Sophie Cumber is head butcher at Mountain in Soho, the new restaurant from Brat’s Tomos Parry. Sophie graduated from the Leiths Three Term Professional Diploma in Food and Wine in 2013 before going into butchery full time. Here she tells us about learning to cook, finding her vocation, and sourcing the country’s finest produce.
What brought you to Leiths?
“I left home to go to university to do drama. While I was there, I quickly realised that if I wanted to eat food as good as the food I’d eaten growing up, I needed to learn how to cook. I grew up on a farm so I’d been incredibly lucky, eating fantastic organic produce from our own farm in Oxfordshire. It was a bit of a shock to see what was available from supermarkets! When I left university, it was the tail end of a recession and I thought ‘what am I going to do now?’. A family friend had done the Diploma at Leiths and couldn’t speak highly enough of it, so it seemed like a good thing to do. I didn’t exactly know what I was going to do with it; I just knew I really loved cooking and food and eating.”
How was your Leiths experience?
“Amazing! I still think about it so much and wish I could do it all again! A whole year of eating, cooking, talking about food, it was just incredible. The demonstrations, the teachers, the chefs that you’re exposed to – you get to witness their brilliance – it was such a great year. One thing that kind of struck me while I was at Leiths was that I really loved all the meat preparation days. I was always most excited when those days were coming up. When we had the two-day butchery demonstration, I was absolutely transfixed. I turned around to my mates on the course and was like ‘this is what I think I want to get into’.”
What did you do after Leiths?
“I basically handed a C.V. into every butcher’s shop I could think of. Eventually one came back to me: Barbecoa [now shuttered], a restaurant with a butchers attached. I’d worked at Paxton & Whitfield before and during Leiths so I’d done shop work, I knew how to talk to customers, knew about cooking, so the manager at Barbecoa said they’d give me a go and take me on as an apprentice. If I’m honest, I did maybe think I’d do butchery for a year or two to pick up some skills and then go on from there but I really got into it and fell in love with it. I did two years at Barbecoa which was great but as a steak restaurant, it was all about steak cuts on the beef front. They weren’t really buying whole carcasses of beef so I went to work at Turner and George in Islington. As at Barbecoa, I think they took me on thinking I’d be good with the customers; I said, ‘that’s great but I want to be learning how to break down the beef!’. I was there for about five years and was very lucky working with lots of great people there. Towards the end of my time there, Balcaskie Estate in Scotland got in touch with me about setting up their own butchery. I ended up moving there for a couple of years. It was all organic, all pasture for life, only whole carcass, it was a huge challenge that I really wanted to take on.”
How did you end up at Mountain? And what does your role at Mountain entail?
“After I moved back to London, my first step was to find someone who’s sourcing well because I’m not going to cut up any meat that I don’t approve of. I got in touch with the Super 8 Restaurants [Kiln, Smoking Goat, Brat etc] and here I am. We’re very lucky to be working with Philip Warren in Cornwall who source absolutely incredible meat from their own farm and surrounding farms. I’m scouring the country on top of that, looking for interesting beef, especially ex dairy beef to bring in whole carcass. The plan is to find it from all over the country and be able to showcase different breeds, different ages of animals, so there’s an array of different things people can try. All the pork, all the mutton, is whole carcass. We’ll be doing some pork collar chops and shoulder chops from Fred Price [@gothelneyfarmer] an amazing pig farmer in Somerset. We are also sourcing incredible cull yaw from Matt Chatfield [@thecornwallproject] and doing this incredible very thin cut chop which is basically taken from almost the whole way down the back of a whole mutton. They’ll be slung on the grill with just a squeeze of lemon over the top and really letting the meat talk for itself, not doing anything more complicated with it. That’s very much in the Super 8 style of getting good produce and treating it well. We buy whole animals then the butchery’s job is to cut all that up and split it up between the different restaurants and the different styles of cooking.”
What is it you love about the job?
“I love the satisfaction of sourcing an animal when you know where it comes from and you know how it’s been farmed and then using every single piece of that to its utmost. I think butchery in the U.K. got a bit lost, a bit artless. I love the satisfaction of bringing it back to this real art form that it used to be. There are many chefs who have a really great understanding of butchery but also loads who have never had that opportunity to learn. It makes such a difference. It’s a really great thing to get into, even as a basis for then moving onto other things.”
Mountain, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, W1F 9RD, mountainbeakstreet.com
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