If you ask local chef and food writer Jon Wipfli, he’ll tell you that there are two types of meat out there. First, there’s the individually wrapped cuts on the supermarket shelf, uniform and predictable—you can cook the same thing every night. The other, more interesting, meat is the kind that’s still in its original configuration. In other words, an animal.
Sometimes, for Wipfli, that animal is a pig—whole-hog butchery classes are part of his catering and cooking-education business, The Minnesota Spoon. But sometimes, it’s a deer or a moose or other wild animal.
“If you get a whole animal, you have to let that animal dictate what you’re going to cook,” Wipfli says. For example, “you can’t just cook backstrap every single time you cook venison.” Because, obviously, a deer isn’t made up of just backstraps. There’s shoulder, hindquarter, shank, neck, bone for stock, even the heart.
“I think that’s the challenge,” he says. “It adds another element to cooking that I think is pretty special.”
Special enough that he wrote a book about it, “Venison: The Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook.” In the book, Wipfli examines a few big questions that meat-eaters who care about where their food comes from often ask: How do I get started in hunting? How do I make a deer into meat? And then how do I make that meat into food? It’s Wipfli’s extensive culinary background that makes the approach possible.
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He discovered that he had a knack for cooking while working a kitchen job in college, in his hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin.
“It just kind of came naturally to me,” he says. “So I grasped onto it.” He chased cooking opportunities to a fast-paced Montana breakfast joint, then an Oregon coastal restaurant where he learned to lead and manage large kitchens, then to New York City and the French Culinary Institute and sous-chef jobs at a number of award-winning restaurants. Eventually he found himself in Minneapolis, cooking at The Bachelor Farmer and finally starting The Minnesota Spoon.
Wipfli has not been a lifelong hunter, though he grew up around hunting and has always been an outdoorsperson. “Every state that I’ve lived in, whatever there is good to do in nature in that state, I’ve kind of drifted toward that thing,” he says. Upon his return to the Midwest, hunting was a natural fit.
“I just fell in love with hunting, started taking it really seriously,” he says. “It’s a way of connecting to your past and also with nature.” And then there’s the connection with food.
“The fact that you can do that activity and then take it back to the kitchen was the biggest driver,” he says. “It’s a type of food that’s just so regional. I still find that so interesting—you can only eat that specific type of deer right there.”
With that regionality comes unique flavors as well, and a widely variable quality that folks tend to call “gamey.” Many traditional methods of preparing venison are focused on covering up that flavor, but Wipfli is focused on the opposite.
“It’s just a different-tasting meat and you have to figure out how to work with it,” he says. “People tend to cook the same types of dishes over and over. I grew up eating them—it made me want to get into cooking game differently.”
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Slay photo courtesy of Jon Wipfli; Gourmet photos by Matt Lien
One easy example to try is changing up your pairing choices with, say, a venison steak. Forget the traditional potato dishes.
“You have venison, which is a strong, irony flavor,” Wipfli says. “Try pairing that with something typically fresh and green. A light preparation, some fresh vegetables.
“Think outside the box,” he says. “Experimenting, trying new flavors, is a huge part of being a chef. For every one time I make a good dish, there’s probably four dishes I messed up getting there.”
This is a lesson he’s also applied to his hunting career—and while Wipfli’s the first to say he’s not an expert hunter, he hopes that “Venison” can help new hunters overcome some of those early challenges.
“You’re probably going to fail most of the time for a long time,” he says. “But you’ll find other rewards in the process of hunting […] and now and then, come up with something.”
Like a freezer full of meat. Which is, of course, the point of hunting, though much of hunting media and marketing seems to suggest otherwise. Wipfli is part of a growing movement in the hunting community that is working to remind us—hunters and non- alike—that it’s really about the meat. Top-quality, local, and ethically-sourced meat.
“I think it’s an important thing that’s happening right now, that people are actually talking about it,” Wipfli says. “It’s nice to see it get the thoughtfulness it deserves. I hope it’s something that keeps growing.”
“Venison: The Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook” is now available for preorder on Amazon, shipping October 1.