An Interview with Chef Georgia Pellegrini.
Georgia's Recipe: Whiskey Glazed Wild Turkey Breast
Chef Georgia Pellegrini’s passion for good, simple food began at an early age while fishing for trout in upstate New York. She grew up on the same land that her great-grandfather owned and worked: a farm called Tulipwood in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her connection to nature stayed with her through college. After a brief foray into the corporate world of finance, she enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
While working at farm-to-table restaurants, Pellegrini realized she was most interested in the foragers, fig collectors, and salami makers who arrived to the restaurants with their goods. In addition, at one of the restaurants she was to slaughter and butcher a few turkeys for the dinner service. It was then that she realized the true connection to her food and began to hunt. Her purpose became to know and understand where her food was coming from—whether it is from field or stream.
As she explored hunting, she started writing about her experiences on her blog and these stories eventually formed the basis for her two books—Food Heroes and Girl Hunter. In hopes of sharing these visceral experiences, Pellegrini hosts adventure getaways, ushering groups of women through what maybe their first experience with hunting, cleaning, and cooking their own food.
KELLY HENSEL: You grew up fishing to working on Wall Street to living in Texas leading groups of women on hunting excursions. How did that happen?
GEORGIA PELLEGRINI: It came from being a chef. I decided Wall Street wasn’t for me and enrolled in culinary school. Once I started working as a chef, I decided that I wanted to have a greater role in the ingredients I was cooking with. I was working at a farm-to-table restaurant in the Hudson Valley, and we had to kill some turkeys for the kitchen. That was my watershed moment. That’s when I thought I really wanted to pay the full price for the meal and take the process from beginning to end because I felt like I would appreciate the ingredients and appreciate the food that I was cooking and eating in a much more meaningful way.
HENSEL: You were working as a chef at the time that you had this experience. So, how did you end up writing a blog and hosting these hunting getaways?
PELLEGRINI: Well, it sort of happened very organically. I started writing my website when I wrote my first book [Food Heroes]. And along the way, I started hunting and chronicling that journey, as well. It really started to catch on. People were interested in the concept. It was at the time when people were starting to really care about where their food came from and the whole concept of farm-to-table was really exploding. And I what I call field-and-stream-to-table was sort of pushing it that much further. I think that piqued people’s interest because the whole food system was sort of on the forefront of people’s minds.
And so I think it was the right time, in part. It was also because I don’t fit the profile of the typical American hunter. I was coming to it from a new perspective and seeing it all through the lens of food, which I also got people interested because it made them feel like maybe they could also do it if I could do it. And so these weekends happened because when my second book came out, Girl Hunter, I invited a bunch of food media for one of these weekends. And they called it a “Girl Hunter Weekend” because of my book called Girl Hunter. And it was all about sort of just rolling up your sleeves and having these experiences that were more outdoorsy that you never had before.
I wasn’t planning a next one, but I suddenly started to see there was a demand for it. It was sort of a risk for me because it was suddenly giving me this sense of responsibility, like I was ushering people through this experience. And so we did one of them as an experiment and it sold out and had a long waiting list. So, I did another one and now we’re sort of continuing to do them. It started snowballing.
HENSEL: As you said, you’re not the typical hunter that people think of in America. In the stories you tell in Girl Hunter a lot of the people you met were these serious male hunters. They seemed to be willing to let you into their “club” and show you the ways. Was that a normal reaction from most of the male hunters that you met?
PELLEGRINI: I think I got a little bit lucky. I was very selective on who I was willing to go hunting with, in most cases. In some cases, it got me into trouble. I think that ultimately it was really about just showing an earnestness and a real desire to learn. And also that I could teach them something, which is that I’m a chef. And so whereas they may be really amazing hunters, I could teach them how to really cook it properly, which was valuable to them and sort of exciting to them because they were suddenly able to appreciate the fruits of their labor so much more. It was sort of a give and take, and I think it was a trust thing—I had to build that trust.
