Lukas Leaf killed his first wild animal — a cottontail rabbit — when he was in his early 20s with a 12-gauge shotgun while hunting with a good friend near Crosby. Later that evening, he cooked it — that, too, was a first.
Now 31, Leaf has memories of field-dressing the small mammal, butchering it, dusting it in seasoned flour and braising it in red wine and chicken stock for several hours.
“I made rabbit stew with potatoes and vegetables, including some wild mushrooms we had found earlier,” said Leaf. “What I remember most is that the stew was really good and that the rabbit took a lot longer to cook than I anticipated. There’s a pretty big difference between wild rabbit and domestic rabbit.”
As executive chef at Al Vento restaurant in south Minneapolis and an avid outdoorsman who hunts, fishes and forages regularly, Leaf has a rare front-line view of the wild and domestic food worlds (Even though those worlds don’t crosspolintate. Wild game is strictly prohibited in commercial kitchens.)
“I’m like any chef — I just want to use the best local ingredients I can find and make the people I cook for happy, whether I’m in the restaurant or somewhere camping or on a fishing trip with friends,” said Leaf. “That is one of my great satisfactions in life. It can create a bond even with a total stranger.”
Born in Aitkin in 1983, Leaf grew up fishing and learning about the outdoors from his father, with whom he’s spent countless days paddling and portaging in one of his favorite wild places — the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“I have a love and a passion for the outdoors that takes precedence in my life,” he said. “It equalizes and rejuvenates me. I came into hunting a little later in life … and already had a deep respect for nature when I began. Fishing and hunting, along with foraging and the cooking that come with those accompanying experiences, are my passion. For me, it’s both a hobby and a lifestyle. Every trip and outing is a new experience, and whether I’m in the kitchen or in the field, I’m learning something new every day. That’s the beauty of the outdoors and creating great meals from its bounty.”
Hunting, Leaf admits, can be a thorny pastime. After all, how do you explain the hunter’s paradox of loving what you kill to a non-hunter?
“I don’t preach about hunting or try to convince anyone what they should and shouldn’t be doing — everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” he said. “For me, I don’t hunt, fish or forage for sport as much as I do to learn about being an outdoorsman and a chef in that environment.”
Leaf admits he derives a certain satisfaction from hunting that conscientious objectors might not fully understand. “Taking a life is emotionally complex, and I don’t take it lightly, but I do believe that if a person’s intentions are true, then killing your own food is perfectly OK,” he said. He notes that most people entrust proxies to slaughter and package their food. “I like knowing where my food comes from. I want to be as close as possible to the source. So, yes, I do take gratification, though not of the deviant kind, in being successful in the field or on the water. Being an outdoorsman teaches you about a world, and the food that comes with it, that most of us are separated from. When I’m hunting, fishing or foraging, I’m constantly thinking about how I’m going to prepare my next meal. But that begins and ends by treating what you take with respect and giving thanks.”
Leaf feels no obligation to justify his food choices. But he does say that wild foods are environmentally low impact and “as organic as you can get” and that meat from wild game is typically lower in fat than meat from domestic grain-fattened animals.
“Wild game and fish are also managed by laws that ensure sustainable populations,” he said, noting that hunters and anglers contribute millions annually for habitat conservation. “When you hunt and fish and prepare and eat wild food, you’re constantly reminded about the need to maintain a healthy environment. I truly do not like when anyone who disrespects or takes nature for granted.”
In the years ahead, Leaf says he plans on spending more time hunting, fishing and foraging so he can refine his cooking techniques with wild game and fish.
“I just want to continue to grow as an outdoorsman and as a chef — there’s just so much to learn about the field-to-table experience,” he said, adding he may even write a cookbook featuring the recipes he’s developed in the wild. “I’m definitely going to do more foraging for wild edibles like ramps, nettles and mushrooms. Utilizing those ingredients with wild game or fish can make a good meal sublime.”
For the fishing opener in May, Leaf and his father will once again travel to the BWCA. As the designated camp chef, Leaf hopes to prepare his favorite “wild” meal — pan-fried lake trout.
“I love fresh lake trout battered and pan-fried in bacon grease,” he said. “It’s a simple dish, but it tastes like heaven. But it’s more than the dish itself. It is the full experience that makes it so good. It starts with the anticipation of the fishing opener. Then there’s the preparation, travel, packing and portaging and setting up camp and finally breathing in the fresh air and being fully immersed in nature. And then you’re fishing, you feel the tug of the line, and your heart starts to pound. The last, and best, part is enjoying that fish you worked so hard for as your dinner in camp with your best friends and family without being interrupted. You just can’t beat it.”