At French Quarter restaurant Kingfish (337 Chartres St., 504-598-5005; www.kingfishneworleans.com), chef Nathan Richard pulls from his Cajun upbringing in Thibodaux, highlighting regional ingredients and dishes. With alligator hunting season in swing through September, Richard went to Bayou Black, where he's hunted alligators for a decade. On Thursday, Sept. 22, Richard prepares a five-course dinner featuring different cuts and preparations of alligator. Richard spoke with Gambit about hunting and cooking the reptile.
Did you grow up hunting alligators?
Richard: Growing up in Thibodaux and in the bayous, you get raised hunting and fishing. There wasn't a time in high school where I don't remember hunting or fishing. ... It was just the way of life. It wasn't until high school that I took up alligator hunting ... and it wasn't until recently — in the last 10 years — that I started getting passionate about the swamps and what comes out of the swamps, what you can eat, what you can harvest. There's so much stuff out there that people don't realize you can (eat). I try to make it out every season as much as possible.
(Hunting alligators) dates back to the early 1800s ... and later the Confederate soldiers used to make their boots and their gun holsters out of the hide. The season actually closed in 1962 due to low population. But (alligators) are protected right now; they're all over. Louisiana alligator hunters now harvest over 28,000 wild alligators, and farmers harvest over 280,000 farm-raised alligators every year.
(When hunting) you have to be a little nervous. You're sometimes pulling in 12-foot gators that can weigh up to 200 pounds. They'll jump out of the water. They're real feisty animals and they're tough as nails; their body is like armor. There's only one spot where you can actually kill them: right behind the head, about a 2-by-2 (inch) piece — that's the softest part of the body.
How did you develop a taste and technique for the animal?
R: People describe alligator as (tasting) like chicken. You have it fried, you have it blackened, you have it cooked down in a courtbouillon or in a stew and as sausage. But to me, that's hiding the flavor of what it's supposed to taste like. If it tastes like chicken, you're not doing it right. Imagine you're out in the bayous and you smell the marsh, you smell the mud — to me, that's how it's supposed to taste. It's supposed to taste gamey; it's supposed to taste wild. It's not supposed to taste like chicken.
Today as a chef, you always research and develop and try to find the next thing. I started researching and saw what they do in Australia with the crocodile, which is a lot like an alligator.
There are all these parts of an alligator: dark meat, white meat, ribs, the legs, the tenderloin. One thing led to another; some things I completely failed at. I thought that I could eat the liver of the alligator, and it was the nastiest thing I ever ate. It tasted like I was having bayou water. When you think about it, the liver actually filters water, so it made sense. But the heart was great. It tasted just fine.
Most people use the tail for frying. It's white meat and it's universal. You still have to tenderize it a little bit, but that's what you'll get at most restaurants.
What shouldn't cooks do when preparing alligator?
R: If you don't clean it properly and get all of the fat off it, then you'll be sorry. The fat tends to get very rancid. You'll always know if you have a gator that wasn't cleaned properly because it will stink while it's cooking. (During the) Civil War, they used to use some of that fat to grease up their machines. (Alligators) tend to have a lot of fat, believe it or not.