A butcher class marks the welcome arrival of local deer to Northeast Ohio plates

Veni, Vidi, Venison 

A butcher class marks the welcome arrival of local deer to Northeast Ohio plates

Who in their right mind would pay $35 to watch somebody carve up a dead animal?

Apparently, more people than will comfortably fit inside Bar Cento. That's where Fresh Fork Market, a local foods provider, held its first Butcher Series event — a sell-out affair that had folks scrambling for the best vantage point. Their target?

A headless, skinless venison carcass.

Like a livestock wake — with the "deerly" departed splayed out on the chef's counter by the restaurant's open kitchen — those in attendance were not lamenting the loss but rather licking their chops in anticipation of the food to come. In addition to the butchering demonstration, host chef Adam Lambert and his team had prepared a six-course "Ohio deer and beer" dinner using meat from another venison.

And like a wake, this evening truly is cause for celebration. For more than a year, the Fresh Fork folks have been striving to offer local, farm-raised venison to its customer base of more than 3,200 subscribers. You see, despite the fact that white-tailed deer run rampant through every square inch of the Buckeye State, the Ohio Department of Agriculture had them labeled as "exotic animals," thus making them illegal for sale to restaurants and retail customers.

"It was shocking how difficult it was for us to be able to offer local venison," explains Fresh Fork founder Trevor Clatterbuck. "As far as I know, this is a first for Ohio."

Clatterbuck explained that if you don't hunt — or have family or friends who do — you probably haven't eaten Ohio white-tailed deer. What does appear on menus most likely is mule deer or elk from Colorado or even another country. Surprisingly, deer farming already is big business here, he adds — it's just that they're being raised for a different market.

"Deer is actually a huge industry in Ohio, just not for meat," says Clatterbuck. "Most are raised as 'shooters' and headed for hunting preserves. Or they're raised for breeding stock. My intent is to create a new market for venison — a meat market."

But Clatterbuck knows that just because you can offer something, that doesn't mean folks will be willing to shell out good money for it — especially when it's an unfamiliar product. The true purpose of the night's event, he says, it to educate the base.

"If I'm going to market and sell this — and chefs like Adam are going to put it on their menus — the first concern regular customers are going to have is How do I cook it? How will it taste?" he says. "Our number one goal is for people to leave here not afraid to try cooking deer at home."

That's where Lambert comes in. Knives — and hacksaw — in hand, the chef confidently breaks down the 90-pound animal into more manageable primal cuts. From there, they get further reduced to more familiar pieces and parts. Along the way, he explains how cuts just like them were transformed into the dishes on the night's menu.

"It's a learning process," explains the chef. "Once you learn how to fillet one fish, you can fillet them all. Once you learn how to break down a chicken, you can break down a duck. Once you learn how to break down a pig, you can break down a lamb. That's what this night is all about."

The "How will it taste?" question was put to bed early in the evening, too, thanks to a venison tartar dish made with raw heart and round, beets and tobacco-smoked eggs. To a man, everybody brave enough to try it was shocked it didn't taste like it came from a medieval larder. Course after course, including non-traditional venison preparations of carpaccio and porchetta, was delicious. And nobody — within this writer's earshot anyway — uttered the dreaded "G" word.

"This term gamey doesn't really make sense to me," adds Clatterbuck. "People's definition of gamey seems to be anything that doesn't taste like white meat chicken. Perhaps people's prior experience with eating deer was the result of poor handling or cooking."

Clark Pope, a longtime Fresh Fork customer, agrees. "I think it really opened up people's eyes to what venison can taste like," he says. "I probably came in tonight with a little more background knowledge then most people, but I still got a lot out of this."

As soon as next week, Fresh Fork will begin to offer local farm-raised venison to its subscription customers. It won't come in the weekly grocery "grab bag," but rather sold as an "a la carte" item online and at pick-up locations. To further goose the gander, as it were, the meat will come with information, techniques and recipes.

"You have to provide people with the manual, just like if you purchased something from Walmart," explains local-foods pioneer and Fresh Fork Chef in Residence Parker Bosley. "You can't expect your customers to want to explore if you don't lead them."

Next up in the Butcher's Series is Spring Lamb (March 20) and Pork (April 17).

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