Game meats come into their own on Canadian restaurant menus

By Sean Moon
July 18, 2013
Wild boar: Game meats come into their own on Canadian restaurant menus

Whether you’re a chef on the prowl for new recipe ideas, a restaurateur with your sights set on bringing in more curious customers or a health-conscious diner hunting for unique better-for-you menu options, Canadians now have more choices than ever to tame their desire for a walk on the wild side.

From boar to bison and moose to musk ox, game meat lovers in Canada have a plentiful bounty to choose from as an increasing number of adventurous restaurant owners and chefs are helping to put more of these healthy, flavourful and profitable meat dishes in front of their hungry patrons.

“When we first introduced a lot of these different game meats over 20 years ago, it was very difficult to gain any kind of excitement, but over time that has changed,’ says Mark Hills, chef and founder of game meat specialty retailer Hills Foods Ltd. of Coquitlam, B.C. “I would suggest that buffalo, venison, ostrich and similar types of game have become more common. You see these meats even on family restaurant menus as burgers. In fact, some game meats are becoming quite mainstream – certainly easily and readily available.”

Explore new territory

While it may be some time before more exotic meats such as Tibetan yak, Australian camel or wild frontier rattlesnake begin making appearances on your local quick-service menu board, it would appear that Canadians are more willing than ever to make a foray into the more traditional game territory of elk, caribou, rabbit and quail.

“I think that most of our customers are looking for something different and unique,” says Scott Vivian, chef and co-owner of Beast restaurant in Toronto. “We’ve had the opportunity to work with producers from all over Canada to bring some exciting things into the local market. Water buffalo has become very popular and wild boar has always been a big hit. We tend to sell more venison and elk in the wintertime and have even had the opportunity to serve beaver and moose at special events.”

According to some chefs, including Jeremy Charles of Raymond’s in St. John’s Nfld., part of the appeal of game meats comes from the fact that customers are becoming more interested in the source of their food and how it gets to the table. Charles says labels such as organic, natural and wild seem to be tailor-made for products like game meats.

A story behind the food

“Knowing where your food is coming from, to be able to go out and harvest an animal with the knowledge that it is wild, beautiful meat and that there is a story behind the food, there is something special about that,” says Charles. “People are becoming more aware of game across the country. It’s something that should be embraced and celebrated.”

Although novelty-seeking diners are flocking in increasing numbers to restaurants featuring these delectable proteins, health-savvy customers have also noticed game meats popping up on the low-fat, high-nutrient radar. Typically much lower in fact than their domesticated beef, pork and chicken counterparts, games meats such as venison, bison, ostrich and moose have become ever more popular due to their nutritional profile.

“When working with game meats, you get a higher protein content with a smaller portion size,” explains Mark Chandler of Black Angus Fine Meats and Game of Mississauga, Ont. “Maybe in the same way we have seen the term ‘heart-smart’ on menus for a long time, it’s a matter of educating consumers by way of menu descriptions and disclaimers. Almost every single type of game meat I know of – with perhaps the exception of wild boar – should be considered ‘health-smart.’”

An ideal choice?

The health-halo surrounding game meats isn’t their only drawing card, however. Many chefs and purveyors believe that ease of preparation and unique flavour profile makes game an ideal choice for restaurants wanting to broaden their centre-of-plate horizons.

“We try not to do too much to the meats that we highlight,” says Vivian. “We feel that it’s our responsibility to allow the true flavour of the meat to come out. Depending on the cut, we either roast, grill or pan sear the prime cuts and organ meats.  We braise the tougher cuts low and slow.”

Charles, however, believes that game meats can also present a challenge to some cooks due to their low-fat content.

“Moose, for example, is very lean, like a lot of game meats, so you have to be very careful when you’re cooking it so that it doesn’t dry out.”

Supply unpredictable

Some of the other challenges when it comes to buying and preparing game meats include regulations on the sale and acquisition of wild game, as well as the occasional supply problems that can result from the unpredictable nature of hunting and harvesting.

“There are certain government requirements such as a ‘license to purchase’ that can make it a challenge to get what you’re looking for,” says Charles. “Supply can also be inconsistent; if a guy goes out hunting, there is no guarantee he is going to come back with anything.”

Despite such potential roadblocks, restaurateurs can still benefit economically from the increased interest in game meats by consumers. Gone are the days when chicken, beef and fish were enough to satisfy a curious public. Today, diners are looking for restaurant owners and chefs to up their game.

“You’ve got to be doing something different,” says Hills. “The more adventurous, more leading-edge chefs are using game all the time. It really is a natural progression of the hotel and restaurant business. Game on the menu just seems to differentiate a restaurant from its competition. You’ve got to be doing something a little different and game meat fits the bill.”

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