Welcome to back to our column, hunter/gatherer, in which we showcase the resourceful—and hungry—people who gather wild food sources without the help of the grocery store. In our newest installment, award-winning New Orleans chef, John Besh, explains how hunting everything from duck to wild hogs and deer has improved his efforts as a chef, leader, and hunter.
I'm a closeted hunter. I don't want to tell people that don't understand where food comes from or don't have a relationship with their food that I enjoy the sport. They find it foreign, and are often repulsed by the idea that hunting still exists today.
When I was in high school, we used to catch wild hogs in the early morning and tie them up to fatten them on grain. It was not an easy task. I would run over to Tastee Donuts—a local donut shop chain in New Orleans—and get their stale doughnuts from the dumpster and feed them to our wild hogs. I thought this was normal. Looking back on it, I can't believe that my parents allowed me to do that. I kept thinking I would die one day from doing it. That was always the tradition.
I grew up in Slidell, just 35 minutes from downtown New Orleans—but by all means, it's out in the country. The beautifully lazy Bayou Liberty is part of a system of bayous that lead into Lake Pontchartrain, where sakalay and bass give way to speckled trout and redfish. The further into the salt waters you go, the bigger the fish you get.
To me as a young boy, this idea of harvesting whatever we had in season was what it was all about: going out in the woods, swamps, and marshes. That's how I grew up—duck hunting, squirrel hunting, deer hunting, rabbit hunting. For me, if you are going to eat meat, there's no better way of doing it than harvesting the animal, cleaning it, and cooking it from start to finish. You don't take the meat for granted.
I would run over to Tastee Donuts—a local donut shop chain in New Orleans—and get their stale doughnuts from the dumpster and feed them to our wild hogs. I thought this was normal.
When we slow-cook ducks, for example, we're making sure every little morsel of meat is being pulled off the bones. There is something I find very spiritual about it: having a connection with something that was once living and is now dead. The responsibility is on you, the cook, or the person that's harvested this to make sure that it's honored. I grew up with that ethos, but as a young chef, I came up at a time when it was all about how many truffles and foie gras you could put on any given dish.
It wasn't until I apprenticed for Karl-Josef Fuchs—one of the most incredible chefs in the world—in the mountains of the Black Forest, not far from Basel, Switzerland, that it all changed for me. This is the place where Spielweg has been in business since 1733. He's the sixth generation in his family to take the helm, and a Michelin-starred chef. What makes him unique is that he got away from cooking for the stars and focused on harvesting and cooking things unique to the Munster Valley where he's from. It's the breadbasket of Germany and the warmest part of the country, so there's a great growing season. It's right on the French-Swiss and German borders, and his food represents it to the fullest.
He was a fellow hunter, so when he found out that I was too, he took me hunting. For him, it was very sacred and something that very few people had access to. If you were a hunter, then you could bring the game in and have the equivalent of Germany's USDA come and inspect the meat, give it the stamp of approval, and serve it to your paying guests. Something that I noticed was how careful they were about managing game in the region. I love that idea of stewardship of land into the foodways.
I went on my first hunt in Germany with him. It was beautiful up there in the mountains. We were crunching through the snow and he had harvested this tiny little Roebuck deer. The first thing that he did was cut off a branch of a tannenbaum—an evergreen tree—and put it into the mouth of the deer. He said a blessing over the animal, which probably dates back to pagan times, as a token that this is one last meal for the soul of the animal. Culturally, it wasn't received as, "Wow, look at what I shot and killed," nor was it something to take pictures with. It was very somber.
All the way back to the restaurant, the way that Karl Yosef treated this wild animal moved me. He was very careful in gently handling it. He hung it up in the meat locker at the restaurant and waited for the health inspector's approval. The dairy and fish farmers in the village who could never afford to dine there came by because they knew that Karl-Josef had been hunting, so they celebrated the only parts that you eat right away: the liver, heart, and kidneys. He took the liver and carefully removed the silvery skin, sliced it thin, and touched both sides with a dab of butter in a hot pan until it was nice and rare in the center.
The old men gathered around him as he drizzled honey vinegar, candied quince, and brown butter over the top of the livers to share with them. They reveled in the moment. They huddled around to make sure that nothing went to waste, and that really planted a seed in my mind. It made me think back to my youth, when livers were discarded.
Now I understand what true sustainability is all about. It made me not just a different hunter, but a better chef and leader because I had become exposed to something that would allow me to articulate the importance that this was once a living, happy beast out in the forest to anyone who will ever work in one of my kitchens. We owe it to the world to make sure that we're honoring all of the food that we're savoring and passing it on.
I hunt just a stone's throw from my house in the marshes that lead from Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne. I can fit in a duck hunt, clean the ducks, and still manage to get to work around 10 AM and nobody ever knows the difference other than that I look awfully tired since the hunt is around 3:30 or 4 AM.
I was watching this duck perfectly flying around one second, and the next second, my dog's bringing it back to me in her mouth. For me, there's a sacred connection there. I've never once harvested an animal that I didn't feel bad about.
These ducks want to feed on the grasses that grow in these shallow ponds that are part of the salt marsh estuary network that connects the Gulf of Mexico to the fresher waters inland, which are teeming with wildlife. At that time in the morning, the entire marsh wakes up. You see the spectacular sunrise in the southeast. You're wearing waders up to your chest and you're buried into the marsh so the ducks won't see you. When it's shooting time, you can barely make out the decoys.
I was watching this duck perfectly flying around one second, and the next second, my dog's bringing it back to me in her mouth. For me, there's a sacred connection there.
I love the days when the wind is blowing really hard and the ducks are circling around, looking for shallow water. It always begins with the teal ducks, and later, the pintails and the gadwalls. We call them gray ducks. You learn at an early age to identify the different kinds because you really want to shoot the ones that taste the best. The teal are great and fly early and fast, so you have to really be ready. We shoot a lot of gray ducks because I find that they make the best gumbo. If you don't get enough teal then you hold out for the gray ducks; and in the meantime, you have shovelers—or spoonbills—and dogris, a.k.a. the lesser scaup. There's all these different ducks throughout the day that don't taste as good as the teal and the gray ducks, so you really hold out for them. It's the most incredible video game that one can imagine.
Once you get back, you pluck your ducks and hang them. I generally like to hang them for a day or two. I save the gizzards, hearts, and livers until I have a sizable amount and then make pâté de campagne. I like to reserve those for our annual big game dinner. This year, we had 70 people enjoying all this food from the wild.
Gumbo season is that time of year when it's cold and wet. It's duck hunting season. That's when I want to eat duck gumbo with smoked andouille and gray ducks that have just cooked until they've fallen off the bone, along with some oysters thrown in at the last minute. That's what gives it this umami brininess. Gumbo means so much more when you've gone through the process of harvesting, cleaning, and bringing the ducks home. There's so much soul to it. I find the most enjoyment in cooking these simple foods that I've harvested—more than just about anything else imaginable.