How to Make Sure the Buck – & Bison, Ostrich & Quail – Stops with You
You’ve built a better burger, flirted with fresh fish and perfected your primo pasta. What’s next in the continuing quest to pique today’s insatiably adventurous palates? Welcome to the gamification of the menu, a surprisingly affordable and accessible hunter-gatherer’s delight.
Bison, buffalo, boar, ostrich and duck are no longer outside of the box, and even exotica like yak and kangaroo can make an occasional cameo without blowing up the budget.
“Diners are looking for alternative sources of protein that are healthy and different. There’s a real groundswell of chefs driven by quality, wanting to meet that demand by using items that are not mass-produced,” says Justin Wiernasz, President, Gourmet Foodservice Group. His company has stepped up to offer hundreds of specialty products to operators looking to differentiate themselves, with meats like ostrich and wild boar, providing a particular point of divergence.
“The two trends that we’re all witnessing in foodservice — healthy and natural, and raised with sustainable practices — are integral to game meats,” explains Wiernasz. Ostrich, for example, fits neatly into the healthier eating movement with its cholesterol-free properties and rich beefy taste. In fact, ostrich is so revered by two physicians that they worked with Wiernasz to found a 100-acre blueneck breeding farm in the Florida Everglades. “We found ostrich to be the best and healthiest red meat available on the planet,” they state proudly on their website at EvergladesWildGame.com. Specifically, the blueneck ostrich, emphasizes Wiernasz, because the more commonly seen blackneck was raised for its plumage and hide, with meat not much more than an unimpressive byproduct. While admittedly an expensive item, the end result of these specially raised animals may well be worth the higher price if marketed with vigor.
“If you’re going to make this buy, it’s a huge opportunity to distinguish yourself from the restaurant down the block,” says Wiernasz. “You can charge slightly more and still be within the customer’s price point for a signature dish that they will find amazing.”
GET IN THE GAME
At Rastelli Foods Group, lamb sales are consistent but flat, and veal has suffered from bad PR surrounding the treatment of baby calves. But game is a fast-growing category, tapping into the buzz surrounding descriptors like high protein, low fat, free range and grass fed. More than 60 products span the specialty range, including New Zealand Cervena venison, buffalo, 100% Berkshire (Kurobuta) pork, duck, rabbit, game sausage and kangaroo. The key, according to John Roehm, regional sales manager at Rastelli, is educating wait staff about the many attributes of these unfamiliar meats. To that end, the company offers clients hands-on training, including “Game Nights” where Rastelli sales consultants go onsite to sample and provide selling suggestions to the service team for specialty items on the menu that night.
As a first step, venison can be an ideal entry, advises Mike Kelly, national sales director at Rastelli. Instead of rack chops, which can be heavy and expensive, he recommends that operators consider off-cuts like Denver leg. Kelly says: “With minimal knife work, you can make 6-ounce portions very cost-effectively, especially when compared to primals.” He also recommends featuring specialty meats in small plates and appetizers versus an entrée.
Venison has also been a consistently good seller at Chris Hughes’ Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas, which bills itself as an artisanal purveyor of high quality, free-range meats from truly wild animals. “Operators just need to be aware that this is a very lean meat, from an active animal that doesn’t build up a lot of connective tissue and doesn’t have fat to back it up; there’s no marbling,” he says.
He too offers waiter’s guides to help sell the memorable experience of dining on game. Included in each are the animal’s pedigree, notes on the absence of hormones and antibiotics, nutritional benefits (most contain less cholesterol than chicken, a third of the calories of beef) and any outstanding characteristics. Blackbuck antelope, for instance, is fine-grained with a delicate, mild flavor that pairs well with fruit sauces.
BUYING INTO BISON
Although it’s an animal that’s been part of the environment for thousands of years, bison herds thinned out to fewer than 700 left alive in the late 1800s. Today, bison numbers have swelled to almost half a million in North America, responsible for $280 million in business to restaurant and retail industries. “That may seem small,” admits Dave Carter, executive director, National Bison Association, “but we’ve made a conscious decision to remain a niche and not become a commodity item.” Nevertheless, Carter has begun to write bison’s next chapter by working with ranchers to expand their herds and recruiting new producers to keep up with growing demand. In the last decade, interest in bison has surged, encouraged by Ted Turner’s Montana Grill at one end of the spectrum, and buffalo burgers from a food truck at the other end, he says.
“Beef does the best job in the world of being beef, so we don’t want to be another beef. But what we’ve found is that when people get their first taste of bison, the next question is always ‘where can I find some more?’” says Carter. The flavor is akin to fine beef, but slightly sweeter and richer. Bison also outdoes beef on the nutritional scorecard. The very definition of a nutrient-dense food, bison packs in a notably high iron content, a storehouse of essential fatty acids, all with less fat and fewer calories per ounce than beef, chicken or pork.
The only caution involved when welcoming this beast into your kitchen is remembering that this very lean piece of meat cooks much more quickly than beef. “If you order a well-done bison steak, you may as well eat your shoe!” laughs Carter. And remember, there’s no need to do anything fancier than just cook it up in a bit of olive oil to seal in the juices and season with salt. “Don’t cover up the taste,” says Carter, “let it carry the day.”
Where the Wild Things Are
A quick guide to the wild game world
This alternative to pork boasts a sweet, nutty, intense flavor. Boar can be as easy to prepare as any other cut of meat and twice as impressive. Try: a whole wild boar leg. Cook for several hours over low heat to break up the connective tissue of the muscle and create a tender meat; fatten up its profile with a few strips of bacon arranged over the leg while roasting.
Cook medium rare for best flavor and tenderness; cut into steaks, medallions, noisettes, chops, cutlets or kebobs. Try: appetizers such as venison osso buco, small venison chops and venison quesadillas.
Don’t overcook this lean, dry meat. Quail is ready to serve when the meat is slightly firm to the touch, similar to the feel of a cooked chicken breast, and its juices run clear. Try: buttermilk-fried quail, dredged in a mix of seasoned salt, minced garlic, flour, buttermilk and hot sauce.
Cuts are identical to beef, but all cook much faster because of the leanness of the meat. “Use tongs for turning the meat and keep those wonderful juices in the steak,” says Dave Carter, National Bison Association. Bison steaks taste best when grilled to rare or medium (still pink in the center). Try: bison chili, kabobs, burgers or a grilled bison rib-eye, T-bone or New York strip steak.