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Chefs Gone Wild: Hunting, Game, and the Restaurant Industry

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
October 2010

Is that pronghorn on your plate or are you just happy to see me? Never heard of pronghorn? If you live west of the Mississippi, there’s a chance you’ve eaten it, and, if you’re among the new crop of chefs taking arms and heading into the forest in search of product, there’s a good chance you’ve shot at it. If not pronghorn, perhaps elk, moose, caribou, antelope, or the more common (and sadly more adorable) deer, animals the USDA sweepingly categorizes under the catch-all banner “venison.”

This motley venison posse—and a host of other more or less cute forest creatures—are making an appearance on a menu, or in a kitchen, near you. In an age of conscientious sourcing, hunting (often thought of as the wanton bloodletting hobby of the rich and idle) is the next step in chefs taking accountability for their product. Not only that, but it reflects the kind of uber-seasonality that many chefs are making the standard of their menus. And with the rich, often unpredictable flavor profile of the wild (that je-ne-sais-quoi gaminess), chefs find it a welcome challenge: inspirational inconsistency in an age of mass-produced homogeneity. It’s game time in the restaurant kitchen. And chefs are at bat.

Where the Wild Things Are

Game has always been part of the chef’s repertoire. But hunting isn’t common among chefs (a surprise considering the abundance of lethal weapons in a restaurant kitchen). Even with the romanticized “cacciatore” moniker of Italian culinary lore, most chefs are about as far from the “kill” as fashion designers are from sewing machines. But with the locavore mentality morphing into a kind of hyper-locavorism, a small coterie of chefs are turning to wild game as the next step in the expression of terroir. And some of them are going further, not just sourcing local game but shooting it themselves. After all, what’s the next logical step in house-made if not house-killed?

Of course the USDA has a way of butting in on issues like this, and on the question of cooking with hunted wild game in a professional kitchen, they’ve come down with a definitive no. According to their website, “states require restaurants to serve only game that has been slaughtered and dressed under inspection.” A sensible rule, intended to protect diners from the potential mishandling of wild game by an uninformed chef who’s just bagged an eight-pointer. According to Chef Patrick Morrow of game-friendly Bluegrass Tavern in Baltimore, “there’re a lot of guys who just don’t know what to do.”

Despite the assumption that fresher is always safer, Morrow says “you want to hang game for a proper time,” which means aging and monitoring meat—nothing to entrust to an amateur. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control, merely handling the tissue of wild game can lead to a host of “zoonotic” diseases (transmissible from animals to humans), which “can be very serious”—e.g. brucellosis, caught from wild boar, includes fever, severe abdominal pain, and dramatic loss of appetite, among others, which might make you think twice about that charcuterie plate. Of course it’s not always possible to follow the rules, says Morrow, who only handles hunted game in the private homes of his investors (coincidentally avid hunters). Especially among a “bunch of guys who’ve been drinking” (and may or may not be heavily armed) things can get unpredictable. “The next thing you know you’re cutting up a deer to serve right away,” says the chef.

As much as diners would go wild for his wild venison carpaccio, Morrow will likely keep hunted game strictly out of the restaurant. “I read a lot of the state laws on it,” he says. “It doesn’t define it completely. But I know with our city health inspector it doesn’t fly.” Whatever the level of dedication of your local safety inspector, any chef interested in game (hunted or purchased) should read up on game handling guidelines. A few key pointers: soap and water do a lot to stop contamination (surprise, surprise), so use it frequently and generously; and for any chef-hunters, take heed, not every animal that is sick looks sick. (They don’t carry Kleenex in the wild.)

Shoot-It-Yourself

But the USDA isn’t keeping every would-be hunter in the kitchen. Thomas McNaughton of Flour + Water hunts as frequently as possible, and uses as much wild product as he can in his kitchen. “All of this is totally illegal,” he says. And it’s not just a matter of blood lust, although many chefs might identify with that alone. McNaughton believes hunting the animal yourself gives a chef a much deeper appreciation of the product—not in the warm and fuzzy way, but in the “I’m going to use this responsibly and cook something extraordinary with it” way. So the rationale of modern culinary accountability goes something like this: if you want to cook with it, learn to kill it.

