In Texas, native, hoofed ruminants—white-tailed and mule deer—are held in a public trust, meaning they are owned by the people of Texas. It is illegal to sell the meat of those animals in a restaurant, so if venison is on the menu, it is exotic—and probably from Broken Arrow Ranch.

Established in the 1980s, Broken Arrow Ranch is headquartered in Ingram, in the Hill Country. The company sells blackbuck antelope, nilgai antelope, axis, and other game to more than eight hundred restaurants across the country. One of its notable clients is the French Laundry in Napa Valley, which has three Michelin stars.

But the road to getting Texas’s wild game on menus has been a nearly one-hundred-year journey.

In the early 1900s, Caesar Kleberg was a ranch foreman on the King Ranch’s Norias division in South Texas. He noticed the native game population was depleting at a rapid rate and implemented major hunting restrictions on turkey, quail, and white-tailed deer on his 237,348-acre segment. In 1924, Kleberg released nilgai antelope from southern Asia—the first known release of exotics in Texas—on the property. In the 1930s, ranchers in the Hill Country followed this trend by importing other exotics, such as axis (India), blackbuck antelope (India and Pakistan), fallow deer (Europe and Asia Minor), and sika (East Asia).

Inevitably, the high fences of the ranches failed and some of these animals escaped to roam unencumbered. Currently, the Exotic Wildlife Association in Kerrville estimates there are 1 million exotic hoof stock in Texas, the most of any state. Blaise Korzekwa, white-tailed deer program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife, estimates that the axis population constitutes 200,000 of that million, and the nilgai population is about 25,000, according to Eugenio “Chico” Barrera, the Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist for the South Texas district.

In the late 1970s, entrepreneur Mike Hughes would find a way to create a market for the meat of these animals. In 1976, Hughes purchased a ranch in the Hill Country stocked with exotics. His plan was to use the land for family vacations and hunting trips for employees and clients of his company, Oceaneering, a global firm that specialized in engineering services for extreme environments.

Hughes knew the meat from axis deer was very good, so he harvested an axis off his ranch and vacuum-sealed a ham from one of the hind quarters. He was not an avid deer hunter. He packed the parcel in an Igloo cooler and hopped on a plane to New York City. He walked along Fifth Avenue and talked his way into several Manhattan restaurants he’d read about in Food & Wine, such as the Four Seasons and Lutèce. He asked each chef if they would put his exotic protein on their menus. Some were apathetic, but a few were intrigued. That was all the market research Hughes needed. He was going into the venison business.

The first hurdle for his company, Texas Wild Game Cooperative (it changed to Broken Arrow Ranch a few years later), which he founded in 1983, was getting the game inspected and processed so the meat could be sold commercially. Trapping and transporting these free-roaming animals to a brick-and-mortar processing facility would impact the quality of the meat. Hughes developed the first government-inspected mobile processing unit, so the animals could be harvested in the field and processed on site. He paid to have a state meat inspector, working under USDA guidelines, to be on site and inspect each deer or antelope harvested.

In 1987, Hughes worked with Texas Department of Agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower and Representative Rick Perry to pass a bill that established exotic game as livestock and property of the landowner. Hughes wanted it well-established that these animals were separated from native deer and their public trust classification. It also allowed ranchers an ag exemption if they had exotic deer and antelope on their property for the purpose of food and fiber, the latter meaning their hides.

Just as Broken Arrow Ranch started sourcing domestic venison, the burgeoning Southwest cuisine movement was going from simmer to sear in 1984, and a group of young, maverick chefs were looking for locally sourced products to define Texas.

At that time, Robert Del Grande, the chef at Houston’s Café Annie, Dean Fearing, the chef at Agnew’s in Dallas, and Stephan Pyles, the chef and owner at Routh Street Café in Dallas, were the faces of the movement. They were also early customers of Broken Arrow.

“You know, Dean and Robert and I were sort of the Texas guys that were at the forefront of the renaissance of American cooking back in the early to mid-eighties,” Pyles says. “Our mission was to develop local purveyors and local tastes. It was farm-to-table before it had a name.” Pyles featured blackbuck antelope, his favorite of Broken Arrow’s meats, in those early days at Routh Street Café. “It created a menu that really was the essence of Texas.”

Alexandra Gates, the chef and owner of Cochineal in Marfa, prefers nilgai. “I have it on the menu every week,” she says. “I love it as a tartare or carpaccio.” Gates’s mother is from Switzerland, so she pays homage to her heritage in a dish called Züri Geschnetzeltes. The dish normally utilizes veal, for which Gates substitutes nilgai. She lightly dredges it in flour and then pan-fries the meat in butter and places it atop a white-wine-infused mushroom cream sauce with either homemade egg noodles or a potato pancake.

“I view game as an integral part of our local food system,” says Jesse Griffiths, chef and owner of Dai Due in Austin. He started using Broken Arrow venison back in 2008, when his restaurant was a pop-up at the farmer’s market serving venison sausage with biscuits and gravy. “[The meat is] treated with so much care that the consumer will never know about,” Griffiths says. “When people eat something from Broken Arrow, it gives them a very positive impression of what game is.”

