Chefs on the Range
A Hill Country hunting trip gives four big-city cooks a chance to stalk exotic game and upgrade the average bunkhouse meal.
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It’s a cool, sunny afternoon in late fall, and Dean Fearing, one of the better-known chefs in America today, is cruising in a Jeep with businessman Mike Hughes and chef Robert Del Grande, hoping to get a shot at something on Hughes’s Broken Arrow Ranch, west of Kerrville.
Blond and fair, Fearing has eyes that almost seem to pop out of his head when he is enthusiastic about something. He leans forward in the Jeep, the better to see what game might be lurking on the sides of the rutted ranch road. Clutched in his hand is his deer rifle, a Marlin .30-30. It was a gift from his staff at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.
Hughes, a burly, blue-eyed man in Levi’s and work boots, is driving. A Tennessee native, he once operated the London branch of a deep-sea-diving company that serviced off-shore oil wells. While in London, Hughes was struck by the amount of game consumed in Britain and on the Continent when little was available commercially in the United States.
Eight years ago, Hughes decided to take a less active role in the Houston-based diving business and spend more time with his family. He retuned to Texas, where he owned a portion of Broken Arrow, 6,000 acres of rocky, wooded Hill Country in three pieces of land, with 4,150 acres on the West Ranch, on which the group is hunting. At Broken Arrow and other ranches that belong to the Texas Wild Game Cooperative, a private corporation that he helped establish in 1983, Hughes harvests exotic game, and the meat is marketed under the Broken Arrow label to specialty food stores and restaurants.
Every year Hughes invites chefs from around the country to Broken Arrow for a few days of hunting—good business and a good time for Hughes, who admires chefs and enjoys food enormously. Today Del Grande, the chef at Cafe Annie in Houston, rides in the backseat. He doesn’t hunt. He just spots game and counsels Fearing. “I’m Dean’s patience,” he says. Del Grande is more contemplative, less excitable, than Fearing. It’s a nice play against type, for Del Grande is Mediterranean in appearance, a kind of elongated Dustin Hoffman. Del Grande has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and other chefs seem a bit in awe of him.
On Sunday, Fearing and Del Grande had driven out to Broken Arrow for the hunt. It’s Wednesday, and so far Fearing has had no luck. On previous hunts, he has fared better, taking deer and a wild boar. Before starting this tour of the ranch with Fearing and Del Grande, Hughes dropped off two other chefs—Jim Severson of Dakota’s in Dallas and Robbin Haas, formerly of Loews Anatole in Dallas –– who have elected to hunt from green-painted plywood blinds that offer a view of the areas frequented by feeding deer.
As the Jeep rolls along, animals skitter out of the way. There are native whitetails, mostly does and small bucks, as well as some of the exotic breeds that are Hughes’s stock-in-trade: spotted red axis deer, fallow deer, and black-buck antelope. Hughes keeps up a running commentary of instructions for Fearing. They spot an axis buck, but Hughes vetoes the shot: “Nah, that’s too small. Don’t shoot one that small. We’ll see a bigger one. If you get a shot, crank another round in the chamber right away.”
In the camp house a sign reads, “Please don’t shoot the spotted deer! Axis deer have spots just like Bambi. Don’t shoot the axis.” But Fearing has his host’s blessing to shoot an axis, and after a while another axis buck, a monster, appears about 175 yards away to the side of the road. Fearing can’t see the deer, which holds perfectly still. Hughes whispers frantically, “Right there, just to the right of that little tree. Can’t you see those antlers?” He can’t, until the buck bolts, but there’s no chance of hitting a moving deer at that range, so Hughes tools the Jeep down a track he considers likely to intercept the path of the buck. They glimpse the buck again briefly through the cedars. Then it’s gone. A walk through the cedar brake where it disappeared is to no avail. Hughes is sanguine: “That was a nice buck, but we’ll see another one.”
They don’t. A tour of likely spots as the sun and the temperature drop turns up only does and a few far-off, fleeing bucks. Finally, there is too little light for decent shooting, and the open Jeep is too cold, so the hunters return to the camp house. Another group, not chefs, but hunting buddies of Hughes’s from Tennessee, has come inside. They stand around the camp house, watching the chefs—Robbin Haas is back from his blind, but not Jim Severson –– as they begin to address the really big question: What’s for dinner?
