Superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will never forget his days hunting for boar with his father in the forests of northeastern Alsace, where he grew up. On these hunting expeditions, two lines of men converged on a wild pig, closing in on the animal and each other. One day Vongerichten watched as his father was shot in the arm. He was eight years old.
As shocking as the accident must have been, Vongerichten was not put off hunting. He continued to hunt with his father; his mother gave him lessons in cooking game. When he took a job at the Michelin three-starred Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace in 1973, at the age of 16, one of his first chores was to pluck and skin the quail, partridge, rabbit and venison that local hunters brought to the kitchen.
Today, Vongerichten doesn't have much time to hunt, as he's kept busy managing his growing empire of 18 restaurants. Recently, however, he took a rare mini-vacation in Texas with his right-hand man, Daniel Del Vecchio, and business partner Phil Suarez to brush up on his shooting skills. His hunting buddy was Bryan Caswell, chef de cuisine at three-year-old Bank Jean-Georges in Houston.
It was clear and sunny when the men arrived at the Rio Brazos Hunting Preserve, about 40 minutes southwest of Houston, toting provisions for the meal they'd prepare after the hunt. They had 600 acres of grassland, hills and woods filled with pine oak to themselves. In this setting of immense beauty, their guide, Robert Young, reminded the chefs of the seriousness of the sport: Keep your gun "open" unless you're preparing to shoot. (Make sure the shell chamber is disengaged, so you can't accidently fire the gun.) Never shoot a bird on the ground; shoot when it's above the horizon. (It's hard to shoot another hunter when you're aiming up in the air.) Wear an orange vest. Don't shoot the dogs. Don't shoot the guide.
"I was nervous," Vongerichten admitted. "I only touch a gun every five years."
Caswell was more confident. Like Vongerichten, the 33-year-old chef had grown up hunting. Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, to Cajun parents, he went on his first hunt at age five and got his own shotgun at eight.
From his father and his father's friends, all hunters, Caswell learned butchering. "I could work a knife before the age of eight," he said. This skill helped him get into restaurant kitchens and move up quickly through the ranks. Soon he was cooking around the world. A veteran of Jean Georges in New York and Dune, Vongerichten's restaurant at the Ocean Club in the Bahamas, Caswell arrived at Bank in 2004, where he began to do "Gulf Coast Jean-Georges," he says. His slightly smoky grilled oysters with crispy greens and roasted jalapeño vinaigrette, served on a plate rimmed with salt and brown sugar, is a good example. The pairing of sweetness and heat reflects Vongerichten's love of Asian flavor combinations.
For Caswell, the day at Rio Brazos was really about hanging out with his mentor and showing off Texas. He also enjoyed the companionship of his dog, The Dude, a liver-colored pudelpointer, who sleeps in bed with him and his wife. "The conversation was all about the dogs and the scenery. No restaurant stuff," he said. "It's so serene out there. The only time I don't think about work is when I'm fishing or hunting."
Vongerichten couldn't stop talking about the dogs: "Without them you'd never see the birds on the ground. The dogs do all the work." They hunted with three: The Dude, to "point" the birds (indicate their presence), and two of Young's dogs as retrievers.
After three hours of hunting, the dogs were exhausted because there were so many birds. As part of a $395 hunting package, Rio Brazos's staff release 20 quails, four chuckars (a kind of partridge) and four pheasants—some raised at the preserve, some wild—per person. The chefs had walked 20 miles by Vongerichten's reckoning—five or six by Caswell's—and were ready to start thinking about cooking the birds. Caswell wanted to marinate the quails in a mix of garlic, ginger, soy sauce and rice vinegar, then skillet-fry them until crispy and medium-rare. "You don't want to cook them until they're well-done," he explained, because there's no fat on wild birds to keep them juicy. Vongerichten was talking about roasting pheasant with herbs and making pan-roasted endives, the leaves layered with thin apple slices. For a condiment, he imagined pungent dollops of fresh horseradish.
After the hunt, the Rio Brazos staff usually plucks and cleans the birds. But back at the preserve's clubhouse, Vongerichten did it himself. He had a record to beat, his own, as a 16-year-old cook, when he could pluck a bird in 10 minutes. Some things Vongerichten will never forget.