We Talked to the Vermont Chef Who’s Putting Roadkill on His Prix-Fixe Menu
Chef Doug Paine is working with a local water quality advocacy group and Vermont Fish and Wildlife to bring meat from local hunters—and local roads—to paying customers.
Photo via Flickr user batwrangler
Fall brings cool, crisp air, a bountiful harvest, brilliant colors, and an urge to get outside and revel in nature. But while we're zipping our Subarus and Volvos around hairpin turns covered in foliage on the way to Grandma's house, the chances that we'll run into a furry friend are elevated, what with so many cars on the road and deer mating and hunting season in full swing.
We're talking about roadkill, one of autumn's less popular seasonal specialties. But rather than leaving it for the buzzards or for the authorities to dispose of it, one Vermont restaurant is serving it up hot off the pavement as part of a $75 tasting menu.
Not literally, of course, as there are many regulations one must follow to eat or serve roadkill to paying customers. But Juniper at the Hotel Vermont in Burlington, a local ingredient-driven cocktail bar & restaurant, is putting its money where its mouth is and will be taking the locally-sourced ethos to the next level when they host a dinner called "Wild About Vermont" on November 7. The menu will feature animals killed and donated by local hunters, as well as two deer and a moose hit on Vermont roads donated by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Service. Also on the menu will be goose, turkey, duck, bear, beaver, and possibly muskrat (if some local trappers come through), as well as trout, walleye, and wild salmon caught by local fishermen.
It's a bountiful fall harvest, one that naturally presents itself in a place like Vermont and that inspired Juniper Chef Doug Paine to work with a local water quality advocacy group, Lake Champlain International, as well as Vermont Fish and Wildlife to bring the animals to paying customers. The idea is to connect people with their local food sources and to think about sustainability in new ways. Proceeds from the dinner will go to children's camps run by both organizations.
Many Vermonters are used to eating game that might be considered unusual in more urban areas, but it's not so often that an event like this, where highway game are on the menu, takes place in Burlington, Vermont's biggest city. People are into the idea of eating the fall feast, and tickets to "Wild About Vermont" are selling well. Diners might encounter some novel dishes and find others to be surprisingly familiar.
"With a wild animal—with any animal really, the taste really comes from their diet. A bear out in the forest eating acorns and honey is going to taste really great, but a bear living close to people might have been eating trash, and might not taste very good," Paine told me over the phone.
"A moose eats mostly grass, so there's not too much difference between a grass-fed moose and beef in [terms of] flavor."
Vermont has an active hunting culture, as Bernie Sanders often points out. Serving foods provided by hunters allows consumers to eat local in a way they often can't. Due to regulations, most animals that hunters regularly bag—deer, goose, duck—can't be sold in restaurants, which have to rely on farms instead. Eighty-five percent of venison sold in restaurants is imported from New Zealand.
And a lot of deer meat goes to waste every year, hit by cars and left on the side of the road. State Farm Insurance estimates there were 1.25 million deer-vehicle collisions between July 2014 and June 2015 in the US, leading to more than $4 billion in damage to vehicles and causing almost 200 deaths. Some states allow people to take roadkill for eating, provided the meat is inspected and approved by a game warden. In Vermont, you are permitted to take roadkill if you quickly report the animal to a game warden and he or she gives the thumbs up. Some of the meat that is salvaged is donated to events like Juniper's, or to organizations that feed the hungry. Game wardens often take it home themselves.
"It's a good thing to do," Paine says. "Otherwise it's going to sit there on the side of the road and lead to other animals coming on the road and leading to more roadkill."
For the freeway fatalities being served at Juniper, the restaurant worked with the Vermont health department and butchered them at a facility that disinfects the animals.
"I understand the shock factor, that some people might say, 'Oh, you're scooping up some animal of the side of the road and charging money for it," Paine says. "There's really no more risk of eating this meat than eating other meat. Quite honestly, I'd rather eat roadkill than most commercially raised pigs or chicken."
On the non-roadkill menu, the beaver could be challenging for some guests. Paine says it's a good protein source, kind of like rabbit, maybe a little darker meat but very good. "It's not something that people would typically look at and be like, 'It looks great,'" Paine says. But there are a lot of them in Vermont, and it's something that fish and wildlife authorities have to deal with quite often. "There are a lot of 'nuisance beavers' that do property damage."
An old-timey delicacy is the beaver tail. "You kind of slow cook it, and there's some really nice meat in there."
Another challenge could be the moose headcheese. Paine and his team are slow-cooking a moose head until the meat is soft. They'll take the meat off and cook down the liquid that the head cooked in to make a rich gelatin sauce, mix it with spices, then press it all into a terrine.
The meal will be served family-style, so no one will be forced to eat anything they don't want to, though the popularity of a more adventurous dish will be evident by what's left over. One thing Paine expects to have extras of will be the moose.
"Just the sheer amount of meat that we got from the moose, unless people want to eat pounds and pounds of it, we'll probably have a little extra," Paine says. But he will be donating any leftovers, getting even more mileage from the animal.