The camp house living room has a massive concrete-block fireplace where the Tennesseans congregate. Its mantel is a clutter of cheerfully macabre memorabilia of past hunts –– bones, skulls, antlers, and hides. Behind a tall counter at one end of the room is the kitchen. A long table runs down the wall perpendicular to the counter. The kitchen has two refrigerators and two stoves. “How many hunting camps do you know that have a stove for the saucíer and one for the pastry chef?” chortles one of the chefs.
There’s not a lot of working room on the countertop, which is strewn with boxes of food, but the chefs sort things out without much trouble. They plunder the pantry cupboards, opening jars and sampling contents (“Not a bad little commercial barbecue sauce”). They bone-out and roast haunches of black buck from a Broken Arrow package and put a rub made from every spicy thing in the kitchen on a saddle of nilgai antelope, which will be basted with a mix of olive oil, soy sauce, molasses, vinegar, and honey. All the while, they nip at smoked wild boar ham and leg of wild lamb. Their pleasure in food—in cooking and in eating—is a delight to watch.
The evening’s menu begins to take form. It includes some leftover gumbo and jambalaya made the day before by a group of Cajun chefs from a Louisiana country club, and what Haas and Del Grande call Dean’s hundred-ingredient beans. Fearing will make jalapeño Jack spoon bread and a grilled onion-and-carrot salad in balsamic vinaigrette with rosemary from Hughes’s herb garden. The meat will be grilled over oak and served with a pumpkin-seed mole, prepared by Del Grande, and a smoked-chile barbecue sauce.
Just at dark, there’s a stir outside. Jim Severson comes in with an eleven-point whitetail buck that materialized in front of his blind. Hughes asks if this is his first deer, and Severson’s no saves him from the ritual baptism in buck’s blood. Everyone admires the deer, and Severson gets to tell how he made the kill.
The visiting Tennesseans are a little bemused by the chefs’ activities but gradually come to realize that they have happened onto a good thing. Most hunting camp food is fairly Spartan, but they are about to eat a camp dinner cooked by four of the best chefs in Texas.
Fearing cuts corn from the cob to add to his spoon bread; someone else peels carrots. Del Grande is reducing almonds to dust two at a time with a kitchen knife for his almond-and-black-pepper pound cake (the other chefs call it a five-pound cake, then a ten-pound cake, as more and more ingredients are poured into the bowl.) The chefs are graceful. They are profligate in the eyes of a home cook: Chop a little from the green end of the scallions and pitch the rest; take the biggest slices from the inside of a tomato and discard the ends.
Finally it happens. Dinner is served. Wine corks are drawn, and glasses are filled. Hungry men jostle through a line, load plates to the very edges, eat it all, and do it again. The meat is heavenly, smoky and with a flavor reminiscent of Mexican grass-finished beef. Mere carrots and onions could never be this good, redolent of rosemary in Fearing’s tangy vinaigrette.
The chefs urge more food on people, beam, and tuck it in themselves. The pound cake, topped with a caramel sauce, is a rich end to the massive display. Brandy and a 23-year-old Guatemalan rum are passed around as the diners groan happily, their hands spread over drum-tight bellies.
After dinner, things wind down. Hughes tells deep-sea-diving stories and tales from his travels. The Tennesseans talk hunting. The chefs talk food. When Jim Severson anticipates what he’ll cook for breakfast, one of the Tennesseans responds, maybe feeling a little guilty, “Oh, man, you don’t have to do that.” Severson turns to the chef next to him and says, “They don’t understand. I like to cook.” One by one, the men drift off to their bunks. They’re keeping hunting-camp hours, and four-thirty isn’t that far away. The last audible noise in the camp house is the chefs’ whooping with laughter in their room, sounding for all the world like boys at camp.
Broken Arrow Ranch Brand venison is available at Simon David, Tom Thumb, and Whole Foods Market in Dallas and Austin; and in Houston at Belden’s Supermarket, Rick Epicurean Market, and Whole Foods Market. Call Broken Arrow Ranch at 1-800-962-4263 to mail-order venison. The low-fat meat can be grilled like beef or substituted for beef, lamb, or pork in most recipes. To prevent venison from becoming dry when broiling or grilling, reduce the cooking time and baste the meat frequently. IN recipes that call for braising or stewing, extend the cooking time to allow the venison to tenderize. Although San Antonio chef Bruce Auden wasn’t along for the hunt, one of his recipes is provided below.
Pat Hathcock is an Austin writer. Chefs on the Range featured in Domain, January/February 1990