Jonathan Wipfli is a hunter, angler, and chef. After he uses his field skills to harvest wild game and fish, he employs his culinary talents to transform it into delicious meals. In his books Venison and Fish (Voyageur Press), Wipfli offers full guides to preserving and preparing dishes, taking wild-harvested protein all the way from field to table with mouth-watering results. Recipes range from easy, such as wood-fired muskie nuggets drizzled with a shallot herb sauce, to more involved, such a venison shoulder steak confit with caramelized cabbage, meat sauce, and champagne vinaigrette.
Wipfli, a Wisconsin native, trained in New York City at the French Culinary Institute and worked in a string of buzzy New York restaurants before returning to the Midwest and writing his cookbooks. While more titles are a future possibility, his author career is taking a back seat to Animales Barbeque, the popular food truck he operates at Able Seedhouse and Brewery in northeast Minneapolis. We caught him by phone as he looked forward to a fall filled with deer, grouse, woodcock, and turkey hunts.
Q | You write in Venison that you grew up in a hunting family, but you didn’t really start taking hunting seriously until you were in your mid-20s. What made you get into it at that point?
I’ve always had a passion for doing things outdoors. I was always around hunting and taking part in it, but I didn’t fully embrace it as a child and through my high school years. But moving back to the Midwest it was like, what do you do to get outdoors? And hunting was right there. There was a year where I went out turkey hunting with my buddy for the first time, and after that I just dove in and haven’t looked back since. I really enjoy the field-to-plate aspect of harvesting your own meat.
Q | Were you already applying some of your culinary school techniques to the game you were harvesting at that time?
We were doing it right away. I remember one of the first really interesting ones we did. My buddy Ben and I were out turkey hunting, and he shot a bearded hen. And she had an egg in her. So we cooked it, and his dad just thought it was the craziest thing. It kind of started there, and since then I’ve been taking traditional techniques from basically French cuisine, or some people call it new American cuisine too, and applying them to wild game. And also thinking about how wild game differs from livestock animals and treating them slightly differently with flavors and techniques. So it started small and then evolved animal by animal as I got more into hunting.
Q | What are some of those ways in which wild game differs from livestock animals?
The biggest thing is fat content. If you compare a moose to cattle, there’s infinitely more fat in cattle. Same thing with turkey or deer when compared to similar animals from farms. Since they’re more lean, you have to be more careful when you’re cooking them not to dry them out and to cook things to proper temperature. The other big thing is they have—some people love it, some people hate it—a gamier flavor. And you can do things to balance those flavors out during the cooking process.
Q | In Fish you stress the importance of properly cleaning and storing fish. Why is that a big deal?
Fish flesh is just way more susceptible to breaking down quickly. And that’s why eating fresh fish is such a sought-after thing. Just keeping fish properly iced or frozen is such a big thing. Fish can turn from fantastic to soft and smelly in a matter of days. So processing it efficiently and effectively and then storing it properly will keep your fish so much cleaner tasting.
Q | A lot of Minnesota anglers seem to be locked into a mindset in which walleye is really the only fish to catch and eat. Is
that too reductive a view? What are we missing out on if we just chow down on walleye?
Well, walleye is good, and I can kind of understand that. But man, crappies and bluegills, those things are unbelievable. And northern pike, as far as flavor goes, is right on top of the charts. I’d put a northern pike against a walleye any day. They might be a little more difficult to process and take care of because of their size or their bone structure. But once I learned how to fillet a northern, I think it’s easier than filleting any other fish. There are so many options out there for anglers. If you just stick to walleye, you’re missing out on some good bites.