If you go
What: Chef Demos
Where: Marion Square, at the corner of King and Calhoun streets
Price: Included in general admission tickets
11 a.m. Friday: Nathan Thurston of Stars Rooftop & Grill Room
Noon Friday: Simon Andrews of the Swamp Fox Restaurant
1 p.m. Friday: Nathalie Dupree
2 p.m. Friday: Holly Herrick
11 a.m. Saturday: Fred Neuville of Fat Hen
Noon Saturday: John Ondo of Lana
1 p.m. Saturday: Marc Collins of Circa 1886
2 p.m. Saturday: Miles Huff of the Culinary Institute of Charleston
1 p.m. Sunday: (not yet announced)
2 p.m. Sunday: David Pell of Coast Bar & Grill
3 p.m. Sunday: Jason Reed of Boone Hall Farms
Chefs on the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition's demonstration schedule are likely to focus on graceful preparations that emphasize the delicate nature of game; Lana's John Ondo, for instance, is planning to make seared fish with oyster mushrooms and red peas. But kitchen wizards nationwide have lately begun to reclaim the most rugged recipe in hunters' repertoires: Jerky has gone upscale.
An extension of the artisanal obsession with charcuterie, the frenzy first took hold in Brooklyn, where in 2008 a pizzeria bartender began selling his jerky recipe to customers.
Locally, jerky is now on the menu at restaurants including Bay Street Biergarten, Elliotborough Mini Bar and The Gin Joint, which introduced the trend to Charleston.
"We didn't have a fryer for salty bar snacks, and we wanted there to be protein(-rich), salty snack that was easy to eat with your hands," recalls MariElena Raya, who owns The Gin Joint with her husband, Joe.
The Gin Joint's beef flank jerky - marinated in soy, chili and garlic prior to dehydrating - is so popular that the forthcoming brew pub Edmund's Oast has made arrangements to offer it. At The Gin Joint, where the jerky sells for $1.50 a piece, it's not uncommon for tables to order 15 strips, Raya says. Only soft pretzels outsell it.
Beyond Charleston, jerky last month made a major splash at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, where exhibitors annually tout their on-trend edibles. "A veritable carcass of dried meat products graced the showroom floor," reported USA Today, citing the snack's appeal to followers of the Paleo diet.
Yet not every omnivore is smitten with jerky. Ondo maintains "nine times out of 10, it's horrible," citing an overabundance of salt and soy sauce in most preparations.
"It's not in my wheelhouse," he says. "There are plenty of things I want to eat that will make my hands swell up, and jerky's not one of them."
For jerky fans, though, the traditional solution to lack of refrigeration presents a compelling culinary challenge. Curing salt and brown sugar are near-constants in jerky recipes, but chefs have experimented with a range of ingredients in hopes of hitting on the ideal texture and seasoning mix which best complements wild meat.
In "Duck, Duck, Goose," Hank Shaw recommends massaging ribbons of duck breast with dried porcini powder. "If you're not a hunter, duck jerky makes a cool addition to a charcuterie plate," he writes.
And at Elliotborough Mini Bar's second annual jerky competition, professionals and amateurs tweaked their entries with bourbon, esoteric hot sauces, fruit juices, Bordelaise sauce and syrups.
The January contest, which drew 26 entries, wasn't restricted to beef: According to owner Anna Faenza, hopeful Jerky Kings submitted jerkies made from deer, tuna, lamb and pig meat. All of them were judged on their aroma, color, moisture content and flavor, although Faenza concedes there isn't much consensus about what defines jerky perfection.
"What's funny is one of the judges was saying she wants her hands sticky and gooey," Faenza says. "But another judge was saying 'I want one that I can eat on the trail when I'm hiking. Different people want different things in their jerky."
Ben Lucas, a bartender at Closed for Business and Mini Bar, finished fourth in this year's contest; his first-place 2013 jerky became the Mini Bar's house jerky.
While Lucas is impressed by the diversity of the jerky renaissance, he's sold on the traditional sweet-and-salty flavor profile.
"I try to include the flavors our brains are hard-wired for and figure out a way to do it differently," he says.
Lucas concocted a maple-based sauce for his 2014 entry. But he believes achieving the right thickness - "thinner is easier on the teeth, but thicker jerky has a bigger flavor," he explains - and not rushing the marinating process are critical. He marinates his jerky for five days.
The top prize was awarded to The Royal American's Billy Noisette, a veteran jerky maker who pounds beef with a mallet before drying it. He sells the tenderized jerky for $9 a packet.
"People love meat," Faenza says. "Something so small as dehydrated meat, it's kind of fun."
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