Birds Gone Wild

For the birds: Wild Acres owner Pat Ebnet (left), his wife Kelli, and Goodfellow's executive sous chef Jack Riebel and executive chef Kevin Cullen
Kathy Easthagen
Wild Acres Game Farm
7443 Wild Acres Rd., Pequot Lakes

Linden Hills Meat Market
4307 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis

"Oh, Pat!" said chef J.P. Samuelson excitedly when I caught him on the phone in New York, where he was to cook for a James Beard Foundation dinner. "Chefs out here would kill to have access to stuff on that level." The stuff being outdoor-raised domestic poultry and wild game birds, and Pat being Pat Ebnet, the second-generation owner of a Brainerd-area family game farm called Wild Acres. But if you ask Twin Cities chefs about Wild Acres, they don't call it Wild Acres, they call it Pat: the guy they call to place orders, the guy who butchers his birds on a Monday, drives them down on a Tuesday, and stocks chefs' refrigerators with what many consider to be the best poultry in the state. "Actually, I think Pat's duck ranks up there with any food product in the United States," says Samuelson. "I've gotten a duck liver from some of his biggest, most aggressive ducks, and it's like foie gras: just big, gold, fattened, and rich. Chefs who can afford it buy all they can from him--Pat's one of the treasures of cooking in the Twin Cities. There's a lot you don't have, but some of the stuff you do have is just amazing." When he opens his new restaurant at Lyn-Lake (called J.P.), Samuelson says, he'll have some Wild Acres products on his menu all year round.

He'll be joining the first rank of Minnesota restaurants. After I picked up and cooked two rather marvelous Wild Acres birds at the Linden Hills Meat Market, for what I thought would be a mere Thanksgiving story, I met with Pat Ebnet at a local coffee shop. Once we got to talking about which restaurants he delivers his game and poultry to, however, I realized I had stumbled across one of those big stories that hide in plain sight. Nearly every restaurant in the Twin Cities where the chefs have a free hand to order what they want uses Wild Acres birds: Aquavit, the Napa Valley Grille, Goodfellow's, Bar Lurcat and Café Lurcat, the Loring Pasta Bar, Alma, D'Amico Cucina, Murray's, Basil's, Chet's Taverna, the Blue Point, the Saint Paul Hotel, Luci Ancora, Ristorante Luci, Campiello, and many, many more.

"Pat's got the best stuff around, for sure," says Mike Phillips, chef and owner of Chet's Taverna, in St. Paul, where he currently features several Wild Acres products--a roast pheasant ($18) with cabbage rolls; roast duck with sweet potato purée and roast Brussels sprouts; and even smoked braised pheasant leg on a pizza ($9). "He does it all himself," says Phillips. "You call him up, he butchers it and brings it to you the next day--it doesn't get any fresher than that. I mean, you can get frozen stuff most places, and I don't know what the chemistry difference is, but the difference in flavor between fresh and frozen is amazing. The difference in flavor between commercial-grocery-store frozen and fresh--one is like ammonia, chemicals, and water, the other is what it is. People say it's gamy, but they mean it has an actual flavor. Have you ever had their pheasant eggs?"

Nope. They're green, apparently, and available periodically. I have had their pheasant--and am proud to say I am quite a pheasant cooker. Who knew? All I did was brine it with honey, chili powder, and those little Mexican limes, then cook it on a bunch of tiny sweet potatoes I got from a Hmong farmer at the St. Paul Farmers' Market. Marvelous! Who knows, you might well be quite a pheasant cooker, too--or perhaps you're a kick-ass chukar partridge chef? I think about this sometimes, these uncalled-upon skills we might never know we have. For example, what if the greatest computer programmer in the history of computer programmers were twiddling her thumbs in a cave in Lascaux 40,000 years ago and wondering why she felt so bored? But then I think: No, it's probably just that the pheasant was so good, and all I did was not ruin it.

