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Meat purveyor has a passion for his game

Geoff Latham takes pride in expanding Northwest cuisine

In just over 12 years, Geoff Latham has turned a 'garage-based business' into the Northwest's leading game-meat distributorship.

Supplying restaurants and specialty outlets with sustainable, free-range game fowl and meats Ñ raised hormone- and antibiotic-free Ñ he has not only helped broaden the spectrum of renowned Northwest chefs' culinary masterworks but also renewed interest in traditional foods.

If there is such a thing as a typi-cal Oregonian, Latham seems an honest example. At 37, he is an unpretentious and good-natured family man with a country-style inflection to his voice. Yet he speaks with the pride and authority of a man who knows he is sitting on a gold mine. Latham's company, Nicky USA, grosses an estimated $2 million yearly in domestic sales.

Whereas local chefs once had to seek exotic provisions from distant, upscale distributors, they can now turn to Nicky USA, which has become the Pacific Northwest's largest supplier of locally farmed game.

Many think Latham pioneered the exotic game-meats industry in Oregon. Award-winning chef Mark Bernetich, formerly of the Heathman Hotel and Ron Paul Catering and Charcuterie, says that before Nicky USA came along, the availability of quality game products was 'practically minimal.'

'There were a few ducks and a little venison,' Bernetich says, 'but they weren't that great.'

Latham thinks his success is a result of being in the right place at the perfect time, but it took a lot of hands-on experience to build his empire. Soon after graduating from Oregon State University in 1988 with a degree in agriculture (with emphasis in international business and a minor in animal science), he tried his hand at exporting Oregon food products to Japan and Korea.

'I spent more than I made,' he acknowledges.

That disappointment helped him grasp the maxim, 'There's no place like home.' He began knocking on local restaurant doors, selling locally raised rabbits from his Ford Escort hatchback. His warehouse was a freezer in his garage.

As he began plying his trade, local chefs who had perfected their culinary artistry elsewhere were returning to Oregon primed and ready to radically restructure Northwest cuisine by utilizing native edibles. With the introduction of Latham's products, 'the food scene in Oregon, and Portland in particular, took a massive turn for the better,' he says.

Latham supplies them with savory world-class game, including Willamette Valley free-range lamb, fallow venison, Stangel's Wallowa County American bison (buffalo), and Clackamas County quail, pheasant, partridge, duck, goose, wild boar and wild turkey Ñ all from our own back yard.

Establishing lasting relationships with Oregon ranchers is an important component of Latham's business. He visits the ranches to determine that their products and practices meet his strict demands.

Latham is convinced the ranchers he deals with share his concern for the ethical treatment of animals and ecologically sound, sustainable farming practices. By following guidelines that increase quality and reliability, these ranching families can carry on their businesses for generations. Allowing animals to live without the suffering of constriction, and refusing to use feed that contains animal byproducts, are building blocks of sustainable ranching.

Aside from those considerations, Latham's demands from his suppliers are simple. If the game has been raised using antibiotics or hormones, he doesn't want it. All Latham's products are randomly and periodically tested to ensure compliance.

'I love dealing with farmers, knowing that they really are sincere about wanting to keep that kind of sustainable lifestyle,' he says. 'I just want to sell stuff off the land. That's what I was born to do.'

Although Latham credits New Zealand for introducing user-friendly game imports Ñ such as venison Ñ to American restaurants, he thinks Oregon now has superior products. These have turned the gastronomical tide for game products from typical gamy-tasting hunters' fare to gourmet quality, greater tasting meats prized by epicures for their extravagant flavor.

The proof, it is said, is in the pudding. Latham no longer needs to knock on doors to drum up business. He is bombarded with order inquiries from restaurateurs in the region daily. During the holiday months, his small Southeast Portland office is chaotic, with phones ringing, fax machines going off and employees bursting in and out with orders and shipping confirmations.

His regular customers include some of the best restaurants in town, from Pazzo Ristorante and Genoa to the Heathman and the RiverPlace hotels. The New Year's holiday is his busiest time of the year.

'When people think of the Pacific Northwest,' Latham says, 'they feel it's a pristine natural area that has huckleberries, fruits and mushrooms from the wild Ñ a lot of the things that complement game. Our best chefs use foods from the local area to create Northwest cuisine.'

Amateur chefs can find Latham's products in select local retail outlets, such as Zupan's, or can order them directly from Nicky USA.

Approaching game meats for the first time may seem daunting. But surprisingly, most are easily adapted to the home kitchen. Rabbit is a good example. This underused yet luscious and tender meat can be substituted for chicken in almost every recipe.

Latham also carries a full line of wild Northwest mushrooms, p‰tŽ, foie gras, sausages and numerous other delicacies to help create the perfect unconventional feast.

Bernetich, who is now executive chef at Hayden's Lakefront Grill in Tualatin, is a passionate admirer of Latham's products. He regularly features Latham's meats on his menu and often holds wild game festivals there, showcasing a broad selection of Northwest game.

'When I put elk or venison on the menu, Oregonians can relate to it because it's what their fathers used to hunt and bring to the table,' Bernetich says. 'We've always harvested these, but now it is more consistent. Free-range animals raised using the proper feed produce quality meat. Better quality is the key issue.'

Looking back, Latham puts the impact of his success in perspective.

'I think I've done a good job to help local chefs be more aggressive in using what was traditionally local, indigenous species, because we make it user-friendly for them,' he says. 'By melding local foods from the wild, like the settlers had to do, like Lewis and Clark might have done when they came out here, they are invigorating Northwest cuisine.'