Wild Game on the Menu? You Might Have This Pioneering Texas Company to Thank for That.
Broken Arrow Ranch’s mobile processing unit, where animals can be harvested in the field and processed on site.Courtesy of Broken Arrow Ranch

I reached out to Chris Hughes, who purchased Broken Arrow from his dad in 2010, to see how their meat is harvested. He invited me to one of their nilgai harvests on a 240,000-acre ranch in South Texas.

I hatched this idea to go from harvest to ranch to plate. The nilgai harvest was on a Thursday, so I made a reservation for the following Saturday at Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine in Fort Worth. Owner and chef Jon Bonnell has first-hand knowledge of Broken Arrow’s process. He has a family ranch in Tarrant County with blackbuck antelope on it. Their population grew to the point that he needed to cull some, so he called Broken Arrow. They harvested thirteen blackbuck, processed them on site, and aged the meat at their facility in Ingram. They sold the meat back to Bonnell to serve in his restaurant.

“When the server comes to the table and says, ‘Our special is a wild blackbuck harvested off the chef’s ranch,’ it’s sold,” Bonnell says. “It went over exceptionally well.” I told him my plan, and he responded, “Just let me know when.”

The harvesting day began at 4:30 a.m. in Kingsville at a Holiday Inn Express. I followed Chris in his Ford F-150 south for about thirty minutes. We checked in with a guard at the entrance of the ranch and drove another half hour down a caliche road next to a line of turbines swooshing in the dark sky. We arrived at the mobile processing trailer just as the sun started to rise. There were two trailers positioned in an L configuration, one being the processing area and the other being a large walk-in cooler. Chris told me the goal was forty animals that day.

The nilgai’s natural predator is the tiger, and it has the largest flight zone of any animal. They start to run when you breach a two-hundred-yard radius. As we were chatting, I heard the thump of helicopter blades. The small four-seat helicopter with its doors removed landed nearby. Cody Smith, the shooter, loaded the suppressed AR-15 Bushmaster rifle. Pilot Jay Smith entered the right side of the helicopter and Cody—with the AR-15 in hand, a green neck gaiter pulled over his mouth and nose, and his cap pulled down—entered the left side. He sat at an angle halfway out the helicopter’s opening with the rifle cradled in his lap and his boots perched on the step just above the helicopter’s skids. On the ground, I watched his soles rise with the helicopter.

We waited until we got the call over the radio. Two flatbed dually trucks with elevated cable hoists in the back took off, and we followed in Hughes’s F-150. “We get some pushback that these animals are on ranches, [so] they’re not wild animals, and that’s just not true,” Hughes says. “We’re on a ranch that’s nearly the size of Rocky Mountain National Park. If the elk in that park are wild, then these animals are wild.”

When we arrived, the truck drivers were already at work collecting three deceased nilgai. At this stage of the harvesting, they pierce an artery in the neck of the animal to expedite the bleed-out. A battery called a Tenderbuck sends an electrical current through its body to pump out more blood. This process insures a more tender product in the end.

As the truck drivers hoisted the remaining nilgai on the flatbed, I hopped in the helicopter to look for more. The ranch is majestic, with the Gulf of Mexico visible from the cockpit windows.

I suddenly heard Jay’s and Cody’s muffled voices on my headset. Everything was so loud; I couldn’t make out the communication. Jay veered the helicopter to the left and gave chase to a running nilgai. Cody leaned out with the rifle and . . . poof! Everything happened at warp speed. Between the thump of the helicopter blades and the suppressor, the only way I knew Cody took a shot was that the nilgai dropped instantly.

When I got back to the mobile processing trailer, the skinning crew was hard at work. The animals moved across an assembly line. The first two skinners laid the animal in a cradle and removed the skin and hooves. The body was hoisted out of the cradle and moved to the final two skinners. They eviscerated the carcass, removing the kidneys, liver, and heart. The inspector for the Texas Meat Inspection Agency thoroughly went over the organs and cut the heart in half to check for parasites. He marked the animal with a Texas-shaped blue stamp. Back at the processing facility in Ingram, they age the whole carcass for three to five days and then cut it into bone-in quarters and saddles and age the meat for another 21 to 30 days.

My wife and I arrived at Bonnell’s for a 5 p.m. reservation. (To be clear, the nilgai I saw being harvested was not what was on the menu that evening.) I eavesdropped on a nearby table as the server described the nilgai special and left the table to their decision. I heard the couple debating about what South Texas antelope is. I wanted to go over and tell them all about it, but I decided to mind my business.

We started with the nilgai carpaccio with fried capers, micro radish, caperberries, and lemon-basil aioli. The meat is incredibly delicate and clean. For the main course, I ordered the nilgai, which was cooked by executive chef Kobi Perdue. The nilgai tenderloin was prepared sous vide to 127 degrees; rubbed with Dijon mustard, fresh tarragon and thyme, and white pepper; wrapped in smoked bacon, and then seared. It was accompanied by a white-wine-and-Dijon sauce, parsnip puree, and roasted brussels sprouts and apples.

It was the most amazing meal I’ve ever had. I was slightly worried that seeing the process might turn me away from nilgai, but it made me appreciate it more.