On the Hunt for Game Meat
In 2016, Arby’s crashed into headlines by offering venison sandwiches, a limited-availability menu item that was so popular with customers, the chain brought them back in 2017 and even added elk sandwiches in some markets. The fast food restaurant’s hunt for game meat and its subsequent commercial success is a sign of America’s growing interest in protein choices beyond the standard menu options.
Some restaurants in the United States have specialized in game meat since long before it stumbled onto fast food and mainstream menus. To learn more about sourcing and serving game meat, we talked to Pete Lagerveld, executive chef at Gun Barrel Steak & Game House in Wyoming.
Wild Game at Gun Barrel
Gun Barrel Steak & Game House was established in 1993 in what was previously a taxidermy museum. It offers a lodge atmosphere with a menu that includes buffalo, elk, and venison.
“Being in Jackson Hole, Wyo., we are designed like a hunting and fishing lodge,” says Lagerveld. “It [has a] huge fireplace in the middle of the room and lots of mounts on the walls, so it’s kind of what you’re thinking when you come to Jackson Hole. We cook over a wood fire; our grill is right out in the dining room. It’s kind of a unique experience.”
Chef Lagerveld got his start in the foodservice industry in 1978 as a dishwasher, and came to Gun Barrel in 1997 as the sous chef before becoming head chef the following year.
“Basically everyone asks, ‘Where did you go to culinary school?’,” says Lagerveld. “I didn’t. I went to the school of hard knocks. I just learned everywhere I worked and I like to think I learn a little bit more every year just by doing.”
Because it is located near three ski resorts and two national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton), Chef Lagerveld and the staff at Gun Barrel have created a must-stop destination for thousands upon thousands of tourists each year. In fact, Gun Barrel is so dependent on Jackson Hole’s tourism traffic that it closes down for a month-long off-season after the parks close and before the ski areas open.
“In the peak summer season, we have 40,000 tourists a day coming through town [and] we probably do 500 dinners a night,” explains Lagerveld. “Ninety-five percent of our customers are tourists. People are here in Jackson Hole and they want to try buffalo prime rib or an elk chop.”
That means Gun Barrel serves quite a few diners trying game meat for the first time, often because it isn’t something they can find back home, and especially not at a restaurant that specializes in it. Sometimes, this means diners at Gun Barrel have misconceptions about what the game meat may taste like and how it should be served. For example, guests often fear the meat will taste too “gamey,” based on past experiences they have had with wild-hunted animals.
“I guarantee you the venison we get and serve is a lot less ‘gamey tasting’ than the stuff that’s hunted, because of what they eat, because they’re farm raised,” explains Lagerveld. “There is a gamey flavor to it but it’s not overpowering like people think it’s going to be.”
It can also be challenging to convince diners to try the meat medium-rare, instead of the medium or medium-well level of doneness they’re accustomed to ordering when eating beef.
“It is a leaner meat than beef, for sure,” says Lagerveld. “Because of the low fat content, we do not recommend cooking it past medium rare because then it does start to get tough and chewy. We’ll cook it however they want but we have a disclaimer on our menu and our servers are told, ‘If someone orders it medium or medium-well, don’t recommend it.’ If you’re not gonna eat it medium rare, you should probably try something else.”
Fortunately, the Gun Barrel menu includes options for diners who want to order something a bit more tame, including steak, chicken, salmon, and some milder wild game dishes.
“We have buffalo ribs, which are slow-roasted,” says Lagerveld. “They’re cooked all the way through, but since they’re slow-roasted like that, they’re nice and tender. Our beef rib eye, tenderloins, and either prime rib, the beef or the buffalo, are top sellers.”
When it comes to sourcing wild game, Chef Lagerveld notes the importance of using a trusted supplier and maintaining a relationship with that supplier; being able to trust the supplier is important since wild game doesn’t have USDA grades like beef. For 15 years, Gun Barrel has worked with Prairie Harvest Specialty Foods of Spearfish, S.D., which helps the restaurant ensure it serves high-quality meat.
“If I have a problem – say, ‘Hey, this buffalo’s not very good. It’s chewy, it’s fatty.’ Then he knows where he got it from,” explains Lagerveld. “So he’ll go to the ranch or he’ll just stop buying from that ranch or he’ll go somewhere else and get it. He has quality standards; he doesn’t buy from ranchers who don’t raise them the way he wants them to be raised, in other words.”
Spikes in the popularity of certain wild game meats can occasionally create some issues with supply and demand, especially since Gun Barrel may buy as much as 1,000 pounds of game meat per week.
“Every once in a while, buffalo gets really tough to come by; it just gets popular and then, all of a sudden, demand is high,” says Lagerveld. “There’s obviously not nearly as many ranchers out there as there are for cattle. All of a sudden supply is really tight [and] it takes a while to catch up.”
When this happens, Gun Barrel has to raise prices of certain menu items, but Chef Lagerveld says the customers don’t really seem to mind.
“We had about a 40 to 50 percent price increase on our buffalo just because there was a severe shortage,” explains Lagerveld. “We raised our prices quite a bit, and it didn’t even phase people from buying it. I feel like if they want to try something unique like game, they’re gonna try it and they’re not afraid to pay for it.”