Gun-toting chefs get closer to food

Oregon program sees restaurant pros as way to help popularize hunting

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AURORA, Ore. -- It was a lineup of the unlikeliest sort -- more than a dozen of Portland's finest farm-to-table chefs shouldering shotguns and taking aim.

But these culinary sharpshooters weren't firing at future menu items. They were taking aim at clay discs on a game farm, a creative effort by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to recruit a fresh class of hunters -- foodies.

No, really. Hoping to bridge the gap between the urban food scene and rural hunting traditions, the state partnered with Nicky Farm -- which raises game and cattle for Portland's burgeoning restaurant scene -- to teach some of the region's elite chefs what's really involved in getting dinner on the table.

So on a blistering Sunday in June roughly 30 miles south of Portland, Greg Denton of Portland restaurant Ox thumbed a .20-gauge shell into the flap of a black shotgun, pressed the stock to his right shoulder and pulled the trigger. Twenty yards away, through a wisp of smoke, a wounded orange clay disc dropped from the sky. All for naught, really.

"I personally will never hunt anything myself. Oh, no, no. I can't handle that stuff," said Denton, after giving a bit of a fist pump.

Still, the goal wasn't to turn chefs into hunters. Rather, the state wanted to teach them that hunting can be a humane way of getting great grub on the table. And if those chefs pass that lesson on to their customers, perhaps a new generation of hunters will be born.

Oregon isn't the only state taking a culinary approach to breeding new hunters. New Hampshire is coming at it from the other side. In September, the state will host a cooking class for hunters, teaching them everything from dressing and butchering wild game to menu planning and cooking.

In Oregon, the class for chefs began with a simple truth about hunting -- do it wrong and you could die. As in, load a .20-gauge shell into a .12-gauge shotgun and the backfire could be deadly. With the unpleasantries out of the way, the orange-clad chefs headed into the field and learned how best to avoid accidentally putting holes in one another.

From north to south was a lineup of the stars of Portland's food scene: the 2012 winner of the Great American Seafood Cook-Off standing next to a guy featured in an episode of the Food Network series "Meat & Potatoes," followed by the chef whose restaurant won pretty much every Oregon food award in 2012.

Several chefs shared Denton's reluctance to kill. Many were happy just to get a hit.

"Wooah-HOO!" shouted Corvallis chef Kimber Hoag when she nicked a disc on what was perhaps her 12th shot.

But the question persists: Why learn to operate a weapon they'll likely never use? And how can chefs who make their names with the loin, ribs, ears, thymus, pancreas and feet of animals find the actual killing part distasteful?

The answer is simple. The chefs don't have to hunt the game to love the game. In fact, in Oregon it's illegal for a restaurant to serve wild-caught game. But the closer you bring the chefs to hunting, the closer you bring the customers.

"It is kind of hypocritical," Denton acknowledged. "But the thing is, animals, they're delicious."

Chris Carriker, chef at the Gilt Club and another novice to guns, did poorly on his first shot. An instructor stood next to him, showing him how to line up the barrel with the trajectory of the disc's flight.

Ready? Instructor Jessica Sall stepped on a pedal and, "Whump!" an orange disc flew westward.

Carriker shifted his body and pulled the trigger. A miss. This repeated itself: Whump! Fire! Miss.

Each time, Carriker froze mid-arc, his meaty, tattooed right arm jerking back a few inches. The disc tauntingly floated away, unscathed. His mistake, Sall said, was in the freezing, in waiting for the disc to enter his sights. She showed him how to swing his body through the shot instead of locking into one position, matching the arc of his target.

So, he swung. And missed. And swung again.

Then, finally, the booming echo of the gunshot was met, softly, by the faraway crack of lead shot breaking off a piece of pesky orange clay. He grinned.

Carriker grew up on a farm. He's killed his own chickens and seen enough pig blood to last two lifetimes. But he does sometimes wish he could hunt and bring a little of what he shoots home with him.

"It's symbolic, killing the old-fashioned way," Carriker said.