Idaho has more than 500 wildlife species, but don’t count on any of them landing on local restaurant tables. In an ironic twist of definitions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t consider “wild game” to be meat or poultry. The USDA oversees all commercial food inspection to ensure public safety, but under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Product Inspection Act, wild game is not “amenable to mandatory Food Safety and Food Service Inspection.” Without government inspection, wild game is essentially banned from commercial sale.
So where does the elk and duck and rabbit on local restaurant menus come from? When diners order “wild game,” they’re getting farm-raised, USDA-inspected game. It may not be wild, but it is game; that is, meat and fowl outside of domesticated cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and turkeys. And some game farms do their best to emulate conditions in the wild for their animals, from what they graze on to how they’re harvested.
Demand from an increasingly game-hungry public has risen in the past decade for various reasons—an upswing in availability of farm-raised game, more adventurous eaters willing to step out of their beef and chicken comfort zone—but the most compelling one may be simple math. According to game cookbook author Rebecca Gray, beef contains roughly 214 calories and almost 10 grams of fat while venison contains only 159 calories and 3 grams of fat, based on a 4-ounce serving size. All other things being equal, it is healthier to consume game than commercial feedlot beef and pork.
Food wholesalers are key to bringing quality game to chefs and to markets. Mountain Pride is a Ketchum-based food distributor specializing in game and seafood. “This was strictly a meat and potatoes town back then, not like Aspen or Vail,” said Mountain Pride owner Stuart Siderman. Part of his impetus to set up shop 18 years ago was to bring a better quality and wider variety of game and seafood. “Now we sell to pretty much every restaurant in the Valley. We find the best quality for the price for our customers.”
Kate Metzger, executive chef of il Naso, said cooking with game presents challenges, but for a chef, that’s the draw. She keeps an elk chop on the menu year-round and, come winter, “wild boar” lasagna returns along with a smattering of other game specials. Rabbit, in the hands of Metzger, takes a spin in the braising pan with prunes, olives and capers. “[Preparing] game can be tricky,” she said. “You have to pay attention when you’re cooking it,” because of the lack of marbling and surface fat compared to domestic counterparts. It’s easy to go from tender to tough. Take, for example, her elk chop with bitter cocoa sauce and poached quince. “The chop is done in a pan on the stove to sear, but the heat isn’t up as high as it would be for a pork chop or steak. It needs lower heat because it’s so lean; otherwise, the crust gets leathery and shrinks. You need to be gentle with game.”
Doug Jensen, executive chef at Cornerstone Bar & Grill, has been cooking game for years, although he isn’t a hunter—unless you count wild mushrooms. He may not pull the trigger, but he knows his way around big game in the kitchen. His elk burger is a favorite of il Naso’s Metzger. “I might do an elk chili for winter instead of a burger,” he said; that is, if the natives don’t revolt. Duck confit will make an appearance, too, in the form of a French cassoulet, but with an Italian twist—a nod to his early culinary career at an award-winning Italian restaurant in Salt Lake City.
Scott Mason (Ketchum Grill, Enoteca and Town Square Tavern) has a truly unique perspective on game among Valley chefs. More than 20 years ago, he would pick up extra work between seasons as a game cutter for a now defunct butcher shop in Bellevue. He butchered an interesting array of animals brought in by hunters, including, once, a bear. “No one else wanted to do it. It’s awful, stinky stuff,” he laughed. In addition to serving farm-raised game in the form of seared duck breast with huckleberry sauce, or some version of elk loin with honey-glazed cranberries, Ketchum Grill has cooked game that hunters have brought to the restaurant. Mason isn’t permitted to charge them for the dish, although he can tack on a fee for the service. “For us it’s a great thing, because it’s usually in slack season and the kitchen has time to give effort to the game,” he said.
Ordering game at restaurants isn’t the only way to get a fix. Atkinsons’ Market carries a small selection of game for home cooks, mostly ground bison and steaks, and occasionally elk. Bart Lee, seafood manager and an avid hunter himself (he plans his vacation around opening day of hunting season), said with a week or so notice, they’ll source specific cuts and a wider variety of game. A lifelong hunter, Lee has some insider tips on how to cook game at home. Hint? Think smoke. Ask him and he’ll be happy to share. He has years of experience cooking from his hunts.
Wild game is integral to mountain culture, but farm-raised game ensures everyone who wants to, can taste it. Order it in a restaurant, buy it at a grocery store to cook at home, or sidle up to your favorite hunter for some truly wild stuff—no matter which way you go, it’s game on.