The house had been owned by a brother and sister who had lived and died in the house; children hadn’t played in the gardens for at least a generation and the woodland was wild and overgrown. Many neighbours told us that the house needed to come to life again.

I am passionate about brilliant seasonal ingredients, cooked simply over fire and this place, in this part of the world, gave me everything that I needed to make it happen. I wanted to get more people thinking about ingredients, about small independent suppliers, about seasonality and I also wanted my children to grow up with space, near the beach and to see more of their parents. There are challenges with running a hospitality business in your family home but also amazing opportunities and advantages. We now see High Grange as our forever home and a business that perhaps our children will take over. It was special before we arrived but we have, I think, made it magical. 

 We moved in at the end of 2019 with a plan to start feasts and cookery school in the spring of 2020. Then Covid arrived and we found ourselves unemployed and without a business. I started working for Big Green Egg, creating content as well as developing collaborations and a marketing plan and became its executive chef until last year.

We also had time to build our veg patch, chicken run and to start planning our outdoor kitchen. The kitchen in the woods houses Big Green Eggs, a pizza oven, OFYR, a South African braai and lots of fire pits. The final piece of the plan was the table and we commissioned a local artisan furniture maker to make us a vast feasting table from a giant oak tree that we had had to take down. The table will sit there for decades – each wine stain and moss adding to its character.

 

 

 As soon as lockdown rules allowed, we had our first private events last May – a cookery school where we cooked a haunch of venison in a pit under the ground. Our first official ticketed event was in June and the menu was the culmination of everything that we had worked for – a five-course tasting menu. The first course was Sara’s first High Grange potatoes, steamed with homemade butter and crisp chicken skin, then our own cured pork with plum ketchup, local ex-dairy short ribs smoked for 12 hours and Lyme Bay sea bass – stiff fresh that morning. 

The thing that makes me proudest is that people are stunned at the beauty of what we have created. It really is magical; wood smoke hangs in the air and the views towards the coast are stunning. We’ve created a relaxed atmosphere – our dog bounds around and our kids are usually involved too. We are looking at building log cabins in the woods this year to give our guests a ‘staggering home’ option after feasts and we can’t wait to see what the future brings, ideally laced with charcoal, wood smoke, fun and laughter.

 


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