We are featuring Q&As from our recent Food Republic Interview Lounge at the W Austin during the Austin Food & Wine Festival, including video excerpts of the sessions with host Richard Martin. Next up is Georgia Pellegrini, the hunter, chef, TV personality, travel guide and author of three books, including Girl Hunter and the recent Modern Pioneering.
Tell me about this crazy path you’ve been on. Where did it start, how’d you get into hunting, and how did you wind up here?
Well I grew up in upstate New York, on the same land that my great-grandfather lived on. So I truly feel like a New Yorker at heart. It will always be my “soul” home. But I dove headfirst into culinary school, shortly after college, after a very brief stint on Wall Street. Which I hated, and I realized okay, it’s time to see what I want to do with my life. I dove headfirst into culinary school, and I started working at farm to table restaurants. I worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the Dan Barber restaurant which is very hands on. And I also worked in the South of France, and [back in New York] at Gramercy Tavern. And it was during my time at Blue Hill that I had to kill a turkey for the kitchen. And that was sort of my watershed moment. I had grown up fishing trout and eating it for breakfast, I had grown up foraging, I had grown up getting a lot of dirt under my fingernails. But there was something about that moment in which I watched the natural, casual way in which nature treats life and death. And I realized that as a chef, I wanted to pay the full price of the meal. I didn’t just want to have the ingredients to show up at my door. I didn’t want to just fillet them or skin them or butcher them. I wanted to really start from the very beginnings.
So I decided in that moment that I really wanted to learn how to hunt. I wanted to step outside our industrial food system, which I wasn’t a fan of. And find ways to get back to the land. The land similarly to what I had grown up on. So I learned how to hunt, and that journey over field and stream was my second book which I called Girl Hunter. And you meet all kinds of crazy characters along the way, and you have recipes for squirrel and recipes for javelina. Things that most people look at me in horror when I say, but it was a wonderful adventure as a chef, because what’s so different about wild game is that every animal tastes different. Because they ate whatever they wanted. And so each new piece of meat is a new culinary adventure. And you’re never gonna expect every single piece of meat to taste the same the way you would buying it from a grocery store.
I imagine you also must come across people who are like oh, hunting, that’s so cruel to shoot an animal. And yet a lot of the people that say these kinds of things are meat eaters. So what do you say to somebody like that?
We all kill animals. Most of us have a proxy executioner. And I just decided that I wanted to pay the full price of the meal. I appreciate my ingredients so much more, the meal tastes so much better, you respect it more, I don’t waste any of it, I even use the feathers and all the parts. I’m actually wearing a piece of jewelry right now from an animal part. So I think that it’s just about having a more holistic approach and view to what food is. And what has to happen for it to come to our plate. And I don’t expect everyone to have to do it. But I do think it’s important to have that conversation and think about ways to get back to the land. Even if the land is something different for you. That’s what my most recent book is about. It’s about getting back to the land, even if that’s a patio planter or growing 25 pounds of potatoes in a garbage bag on your fire escape in New York City.
What are some of the things that you enjoy hunting personally, and what are some of the things that people should really be eating because it just tastes amazing?
Squirrel is delicious. I think it’s some of the best meat in the woods.
Really. How do you kill a squirrel?
With a shotgun. You can use a 22, which is a smaller gun as well. But usually you tree them, sometimes people use dogs. The thing about squirrel and with any animal is that you are what you eat. And so we’re used to meat tasting really uniform because they’re all fed the same food. The chicken breasts all taste the same. The filet mignons all taste the same. But squirrels feast on nuts. Acorns, pecans. And they have that natural inherent buttery texture and flavor – that mouthfeel that you don’t get with a lot of wild game because they are all athletes, they run freely, they’re a lot of dense muscle. There’s no marbling in their flesh because they’re not trapped in confined spaces. So they don’t have a lot of fat in them. That’s what I love about squirrels, is that they have that natural, buttery texture and taste to it that you don’t get in a lot of wild game. So everyone try squirrel.
I would not have expected that. How many squirrels do you need to make a meal for yourself?
I would say two per person. But you can stretch it. I have a great recipe for squirrel dumplings. I have a great recipe for braised squirrel stew. So there’s all kinds of fun things you can do. So I love that, I love wild boar. That’s a really sustainable thing to be hunting.
Because they’re a pest.
They’re a pest, they overrun farmland, they eat crops, endangered species. And their population doubles in six months. And so we’re finding them showing up into major cities just barging into people’s living rooms looking for food, and they can be aggressive. But they’re delicious. And in some cases, the government’s paying people to hunt them. But I say that we should be eating them as well, because why waste it? It’s a really wonderful, delicious, sustainable meat.
And great sausage too.
Delicious sausage! I have amazing sausage recipes for wild boar. Wild boar bacon. There’s so many great things you can do with it.
Yeah. Keeps in the freezer, right?
Totally. I have this great recipe for pork croquettes that I made out of wild boar. The possibilities are endless. We can all get behind bacon. I know people who are vegetarians except for bacon. So I feel like wild boar should be a universal thing.
Now you just said the V word. Let’s talk about that. What happens when you meet vegetarians? Or even worse, vegans? What do you say to them?
You know, the editor who bought Girl Hunter , the book, she was a vegetarian. And when we sat down to talk, we both came to a similar conclusion, which was that we didn’t like the way our industrial food system operated and we wanted to find ways to step outside of that. The only difference between us is that she realized she couldn’t do it, in terms of the killing herself, and I realized I could. And so, I find that often my food philosophy and the way I approach food is not that far off from vegetarians or even vegans. We both care tremendously about nature, the cycle of life, all of that. I just believe that if you’re gonna eat, something has to die. Whether it’s animal protein or vegetable protein. And it’s part of that cycle of life that we’re all part of, that Mother Nature intended. And I’d rather participate in it in a conscious way, rather than hold it at arm’s length.
Presented by our friends at the W Hotel Austin.