Chef Edward Nowakowski is up to his armpits in the bounty of a good hunt: Ducks, pheasants, quail, antelope, deer, boar, and a veritable school of trout, pike, and salmon are stuffed into every nook and cranny of his University of Memphis kitchen, hanging from meat hooks, packed into the industrial-sized freezer, and steeping in beer baths that fill the fridge.
Nowakowski, chef at the university's Holiday Inn, Fogelman Executive Center, and FedEx Institute of Technology, couldn't be happier.
This week, the Austria-born, Poland-raised immigrant will spend three days sorting through his stock provided by area hunters, local game retailer Cassidy Fine Foods, and South Dakota suppliers Pheasant Express and Steamboat Fish and Game.
After cleaning and separating the meat, he'll whisk his marinades, whip together a dozen patés and terrines, and finally get down to business: grilling, roasting, and stewing a few hundred pounds of meat for the estimated 400 diners who will attend Opera Memphis' Deers, Beers & 50 Years Wild Game Dinner, held at the Holiday Inn this Friday.
In the Mid-South, wild game is a low-cost staple for rural residents, who live off venison sausage and stews made from deer they kill themselves. At high-end restaurants like KC's in Cleveland, Mississippi, and Memphis' Erling Jensen, game is also a commodity that commands top dollar. Chefs like Nowakowski , who used to cook and eat game out of necessity -- he remembers trapping wild boars in pits in his native village of Nienadona, Poland, during a self-described period of "rough times" after World War II -- bridge the gap between both worlds, incorporating peasant know-how with all the elements of haute cuisine.
Nowakowski will cook dozens of specialties this weekend, including a Hunter's Venison Stew with Porter, saturated in a marinade of diced celery and onion, bay leaves, and a bottle of Anchor Steam. "You get more flavor with marinades, which can be heightened with the addition of juniper berries or ginger," he says, adding that you generally need to include acid, in the form of citrus juice or balsamic vinegar, to eliminate bacteria and increase the quality of the meat.
"People aren't generally used to eating wild game," he notes. "It's more lean than other meat. These animals weren't grain-fed, and they exercised a lot more than a farm-raised cow or chicken."
If you're cooking game at home, he explains, you must clean the animal as soon as it's killed, removing inner organs with a surgeon's precision. Before marinating, you must de-bone the meat and remove all veins; while cooking, you need to make sure the meat reaches an internal temperature of 176 degrees for 30 minutes.
Before tackling a wild animal on your own, however, you might want to attend the Opera Memphis dinner to see what meat you prefer.
Anneliese Hill Tyler, chairperson of the wild game fund-raiser, says that the event is a big draw for "foodies, politicos [Shelby County mayor A C Wharton serves as the honorary host], and hunters," as well as opera supporters. "We pull in all types," she says, "so we have to include a few mild dishes, like pasta, chicken, or fish."
It's also an informal occasion: Casually dressed guests (blue jeans and animal prints are de rigueur, says Tyler) will serve themselves from three buffet stations, then sup at tables festooned with camouflage fabric and camp lanterns. Opera Memphis' artistic director, Michael Ching, will make a few announcements, then bluegrass band Sorghum Hill will provide down-home entertainment for the dinner, which costs $125 per person.
"This is my heritage," Nowakowski happily proclaims. "In the old days in Poland, I would've been out hunting wild boars.
"I've been a chef nearly all my life, cooking a lot of dishes," he continues, "but nowhere I've been have I been able to cook much wild game. This dinner brings me quite a lot of pleasure."