Gourmet Gone Wild brings conservation to the table

Members of a young professionals' networking group

June 6, 2013

At first glance, it looks like any social mixer. The crowd, mostly in its 20s and 30s, is largely professionally dressed, chatting, and enjoying food and beverages. But it's at the serving table that the first clue that this is an unusual event presents itself.

The chafing trays are labeled with dishes that you won't ordinarily see at happy hour: Tuscan venison meatballs, wild turkey mole', and cedar-planked steelhead. Welcome to Gourmet Gone Wild, a cooperative program designed to give young urban professionals a taste of the wild side of food. The program is sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Boone and Crocket Club, Eagle Eye Golf and Banquet Center, and The Hal and Jean Glassen Memorial Foundation. Mary McElgum (center) and other members of a young professionals' networking group sample Michigan-harvested game and fish from the buffet at a Gourmet Gone Wild event in Lansing. (Image to the right.)

"We're introducing a whole new generation to natural resources and conservation through the cooking and tasting of wild game and fish," explained Jordan Burroughs, wildlife outreach specialist at Michigan State University. "They're young professionals - a niche demographic that we haven't traditionally reached out to."

Kati Bentley (right) holds a tray of wild turkey mole prepared by chef Dan Nelson (left).Begun two years ago in Lansing, Gourmet Gone Wild is the brainchild of Burroughs and Erin McDonough, director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The idea is to expose the whole concept of natural resources - and stewarding those resources - to 21- to 39-year-olds who might have never had the opportunity.

"They're already holding these networking events," said Burroughs, as she helped tend the beverage station at a meeting of the Grand River Connection, Lansing's young professionals association. "We just come to their events."

Burroughs - a recent convert to hunting herself - said the concept of providing local, healthful, sustainable food parallels what's going on food-wise in society.

Chef Dan Nelson prepares cedar-planked steelhead trout."It's the locavore thing," she said. "You know where your food comes from - it's hormone-free and antibiotics-free, and it's free-ranging until it's harvested.

"And it's gourmet food. There's nothing wrong with a big pot of chili, but Chef Dan takes it up a notch."

Chef Dan would be Dan Nelson, the executive chef at Eagle Eye Golf and Banquet Center in East Lansing. He's been providing the eats since the program began two years ago.

An avid sportsman, who "always had a passion for cooking," Nelson uses game and fish that's been donated - some of the wild turkey in the mole' dish came from birds he and Burroughs harvested this spring - by sportsmen interested in showing non-hunters one of the attractions of a sporting lifestyle.

"Cooking game and fish is more difficult than standard fare," Nelson said. "The meat isn't as tender, and there's not as much fat. So preparation is key. These are lean, healthy animals that use all of their muscles. But the flavors are more intense."

Nelson, who likes to spice up his meals with wild plants - garlic mustard, morels, ramps, leeks and cattails - says wild game is a lot like fine wine.

"It's a flavor profile that builds with your palette," he said. "You make it mild at first, increasingly introducing the natural game flavor."

About 75 folks were on hand for a recent event in Lansing. Almost all talked about the cuisine positively.

"We recently surveyed our membership, and this was one of their favorite events," said Brian Gallagher, a Lansing lawyer and vice president of the Grand River Connection. "The food's excellent - especially the venison."

Robert Stump and Lansing Youth Professionals board member Andrea Kerbuski at Gourmet Gone Wild.Rachel Zylstra, membership chair of the group, who works in alumni relations at Michigan State University (MSU), especially liked the venison, though she thought the other items were "very unique."

Although she's from a family of fishermen, Zylstra said she had almost no exposure to game.

"I never thought I'd ever eat these types of food," she said. "It was pretty good."

A follow-up event - Gourmet Gone Wilder - will be held at MSU's Demmer Center, giving participants a chance to learn about archery. Not many expressed an interest in becoming hunters.

"I'm content with having people share (game) with me," said Alyssa Wethington, a student assistant at the Michigan Department of Transportation who says she doesn't eat commercially produced meat. "But I'm not opposed to hunting, I just wouldn't go out by myself."

Two people eat at a table at Gourmet Gone Wild.Converting these folks to hunting is not necessarily the aim of the program.

"We're introducing people to fish and wildlife conservation through food," said Vanessa Thurgood, who coordinates the program. "It's really cool and different."

Nelson said he'd love to convert Grand River Connection members to become sportsmen, but he's not sweating it.

"If we can get even 10 percent to be interested, we'll have accomplished a lot," he said. "We'll never get this diverse of a crowd at a sportsmen's club event."

And that's the point of Gourmet Gone Wild - to introduce those who don't have mentors to the ideas of conservation and natural resources management. They don't have to hunt and fish to appreciate why others do.

To learn more, visit www.gourmetgonewild.org.