When my train arrives at Hackney Central Overground station in East London, Neil Rankin is already waiting for me in his car. He throws a thumb over his shoulder towards the back seat, signalling for me to hop in. I'm reminded of the Mean Girls scene with Regina George in her convertible. Get in loser, we're going shopping.
But we're not shopping for clothes, we're shopping for cows.
Rankin and I are embarking on a road trip to Kenton Hall Estate Farm in Suffolk. The family-owned, 500-acre farm is where Rankin will be sourcing meat for Temper, his soon-to-be opened barbecue joint in London's Soho. We spend the two-hour journey sharing sweets, swapping university stories, and catching up like old friends who haven't seen in each other in years.
The permanently baseball-capped Scotsman joined the culinary party late and only started cooking at the age of 29. Having previously been a physics student and sound engineer, Rankin retrained as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu and soon found himself at the forefront of London's burgeoning barbecue scene, working at restaurants including Pitt Cue Co., Smokehouse, and Bad Egg. With a meaty debut cookbook under his belt, TV appearances on Great British Menu, and spots this year at food festivals including Taste and Meatopia, it's safe to say Rankin knows his way around the grill.
"All my career, I suppose I've been working towards this moment, opening my own place," he says, glancing at me in the rear-view mirror. "It's the little bits that have come together to make this happen. I don't want any fancy plates or complicated foods in my new place, it's just fresh ingredients that I won't fuck about with too much."
"You're going to be cooking the animal, whole?" I ask.
"No, no, no! I'm not throwing animals into a fire pit, whole," he laughs. "I want to focus on the sustainability aspect of buying animals whole, as opposed to buying different cuts from different suppliers."
And for such a meat-focused menu, the origin of those animals is key for Rankin.
"I just want to focus on what I'm doing and ensure ethical rearing of animals," he says. "I want better meat over more meat."
And that's why we're here today: to get a first-hand look at the ethical farming behind Rankin's new restaurant.
After what seems like hours crawling through winding country lanes, we finally turn onto the tree-lined road that leads to Kenton Hall. Owners David McVeigh, his son Tom, and two daughters, Emily and Lucy, greet us with homemade cookies and cups of tea.
The McVeighs took over the 12th century site in the 1980s, but the family has been in the farming business since 1640. As well as a fully operational cattle farm, Kenton Hall encompasses camping spots, vegetable gardens, spaces for weddings, a butcher, a farm shop, and a cookery school.
But our first stop on the grand tour is the cows.
"Our Longhorn cattle are all about taste and we've got an exclusive product because they've never been cross-bred with anything else," McVeigh explains. "It's the oldest, purest native English breed."
Longhorn grow at a much slower rate than other cattle and can take anything between 30 months to three years to reach full maturity.
"We basically take a holistic approach to everything we do," McVeigh continues. "It takes a bit more management as we're feeding adults out here. Commercially, you'll never have animals like this, as you're more likely to see animals at all different stages."
Rankin tells me this is exactly the type of meat he's looking for.
"The way I cook, I slow-cook everything," he explains. "There's a lot more method to it, I don't look for that real tenderness and marbling in beef found in young cows. I look for that pure, beefy flavour. I even take home 15-year-old Galician cows and they're about the size of a bloody house!"
I'm trying to listen to Rankin, but can't help being distracted by the sound of McVeigh's voice behind me.
"Come on, Isabel. Good girl! Come on!"
He's attempting to beckon a particularly stubborn Longhorn towards him.
Cows seen to, it's time for lunch. The McVeighs, Rankin, and I squeeze into the back of a pick-up truck and lurch across the farm to the camping area.
A grill is soon set up and Rankin gets to work on the beef. I watch him work his magic with just a simple seasoning and some salt.
"I think cuts like sirloin and skirts shouldn't be messed with and should only be served with a little bit of salt," he says. "For other expensive cuts like rib eye and filets, barbecuing them can be really fun. I'm sick of people being too serious about them."
After lunch, we take one last look at the cows happily munching grass. I ask Rankin what he hopes to achieve with Temper.
"The restaurant itself isn't a lesson in sustainability, it's about people coming in having fun, eating meat, drinking Mezcals, and fucking off," he says. "And that's all there is to it."
Amen to that—and make my Mezcal a double.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2016.