Beyond a deeper connection or weightier sense of responsibility, hunting can actually guide the chef to the best preparation of the animal. “When you’re down in the brush hunting for boar, you’re thinking about the wild chickweed around you,” says McNaughton. It’s a fair bet chefs won’t get the same inspiration from a crate of anything pre-plucked, pre-packaged, or otherwise denatured. “When you hunt, you’re lying in what the boar was eating,” says the chef, who incorporates flora from the animal’s natural habitat into the dish, whether it’s chickweed, grape leaves, or something else. The end result is no doubt screaming with local flavor, all because a chef hid in the grass for several hours with a weapon. “It’s a source of inspiration,” says McNaughton. Considering his menu changes nightly (and reads like a day-by-day update on local product), we’d have to guess McNaughton is pretty stirred up by what he’s lying in.

Farm Raised and Wild?

But there’s also a contingent of chefs who, owing to the irksome legality question, source from USDA approved farms and ranches for wild game. Oxymoronic as it may sound, farmed wild game is a legitimate industry, supplying most of the nation’s restaurants with thousands of pounds of federally-approved game.

For his part, Morrow has sourced from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas, one of several wild game ranches that strive to mimic “wild” conditions to maintain gaminess. “They have 800,000 acres,” says Morrow. “They let the animals pretty much roam. It’s as wild as you can get.” Broken Arrow does everything it can to leave the animal totally stress-free until the moment of slaughter (an apparently gentle concession that's largely just meant to keep the meat from getting tough). “They’ll shoot it from the air,” says Morrow. “And they drive a mobile walk-in to the kill with an inspector on-board and break it down right there.” In fact, the ranch has been using mobile units since 1983, leaving its animals happily entranced in the illusion of wilderness until heavy-duty equipment descends in a mercifully brief window of slaughter, butchery, and refrigeration.

But even this near spot-on imitation of wilderness isn’t enough for some chefs. “Most of the wild boar that’s sold in America isn’t even wild boar,” says McNaughton. “Just because they have a certain number of acres, they say it’s wild. But it’s not wild.” McNaughton accepts the risks—and trusts the experts—for the payoff of a real wild animal. Because while “95% of boar that comes from a farm will be exactly the same,” if you go hunting, “you shoot this massive beast that’s been through the ringer all it’s life and is working really hard, and that’s going to bring different flavor elements to it and textures to the dish.” If using ranched wild game is a compromise, it’s one that Morrow is willing to make. “I wish we could do it at the restaurant,” admits the chef, “but we can’t. Safety is the obvious concern.”

In the End, It’s About Respect

They might not share a concern with legality, but both Morrow and McNaughton believe hunting is a kind of cure for the widespread disconnect between chef and product. “I think every chef should have to slaughter at least one animal,” says Morrow, who finally succeeded in slaughtering a lamb on his second attempt (likely after getting over the “it’s so adorable” factor) and never saw a weekly delivery the same way again. “It puts it in perspective; you get one lamb, and you look back at how many lamb shanks and chops you’ve served in the past.”

Some chefs are taking steps to educate their staffs. When a friend gave McNaughton a gift of twelve live quails, the chef distributed them among his cooks. “I feel like a lot of people, even people that have been working in restaurants for ten years, wouldn’t recognize a guinea hen with all its plumage on,” says the chef. McNaughton’s quail project was one small step to end this estrangement between chef and product, one small bird at a time. “It was each cook’s responsibility to kill, pluck, age, and come up with a dish using the quail,” explains McNaughton. “All of a sudden, the quails became precious to them.”

Whether you’re looking for the flavor profile of wild animal or you want to school your commis on the sanctity of product (if only so s/he won’t overcook it again, ever), you might consider answering the call of the wild. Just give fair warning (and bring plenty of wet-naps) if you plan on dressing a buck in your friend’s kitchen.