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Taste for game runs the range

'Whole Beast' author touts wild delights far from filet mignon
by: ©2006 GUY DRAYTON, Fergus Henderson visits Portland from London this week to help kick off Wild About Game week. The noted cook of dishes such as pea and pig’s ear soup  already has more whole-animal experiments in mind: “I’m quite excited by the possibilities of elk and buffalo.”

'If you're going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing,' writes English chef Fergus Henderson in 'The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating' (HarperCollins 2004).

Portlanders may rub their hands with glee that a famous chef agrees with the 'Cooking With Whole Foods' way of thinking, or perhaps with the thriftiness inherent in the reduce, reuse, recycle movement. But for Henderson that's not really it.

'There's a thrift aspect to it, but that's not why I do what I do,' he says by phone from London. 'I cook things that are delicious and use different ingredients than people are used to,' he says, referring to pigs' heads, ears, trotters, livers and bone marrow.

'I suppose it can be perceived as appropriate and right-on, but it wasn't my reason. I'm in it for a good lunch.' Referring to his maiden voyage to Portland this week (Saturday to Oct. 2), he adds with a chuckle, 'But I don't want to disappoint those who have other ideas.'

Elk and buffalo intrigue

In 10 years at his plain white London restaurant St. John, Henderson, 43, has won over the squeamish and the Anglo-skeptics with dishes such as pea and pig's ear soup, ox tongue and bread, and brawn, aka headcheese. Two things are certain: Henderson has simultaneously made offal ('variety meats') and British cooking interesting to foodies again.

The chef about whom no one has a bad word is here for the start of Wild About Game week. He will judge a wild game cook-off; sit on a panel discussion called 'Not Just the Prime Cuts: A Sustainable Journey From Pasture to Plate'; give a cooking class at In Good Taste; and with Chris Gillard, the head chef at St. John, cook dinner at Paley's Place in Northwest Portland.

Henderson cheerfully admits he has no idea what to expect here.

'I'm interested in what game means in America,' he says. 'But I was surprised, being a country of guns and cowboys, that you can't sell what you shoot.' He says this has caused some confusion when planning menus here.

American hunting culture is a bit of a mystery to him. 'I'm quite excited by the possibilities of elk and buffalo. One can only give it a try and keep a positive attitude,' says the almost comically affable chap.

Asked how he approaches working with a new species, whether he goes first to the historic cookery books or to the meat itself, he says both are possible: 'It's more an emotional picture I have of them roaming in the plains or elking about.

'I've tried cooking the hearts of most beasts, it's an extraordinary organ. It depends how it speaks to me - there's a huge possibility it could all change when I meet the animal.'

Going for the whole animal

Sustainability here is a broad term: It's about keeping small farmers in business by allowing them to sell all parts of the animal. But that requires demand, which requires educating the customer.

'Fergus' mission is to bring it to people in a lighthearted form,' Paley says.

He points out that using animal parts that would normally be cast off doesn't mean the food will be cheaper. 'The customer is paying for skill and knowledge, rather than the food on the plate,' he says.

Paley describes Henderson as 'a force' in the restaurant world.

'When they convene to vote on the world's best restaurant they do it at St John, because they already know it's the best,' he says.

'There's a growing number of us who do this because we love it and out of respect for the animals,' Paley says. 'We in this country, we're spoiled, all we want is filet mignon and salmon without a skin. … '

Adventure is part of it. Like Anthony Bourdain - a huge booster of Henderson in America - he searches for what Americans consider extreme cuisine: porcini mushroom and cock's comb soup, pig's feet and blood pudding.

Henderson reiterates something that is sometimes omitted in the whole food debate.

'If you're going to cook something you have a better relationship with it when it comes whole, rather than say a piece of meat in plastic,' he says. 'There should be joy in cooking and joy in eating.'

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Wild About Game Celebration

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30

Where: Oregon Convention Center, 777 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-235-7575

Cost: $35

Cooking class

What: With Fergus Henderson and Vitaly Paley

When: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1

Where: In Good Taste, 231 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-248-2015

Cost: $150

Four-course game dinner

When: 5:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2

Where: Paley's Place, 1204 N.W. 21st Ave., 503-243-2403

Cost: $60, reservation required