HENSEL: Out of all your hunting experiences thus far, is there one that was your favorite?
PELLEGRINI: You know, it’s always a bit different. And I would say that it’s always about the people that you’re with at the end of the day. I think that’s so important. For me, it’s also about the food. I see it all through the lens of food so it’s about the comradery and the bonding that happens when you’re out in nature with somebody and your senses are all heightened. Yeah, I think for me it’s like each experience is fresh and new. There are moments that I think it can’t get any better, but it does. Especially with these adventure getaways that I do. Women bond in a way that I’ve never seen women bond before. And I think part of it is that there is this inherent filter in the type of women that these events attract. It’s a certain type of women. They’re very strong and fearless and independent and adventurous. And they want to push themselves outside of their comfort zone. They all really bond over that, and become friends for life.
HENSEL: Speaking of your adventure getaways, you just returned from one in Montana. What did you guys hunt for and how was the trip organized?
PELLEGRINI: We have a whole series of activities. It’s not just hunting that happens. It’s for all kinds of outdoorsy activities. There’s fly fishing and clay shooting. A lot of the women are hunting or holding a gun for the very first time so I want them to get comfortable with that feeling. And we also horseback ride, which is scary for some of them. We went on an ATV ride 10,000 feet into the mountains. It was great. This one was just totally amazing. I had never done it before but we really learned a lot about how falcons operate in the wild and then we actually saw a how they hunt. And we got to like really walk in the field with them which was pretty spectacular. And then, of course, there was hunting. In this case we did upland bird hunting.
HENSEL: And were most of the women new to hunting?
PELLEGRINI: Yeah, I would say about 50–60% of them had never hunted before.
HENSEL: So, when some of them have never even held a gun before do you take them through basic gun safety and techniques?
PELLEGRINI: Yes. I do. And I think that the way I teach them is very different than a man would teach them. I think they really appreciate that. A lot of them say: “Wow, you’re a really good teacher.” Mostly it’s because I’m seeing it through their eyes. I mean, it wasn’t long ago that I was in their place. And so I’ve learned why we do things a certain way, and I think for instance a gun fits differently on a woman’s body than it does on a man’s body and men overlook that and think it’s not a big deal, but it actually really is a big deal. And so I have to sort of explain to them that that’s okay and they’re not doing anything wrong, or it’s not wrong to see that there is a difference and that they need to adjust for it.
HENSEL: What do you think draws these women to your trips? What are they hoping to walk away with?
PELLEGRINI: Some of them call it their unraveling. A lot of them have spent so much time focused on their families and their children and everyone else and never really done anything for themselves. It gives them that opportunity. It’s sort of a very empowering experience. There are a lot of emotions. I think there’s a lot of fear, and there’s a lot laughter, there’s a lot of hugging. It’s a sort of Oprah moment where you see women sort of really come out of themselves. One of the women on the last trip said “I feel power after this trip.” And I think that’s sort of what the whole point is. It’s like giving them this sense of empowerment, showing them that there’s more to life.
HENSEL: For those hunting for the first time, how do they react to killing an animal for the first time? And how does it compare to, say, your reaction when you had to kill the turkey?
PELLEGRINI: I think it’s very similar. I think there’s emotion, there’s exhilaration. There’s this sort of—they sort of feel shaken up sometimes. They feel all these different emotions at once that they don’t always know how to process. A lot of overwhelmed feelings. But they’re always really proud of themselves because they feel like they did something that was hard but also really honest, especially because they’re meat eaters. They’re very, very proud of themselves and I’m always very proud of them.
HENSEL: You take them through the whole cleaning, preparing, and cooking process?
PELLEGRINI: Yes. We do a cleaning class afterward, and then we do cooking class with the meat, as well. And we even save the feathers and some of the pieces because I have a friend that makes a lot of wonderful jewelry and high fashion stuff out of taxidermy so I always put them in touch if they want to do something with the parts.
