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A special force of nature

Soldier, adventurer, TV personality, but for Ant Middleton nothing beats cooking steak in the garden for his family, Rupert bates reports.

The disorientation worked a treat because the face at the other end of the video lens was all smiles, with relaxed time spent in Ant’s engaging company, talking meat, fire, family, mind and muscle. The only interrogating came from me and Middleton passed with flying colours.

With a remarkable Armed Forces CV, you’d want Ant Middleton beside you on the battlefield, or indeed in any team.

But this was Ant at home, away from the TV reality shows he stars in and they, by their very nature, require a degree of playing to the cameras, alongside the drama of competitive jeopardy and media ratings.

I was lucky to catch him at home, for he had just returned from filming Million Dollar Island with barely time to cook a steak before hopping on a plane to film SAS Australia.

He did have time to cook a steak; in fact, he made damn sure he had time, firing up the barbecue in the narrow window between international flights.

“It was down to the butchers for a big tomahawk steak and straight out on the barbecue when I got home, cooking for the family,” said Middleton.

“I love a BBQ, especially when it’s cold. I’m an outdoor cook for all seasons and would cook outside every day if I could. I’m a big foodie; I adore my meat but will eat anything. I’m not fussy.”

Probably just as well, considering some of the situations he has found himself in and I’m pretty sure a barbecued rat has never featured in this magazine’s recipe pages.

“Working in Africa, they used to catch huge field rats and throw them straight on oil drum barbecues. I’m not shy when it comes to tasting local ‘delicacies’ and living off the land.”

Land at home in Essex is an acre of garden, cooking over the coals on his Kamado BBQ, using his Wolf grill, or lighting the firepit for the kids to toast marshmallows. He loves experimenting, ever curious to learn about different coals and woods and the art of temperature control.

“Do you know why fire is so mesmerising and you can sit in front of it for hours? It is because the flames never move the same way twice; they are forever changing direction, keeping your brain constantly engaged.”

Like the flames, Middleton is always on the move, but in June will be at Betteshanger Park in Deal, bringing his Mind over Muscle festival to Kent, the garden of England.

There will be ‘field’ cooking, ‘getting a taste of what soldiers might experience on the front lines of combat; cooking up a nutritious meal in a challenging setting’. Expect some more refined al fresco live-fire dining too.

It wouldn’t be hosted by Middleton unless there were beastings on offer, a test of survival skills, an assault course, boot camps, sniper training and inspirational talks from ex Special Forces.

But Mind over Muscle is very much a family event, with plenty of ‘softer’ activities, such as yoga, skateboarding and fossil hunting.

​“You can just come for the relaxed festival vibe – music, food and drink, a fun fair and forest school. Betteshanger Park is the perfect space and an opportunity for like-minded people to gather for some fun and refind their feet after the pandemic, re-establishing trust in being in crowds again, reconnecting with the great outdoors.”

Middleton is a strong advocate of field to fork, enjoying foraging for mushrooms for the fire.

“The natural larder is huge. These days we choose the easy option of fast food or a smash and grab meal, when what has been available to us for centuries is still out there in the wild to gather and consume.”

As a soldier he had to learn the craft of fire and how to handle it for both food and warmth, but this education predates Middleton’s military service as he recalls living in France as a child, lighting and tending bonfires at the family’s Normandy home, as well as a menagerie of animals to look after.

“My kids love learning about fire. It is so important to teach them to be safe around it – the dos and don’ts – as well as confident. It is such a life skill to be able to light a fire and cook on it.”

Middleton has five children and despite his extraordinary career and extreme adventures, it is them who are pushing him to go on wilder food journeys.

“When we go fishing in Scotland, the fish we catch go straight on the fire. I think my food experimenting is growing with age.”

Closer to home, his children like nothing more than pitching the tent in the garden and asking dad to boil up food rations in his Jetboil portable stove.

“I’ve had years and years of living on rations in tents, so when they want to stay in tents on rations, I leave them to it!”

Time in Fiji saw a wild boar caught and the whole village gathering round the beast on a big communal firepit.

“The community aspect of cooking, so prevalent in many countries I’ve travelled to, is perhaps missing a bit in the UK,” says Middleton.

“Food is a global language; when you share food it is one of the most intimate things you can do. Throughout history you had to hunt to survive. Cooking your catch is the ultimate show of love and compassion. Sharing food is a great way of connecting and communicating, no matter where in the world you are.”

Wherever he travels Middleton sources local street food, embracing the culture and the different cooking techniques and ingredients. “If you travel the world, you must taste the world too.”

Back home Middleton is looking to extend the outdoor area, add to his BBQ equipment and expand his cooking repertoire and social space.

While red meat is his go-to dish, he is a big fan of charred vegetables on the grill, while his experience means he understands proteins and nutritional value.

Born in Portsmouth, the family moved to France, with his stepfather in the building trade, constructing holiday homes.

Middleton loved the countryside and the food and calls France “a great place to grow up and grow old”. But that stage in between meant a return to the UK “to grab life by the horns” and he has certainly done that.

“I wanted to be self-sufficient and stand on my own two feet. The Armed Forces gave me that, with a roof over my head and a pay packet, feeding me and challenging me. I learnt to love it and be good at it.”

There was a rhythm to his career and a natural progression, which saw his relentless drive and positive mindset succeed in the toughest of elite forces’ environments, including the Royal Marines, 9 Parachute Squadron and the Special Boat Service.

A television career has followed as chief instructor on Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins, and Middleton has now created SAS Australia for Channel 7.

Other TV credits include Mutiny, a re-enactment of Mutiny on the Bounty, the survivalist programme Escape, and the Sky One series Straight Talking.

In 2019, Middleton conquered Mount Everest, despite being trapped in a life-threatening storm and his next hit series, out this summer for Channel 7 in Australia, is called Million Dollar Island, with contestants dropped on a remote island with the chance to win $1m.

He is an author as well as adventurer, with five best-selling non-fiction books, a fiction thriller and a new children’s book out soon called Mission: Total Confidence.

Despite a hectic schedule, Middleton always has time to talk and listen – and barbecue. He has a huge 55-day aged steak in the fridge, marinating in garlic butter. There may be another plane to catch and series to film, but that’s destined for the grill before he leaves.