Wade Truong was keenly aware earlier this week that when he was scheduled to arrive Thursday in the Twin Cities, the temperature was expected to hover in or near negative territory. Where Truong lives and works in Virginia, thermometers don’t often register such extremes, and they certainly don’t in his parents’ native Vietnam.
A professional chef, Truong will be in Minneapolis through Sunday to appear at Pheasants Forever’s National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic.
Though he has never hunted either of the birds being celebrated, Truong is by any measure a sportsman, and his expertise as a game cook will quickly gain him admirers among the 30,000 or so upland-bird aficionados expected to attend the big doings this weekend at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Truong’s parents opened a restaurant, the Saigon Café, in Harrisonburg, Va., after they immigrated to the United States following the Vietnam War. It was at the family’s eatery that Truong worked as a teenager, busing tables and doing odd jobs.
Food, he said, always was a big deal to his family, not only at their place of business but in their home.
“Our parents attached a lot of value to food,” he said. “Preparing food and eating food was a big deal. Food was not to be wasted, and never to be taken for granted. When we had dinner together as a family on Sundays, everyone was expected to be there.”
As a kid, Truong hadn’t planned to someday cook for a living. But while he was in college, and the years soon thereafter, he found himself, perhaps naturally, drawn to the restaurant life. There, at various locales he experienced new and different foods, and new and different food-preparation methods.
“I was eating a lot of foods that were beyond my pay grade,” he said. “It was a good education.”
Intrigued evermore by food — not just how it is prepared, but where it comes from — Truong began to explore the world of small organic farms, eventually sourcing from them, as he began to cook professionally, foodstuffs to incorporate into his prepared meals.
The buy-local experience differed dramatically from the more customary “dropping off” of food by a supply truck, when he often would not know the food’s origins.
“If you don’t put any work or thought into your food, if you don’t know where it comes from, your food-preparation and food-eating experience is going to be pretty ‘blah’,” he said. “As I began to explore new food cultures, I realized there is only so much food you can buy. That’s when I first thought, ‘What if I hunted for my own food?’ ”
As a kid, Truong had fished with his dad. But he had never hunted. At age 24, he figured he would give it a try, first by passing Virginia’s required firearms safety program, then by sauntering into a patch of woods in search of a deer.
Eventually, emphasis on eventually, he bagged a whitetail, following which, aided by an internet how-to search, he field-dressed his quarry.
In the process, he said, his life was forever changed — so much so that now, at 34, he is never so alive than when he is afield in autumn, hunting deer or ducks or geese.
“Hunting changed my life,” he said, as it did that of his partner, Rachel Owen, 30, who also is a convert to the hunt-for-your-food movement that has gained traction in recent years, particularly among millennials.
“Ethical hunting,” Truong said, “is the ultimate way to understand where your food comes from and what it takes to bring it to the table.”
Truong and Owen now own a lockbox full of rifles and muzzleloaders, the collection necessary in part because of Virginia’s oftentimes conflicting county-by-county hunting regulations.
“I don’t get into anything lightly,” he said. “Once I started learning about ballistics and how different firearms perform, I couldn’t have just one gun. We have different guns for different applications.”
As executive chef at Kybecca, a restaurant in Fredericksburg, Va., Truong has developed cooking styles that fuse multiple cultures and approaches.
“The important thing to remember about cooking is that there are no rules,” he said. “You don’t have to do things a certain way, just because that’s the way it’s been done before. My parents, for instance, when they started their restaurant, didn’t have available all the ingredients they had used in Vietnam, so they had to use what was available.”
Truong describes his cooking style as “second-generation American.”
“What’s so interesting about American food,” he said, “is that it’s all so new, and also that we have so many food preparation styles here — southern, northern, Cajun, French — blending together. It’s constantly changing.”
On the Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic cooking stage, Truong will suggest alternatives to the commonly held belief that while being prepared, ducks, pheasants or other wild game must be “masked” with sauces or spices to avoid a gamy taste.
Among other dishes, he will prepare pheasant wings on stage, cooking the wings first using the sous vide method, then tempura-frying them. The result, he said, will be delectable — and would be even more so if he had felled the birds himself.
It’s the hunting process, he believes, that enriches not only the food preparation experience, but life itself.
“Last year one morning to duck hunt, my best friends and I got up at 3 in the morning,” he said. “Wading through the marsh to our hunting spot, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. But at daybreak, we were set up at the only spot where the water wasn’t frozen, and the ducks came pouring in.
“It was an incredible experience that I think about every time I eat duck.”
Truong will join fellow field-to-table game-cooking experts Danielle Prewett, Jack Hennessy and Lisa Erickson on the Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic cooking stage. Times and other event information are at pheasantsforever.org.
Editor’s note: Wade Truong and Rachel Owen blog about game cooking at elevatedwild.com. Follow them on Instagram at @elevatedwild.