Wild Game with Chef Instructor Lisa Lavagetto
In talking with Sonoma County neighbors who snare, shoot, spear or trap their own supply of natural unprocessed food free from pesticides and hormones, I was a tad intimidated by how well they knew their way around the basics of how best to prepare and cook their catch.
For home cooks like me, not raised with a rifle, or for that matter, any inclination to seek out the sorts of places rife as game hunting grounds, what to do with wild game and/or exotic meats was more than a bit of a mystery.
Rare tastes of wild game to have passed my lips came from the stovetop, oven or grill of friends and neighbors who hunt private ranch lands in rural Sonoma County. I've tasted rabbit, duck, wild boar, deer, quail and elk. More exotic meat sections at the best butcher shops in my home city of Petaluma had so far eluded me for the simple reason of not knowing much about it.
Still, demand for wild game is on the increase as meat consumers such as myself seek to eat more natural foods and reduce the carbon footprint of what we bring into our kitchens.
I wanted to know more about wild game, where best to buy it and what to do with it. First stop in my exotic meats education was an obvious one — iconic wine country culinary school, Ramekins, located a few blocks off the historic town square in Sonoma.
Ramekins has been the go-to resource for keen amateur home cooks in Sonoma County and foodie aficionados from neighboring counties, the San Francisco Bay Area as well as thousands of visitors from around the world, since 1998.
If I was to learn the rudimentary skills of wild game preparation and cooking, Ramekins' long-time Chef Instructor Lisa Lavagetto's "Wild About Game" class was just the ticket.
More than half the class of 20 raised their hands when Chef Lisa asked if there were any hunters in the room. I figured my lack of know-how wasn't going to spoil the fun if I made my way to a work station where I'd come in useful chopping onions or something simple that I knew my way around.
And though I set out to study what my more capable class members were up to, it wasn't long before Chef Lisa and her super-friendly and efficient team of culinary instructors figured out my strategy and plunged me into slicing the interior of a hefty elk backstrap and stuffing it with chorizo. This took place after a demonstration of essential knife safety skills!
We'd filled one of the Spanish-style school's two impressive and professionally equipped teaching kitchens. Pots boiled, meat seared, knives chopped as enthusiastic cooks collaborated on the evening's menu of hearts of palm and artichoke salad with key lime vinaigrette and Boursin cheese, espresso-rubbed venison with lump crab and chipotle beer butter sauce, American bison stuffed with blackened turkey tenderloin with cranberry relish, the chorizo-stuffed elk backstrap I'd had a hand in, served with mango jalapeño salsa and, for dessert, a delicious sour cherry cake.
Each and every ingredient was pre-measured at the various work stations, making it a breeze to follow recipe instructions laid out beside chopping boards and utensils. Measuring jugs and bowls, vegetable skins and discarded food waste were immediately whisked away by Chef Lisa's impressive team. For anyone who loves to cook, the simple process at Ramekins is a delight. Conversation amongst those taking the class and the staff was genuine and warm.
Chef Lisa shared that although she likes to clay pigeon shoot for fun: "If a bird or animal is downed, I'll cook it, but I won't shoot it myself."
If I'd tried to cook this incredible menu myself it would have taken me in days the two-and-a-half-hours of class. Between the 20 of us intent on keeping an eye on each other's tasty activities, dishes were heaped with delicious, cooked game in time to be seated and served.
Ramekins prides itself not just on its freshest of wine country farm-to-table flavors but also on its range of quintessential Sonoma County wine pairings.
I found this short-format class inspiring and fun, the perfect kick-start for cooking wild game at home. Chef Lisa and her team demystified bison, venison and elk so that I won't shy away from introducing more natural meats to family and friends.
Additional short-format classes this season include: "The Gluten Free Dinner Party"; "Tamale Workshop"; "Korean Cooking" and "Kitchen Bootcamp".
More intensive two, three or four-day culinary retreats, limited to 10 students, feature instruction on advanced techniques with locally sourced ingredients.
Guest chefs cover subjects as diverse as French sauces, cheese making, pastry and bread making.
Select bed and breakfast rooms are available at Ramekins Culinary School, Special Events and Inn. Retreats include trips to Sonoma wineries and sustainable farms, including Ramekins' sister operation, 5th Street Farms.
The attractive 1,200 square foot, two-story rammed-earth facility is a popular venue for weddings and special events. Chefs are available to cater private gatherings in the Sonoma area as well as exclusive in-home breakfast, lunch, brunch or dinner, by arrangement.
Ramekins Culinary School, Special Events & Inn
450 West Spain St
Sonoma CA, 95476
If you take a class at Ramekins, check out its sister properties. Neighboring Victorian heritage house restaurant General's Daughter is a classic spot for another memorable wine country meal. Owners Sarah and Darius Anderson invite you to wine taste at the couple's Sonoma Valley Tyge Williams Cellars.
Sonoma Valley Chalet Bed and Breakfast on 5th Street, West offers more cozy and convenient accommodations close by.