A few years ago, Georgia Pellegrini traded in her high heels for cowgirl boots and a shotgun, foregoing a cubicle on Wall Street for a “field-and-stream-to-table” life in Texas. The hunting enthusiast decided to get back to her roots, attending culinary school and cooking at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, before writing Food Heroes, which chronicles the lives of 16 culinary artisans fighting to preseve their food traditions, and the more recent Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the way we eat, one hunt at a time. We chat with Georgia about the thrill of the hunt, pioneer skills we all need to know and what ingredients she’s foraging for come springtime.
AndrewZimmern.com: Tell us about your journey from financier to hunter.
Georgia Pellegrini: I grew up on the same land my great-grandfather lived on. He named it ‘Tulipwood’ and I’ve always felt a deep connection to the place. My grandmother lived there in the same house she grew up in. My great-aunt used to walk around with me and tell me the name of every plant on the land, and I would label them for her. Living there and fishing, foraging, and gardening inspired my love of simple food and my love of tradition. It’s what ultimately inspired me to go to culinary school and cook professionally. And then that philosophy is what inspired my book “Food Heroes,” and eventually hunting, which lead to my book “Girl Hunter.”
After college I had a brief stint on Wall Street but quickly realized that I didn’t want to be gazing into excel spreadsheets at midnight watching the cafeteria dinner cart roll by. So I decided to take a leap of faith and get back to my roots, and enrolled in culinary school.
I was working at farm-to-table restaurants and had a kind of watershed moment when I had to kill a turkey for one of the restaurant kitchens. It was hard but it also woke up a dormant part of me and I realized that, if I couldn’t do it then I couldn’t eat meat, or wear leather, or eat cheese (most people don’t realize it, but animals have to die in order to make cheese). And that wasn’t going to work for me as a chef. I used every part of the animal that day and treated it with integrity all the way to the plate. From there I took it one step further—I went from “farm-to-table” to what I call “field-and-stream-to-table.”
AZ.com: What’s so appealing about the hunt?
GP: The more I read about our feedlot system in America, the more I know I don’t want to support it. And with hunting, I have the ability to use every part of the animal and know that there was no suffering. It is a natural extension of my food philosophy.
Hunting and gathering, when done ethically, are the last natural and instinctive interplay between humans, the land and animals. And it is an act involving all of the senses—you hear differently, you see differently, you smell differently, your cells tingle in a way that they never do just walking down the street. You realize in those moments that it is part of the natural cycle of life, humans eat animals, animals eat animals and plants, plants feed from the dirt, and we turn to dirt. I think that is the part people have a hard time with—where there is the flow of life there is also the flow of death, and hunting forces you to acknowledge your own mortality.
AZ.com: Why is it so important to know where your food comes from?
GP: Participating in the process of bringing my ingredients to the table makes me a more “awake” human being and a better steward of the land. I also think the food tastes better when you’ve had to work hard to harvest it, whether animal protein or vegetable protein. It also changes my perspective as a chef, for example, a lot is wasted in today’s professional kitchens in an effort to make the final product look perfect. I have become very conscious of waste and make sure that very little of what is hunted is wasted. It is not always a step-by-step process. There are no perfectly clean kitchens in bringing food from the hunt to the table.
AZ.com: What are your Girl Hunter weekends like?
GP: The Girl Hunter Weekends that I host happened really by accident, as a response to a lot of emails I got from women asking if they could experience an outdoor adventure with me. It is one of the most inspiring things that I get to be a part of—women whose ages range usually from about 23 to about 63 come together as total strangers and step out of their comfort zone for a weekend; that is five decades of wisdom and experience that is shared across generations. I teach a cooking class, we fly fish, clay shoot, horseback ride, hunt, ride ATVs into the mountains, roast s’mores by the fire, and laugh until it hurts. The women leave bonded for life, with a whole bunch of new friends. I always marvel at what a perfect combination of people it is that come together, they always click like they have known each other forever. I think it is because these weekends attract a particularly fearless kind of female. I have had a few co-ed events where women can bring their husbands, I do about one of those a year. The rest I keep all-women. If people want to be informed of future events, I always encourage them to sign up for the newsletter on my website.
AZ.com: Three “pioneer skills” we should all conquer?
GP: Spend more time “upcycling,” whether it is turning leftover coffee into coffee ice cubes or making a planter box from an old wooden crate you find discarded. There is so much that we waste that can be repurposed.
Learn how to bake, sauté, and fry in a single cast iron skillet. We really don’t need most of the kitchen gear that is for sale out there. A good cast iron skillet will take you very far.
Learn how to butcher your own chicken or other whole animal. It is a great way to cook with economy and save money in the process. The bones can be roasted and turned into delicious stock to freeze and use for another day. The price per pound is also less when you buy animals whole, and butchering can be done quickly once you learn it.
AZ.com: What wild ingredients are you inspired by come springtime?
GP: Wild garlic is one of my favorites. You can spot wild garlic because it looks vaguely like a bunch of chives, but with hollow stems and more woody at the base. It will smell faintly like garlic if you get your nose very close. It has four and half times more sulfur compounds than common garlic, which means it is immensely good for you, offering all kinds of antibacterial and antiviral properties.
I also love ramps, grilled, pickled or turned into a pesto. They’re very high in vitamins A and C, and appear in early spring, in patches along hillsides and especially in shady forested areas near water. They look like small wild leeks, with broad green leaves and burgundy coloring on the lower stem. The bulb looks similar to a scallion or wild garlic.
I also like fiddlehead ferns mostly for how they look in a salad. They are the tight green spiral that first appears before a fern fully unravels. They are crunchy and acidic and are only available for a short time.
AZ.com: Favorite outdoorsy activities in or around Austin?
GP: Austin has a great lake in the middle of the city, which I love to run along. It also has a natural spring in the middle of town called Barton Springs, which is a glorious thing to dip into in the height of summer. There is so much more than that, for example great hunting and fishing in the Hill Country. Austin is a particularly outdoorsy town, so most people spend a good part of their time hiking, rock climbing, biking, you name it.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
GP: Well, since I’m a nomad a lot of the time with all of my work travel, I can’t say my fridge is always very exciting. But I can guarantee there are always an array of hot sauces in there. I’m a hot sauce fiend, I can’t get enough of them, and Texas is a particularly good place for building your hot sauce collection.
Check out Georgia’s recipe for Wild Garlic Soup.
Georgia Pellegrini is the author of the IACP nominated book Food Heroes, and the book Girl Hunter, named one of the top 10 sports books of 2012. She is a contributing writer for multiple magazines and newspapers including the Wall Street Journal and Bon Appétit. She has worked in renowned restaurants in New York and in France, including Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Gramercy Tavern, and La Chassegnette. Georgia has been featured on Jimmy Kimmel, Iron Chef, Today Show, in Food and Wine Magazine, the New Yorker, and the New York Times, among many others. She chronicles her adventures in meeting food artisans and gathering her ingredients on her wildly popular website, GeorgiaPellegrini.com.