Great chefs are always hunting for delicious, local ingredients. Jesse Griffiths takes that quest more literally than most. “I love eating what I kill,” he says.
Griffiths is chef-owner of Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club, a game-centric restaurant in Austin, Texas, where signature dishes like wild boar confit and grilled quail have earned national acclaim. And he’s not the only hunter-chef putting game on the menu. Thomas McNaughton, of Flour & Water in San Francisco, hunts wild boar on weekends and offers upscale boar dinners at $200 a head. Chef Tim Love owns a Texas hunting ranch; at his Fort Worth restaurant, Lonesome Dove Bistro, he showcases elk sliders, venison carpaccio, and wild hog barbecued ribs. And a flurry of new cookbooks — including Griffiths’ Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish and Hank Shaw’s Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast — are helping home cooks make the most of these wild tastes and textures. “The big attraction is how clean and lean these meats are,” says Shaw, whose blog, Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, won a 2013 James Beard Award. “And it’s impossible to factory farm most of them, so you can feel good about eating them.”
A lifelong fisherman, Griffiths, 40, began stalking his dinner with a rifle in his midtwenties. He’d been cooking professionally for several years, staging his own locavore pop-up dinners around Austin. Then a friend took him dove hunting. “We plucked and grilled them whole,” he says, “and I was hooked.” Soon Griffiths’ home freezer was filled with enough small birds, venison, feral hog, and rabbit to feed him all year. Game, he found, has a much more interesting and diverse taste than commercially grown pork, poultry, and beef. When he opened Dai Due in 2006, he was determined to share these flavors with nonhunters.
Most of the game served in restaurants is raised humanely on farms and ranches. And it isn’t necessarily more expensive — a three-pound elk loin costs $120, about the same as a pasture-raised beef tenderloin. But if the price tags are similar, the taste is anything but. “Elk is probably the beefiest of the wild red meats, with the darkest color and just a touch of iron-like gamy kick,” says Chris Hughes, owner of Broken Arrow Ranch, a wild-meats purveyor in Ingram, Texas. “Antelope is fine-grained and very clean-tasting, and venison has a kick of gaminess at the end.” According to Griffiths, feral hog “cooks up like a leaner and stronger-flavored domestic pig, and there’s a big range of taste based on whatever they were eating, like acorns or wild herbs.” All these meats have less fat than commodity beef or pork, so you have to be careful not to overcook them. As for game birds like quail and pigeon, Griffiths says they beat chicken on both flavor and convenience — all you have to do is toss them in a little oil and roast or grill them whole.
Federal law prohibits the sale of meat from any animal that hasn’t been killed and processed in the presence of a USDA inspector. But a work-around emerged in operations like Broken Arrow, which takes inspectors — plus a four-wheel-drive USDA-approved processing unit — along on hunts on big Texas ranches, allowing hunters to sell to chefs and consumers. So even if you aren’t given to wandering the woods in a bright-orange vest (or you aren’t friends with someone who is), these new meats are well within reach. These three recipes are extremely simple to prepare — the better to showcase the differences between wild creatures and their domesticated cousins.
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