HENSEL: Have all your trips been just with women?
PELLEGRINI: I’ve had one co-ed event, actually. Last December I had one in Mississippi.
HENSEL: How did that differ from the women-only trips?
PELLEGRINI: It’s just a completely different dynamic. And I think ultimately it changes the way the women behave if there’s men there. They’re not quite as free to do what they want. So I think that’s what it comes down to, is making them feel like they can really unravel. That they’re not being inhibited in any way to do so.
HENSEL: Getting more into the cooking side of things, how do you go about planning the recipes for these getaway weekends? How do you organize all of that?
PELLEGRINI: Well, I’m a chef first and foremost. So I would say that comes probably really naturally to me. For me, I have to understand the difference between wild game and domestic game. Wild animals are athletes. They have a lot of muscle. They don’t have any marbling and fat in their flesh. So we just have to choose a lot differently. I always keep that in mind as I’m developing recipes with wild game. But I think for me, it’s about being playful and whimsical and then finding ingredients that are local to put the wild animal in context because it was probably eating a lot of what we’re cooking with. For me, it’s an extension of being a chef and trying to be innovative and creative and exciting. But also accessible. I don’t like the recipes to be too complicated.
HENSEL: A lot of this game is not accessible for people who don’t hunt or don’t have the opportunity to hunt. What kind of advice would you give to these people who kind of want to take a more active role in their food sourcing, but have to go to the local grocery store?
PELLEGRINI: There are all kinds of opportunities these days to buy a share in the whole animal at a farm and support a local farm in that sense. I have a lot of friends who will get together and go buy a cow from the farmer and then they’re supporting something that’s local and sustainable and grass fed. Sometimes they can even participate in the slaughtering. In some cases it’s chickens, things like that. So I would just say just eat meat consciously. It’s just about being a more conscious consumer and more conscious omnivore. We all play a role in this cycle of life and just being more responsible, I would say, in that cycle. And there’s always large and small ways to do that.
HENSEL: How would you say hunting has influenced you not only as a chef but as a consumer?
PELLEGRINI: I think it just makes me a more thoughtful chef and a more thoughtful human being. I’m more aware of nature. I’m more in tune with the world, I think. We eat animals and plants and animals eat animals and plants and plants feed from the dirt and we all turn to dirt. And I think it’s sort of that beautiful cycle that I really am more conscious of now.
I think we humans have a fear of our own mortality. And I think that’s why we really have a hard time dealing with what meat eating really is. I think for a lot of people when they actually kill something and then eat it, they are more aware of themselves, of the world.
And I think it’s made me more aware, as well.
Georgia's Recipe: Whiskey Glazed Wild Turkey Breast
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 tablespoons butter
1 turkey breast, skin on and brined
Salt and pepper
1 cup turkey stock
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons honey
6 tablespoons whiskey
1 tablespoon grated orange rind
2 tablespoons orange juice
½ teaspoon cayenne
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- In an ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven, heat two tablespoons of butter over medium-high until it begins to bubble. Sprinkle the skin of the turkey breast with salt and pepper. Place the breast skin-side down into the butter, sprinkle the underside with salt and pepper, and let the skin brown for about 5 minutes. Turn it over and add the stock. Cover with foil or a lid and transfer to the oven.
- In a separate skillet, melt the 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Whisk in the honey until well incorporated. Add the whiskey along with the orange juice, orange rind and cayenne and whisk together. Set on low heat and let the mixture reduce by half. Turn off the heat and set aside.
- Once the turkey has cooked for 10 minutes, brush with half of the glaze and cover with the foil. 20 minutes later, brush the remaining glaze on, leave the foil off and increase the temperature to 400°F. Cook for 15–20 minutes more, or until the internal temperature reads 140–150°F.
- Remove the turkey from the oven. Cover with foil and let sit for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
[Photos used with permission courtesy of georgiapellegrini.com. Main photo courtesy of Diane Cu for georgiapellegrini.com]