Steven Vranian, the chef at Murray's, says that brining is how he prepares the Wild Acres chickens he serves at his restaurant--with sugar, salt, juniper, bay leaves, and thyme. Before roasting the birds, he rubs them with olive oil. "People come here for steaks, but the ones that don't order steaks get a nice surprise," says Vranian, who bones out half of a four-pound chicken for the non-steak-interested and roasts it: "I notice that they have a really nice crispy skin," he says. "They're more tender, have more flavor, and don't get as chewy as the big chickens most people are used to." Then Vranian said he was glad I called, as it reminded him it was time to put up the signup sheet so staffers could place orders for Wild Acres birds for Thanksgiving. Would Vranian be cooking one of Pat's birds for Thanksgiving himself? Yup.

Joyously, you can too: or a duck, or a wild mallard, or, if you have absolutely no interest in cooking, you can order, garnish, carve and serve a Wild Acres smoked turkey. Fresh domestic turkeys cost $2.59 a pound, smoked ones $3.59; wild turkey is $6.50 a pound fresh, a dollar more per pound when smoked; pheasants cost $18 each fresh, $20 smoked; and those domestic ducks J.P. Samuelson was raving about run $3.25 a pound fresh, $4.25 smoked, or $10.25 a pound for fresh duck breast. If you want in for Thanksgiving, drop by and get your name on the list at the Linden Hills Meat Market, and put in your $20 deposit. Then, a few days before Thanksgiving, Pat Ebnet will pull up his trailer in front of the place, and some 350 of you lucky, tasteful, anti-Butterball-type-chemical-turkey haters can start ferrying Wild Acres birds home. During the rest of the non-Thanksgiving Day year, things are less formal. Simply call up Linden Hills or Ebnet, and the bird of your dreams will be delivered to the market. Oftentimes you can even meet Ebnet at some restaurant on his route and pick up your bird in the restaurant parking lot of your choice. Mike Phillips from Chet's told me of one guy who smokes Wild Acres ducks to give out as Christmas presents--so there's one idea if you're looking to wow the gals at the church cookie exchange. Generally, the schedule works like this: For fresh birds, order by Wednesday for delivery on Friday, or by Saturday for Tuesday. For smoked birds, you have to order six days out. (For last minute dinners, there are usually frozen Wild Acres pheasants and ducks in the Linden Hills freezers.) And if this article makes Ebnet and Linden Hills run out of birds for the holiday, don't blame them--all of our Thanksgiving turkeys were hatched last spring, in three batches, last July, June, and, for the biggest--25-pounders and up--last May. You think 25 pounds is big? Well, get this: Ebnet says the biggest turkey he ever raised was 72 pounds, cleaned and dressed. It was for a local hotel's Thanksgiving buffet centerpiece. Aside from the Guinness Book effect, just think about how much trust is implicit in that equation: How deep is the relationship when a chef pays that much money for a showpiece bird and trusts that, even at that dinosaur size, it's still going to be good?

And what the heck makes these Wild Acres birds so good that even a restaurant critic can't wreck them? I made a lovely, lovely wild turkey of Ebnet's, too, and I swear the thing was only marginally enhanced by the Henry VIII-like feeling I got by calling the game preserve and ordering a fowl to be executed.

Unfortunately, I can't answer why these birds are so tasty without venturing into uncomfortable, sticky-sweet Garrison Keillor territory, but you know. Just lots of good Minnesota air, sunlight, tender loving care, some Pequot Lakes-area bug snacks, and an occasional pumpkin to devour, or Christmas tree to pick apart. "Birds are just like kids," Ebnet explained to me. "Keep them warm, keep them out of drafts, and give them stuff to play with, or they'll pick fights with each other." Stuff like sod clumps, sand pens, and bundles of sorghum, millet, and corn to pick at. (Speaking of kids, the young Ebnets, six-year-old Joel and nine-year-old Kaylene, can each catch a partridge in a fishing net faster than you can say "oven thermometer.") The Wild Acres ducks swim and roam the grassy hills--they'd escape, except there's too much food around. Ebnet says in summer there are no mosquitoes at his place, because the ducks and geese eat all the larvae. But I have to say it's the pheasants that impress me the most. They live outside all year round, including that part of the all-year that comes after New Year's. Ebnet says that all they need is a few huts made out of hay bales, Christmas trees to pick apart for fun, a little snow shoveling to keep the common areas clear for snacking and hanging out, and someone to check the perimeter fence for potential coyote or mink holes. Because New York chefs aren't the only ones who would kill to have access to pheasants on that level.

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