Hotel's Wild Game Festival Ends in Howls and a State Investigation

Times Staff Writer

A Berkeley hotel restaurant's weeklong festival of wild game cuisine, which featured such exotic dishes as caribou and wild boar, ended Friday amid protests from animal rights groups and a state investigation of the restaurant's meat supplier.

State Department of Fish and Game spokesman Ken Bain said Friday that Night Bird Game & Poultry Co. of San Francisco, which supplied the restaurant, was under investigation for illegal possession of zebra and alligator meat for commercial sale.

A spokesman for Night Bird said all of its meat had been legally obtained.

The Fish and Game Department began investigating after receiving a call from Steven Johnston, head chef of the Shattuck Hotel restaurant, which put on the wild game festival this week.

Johnston said in an interview Friday that after planning the exotic menu, he placed a lengthy order with Night Bird. However, when the meats arrived, Johnston refused to accept some that had not been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as not having been poached from wildlife preserves.

There Goes the Black Bear

Johnston then eliminated zebra, lion and black bear from his menu, but went ahead with such specialties as "roasted wild Texas boar with bitter greens" and "Alaskan caribou sauteed with chestnuts." Johnston said the USDA had certified those meats.

In a city with a growing reputation for gourmet restaurants, the unusual menu drew record crowds to the hotel dining room. But Berkeley also has a history of community activism, and animal rights groups, angered over the menu, mounted a protest and promised to picket the restaurant Friday night.

"It's inexcusable to eat wild animals," said Eric Mills, co-founder of Action for Animals, an Oakland-based group. "I hate the word 'game.' These are animals."

Mills said that the creation of a food market for wild game in this country would lead to worldwide poaching of the animals for profit.

"Even if the meat is properly tagged--so what? There is no way to ascertain what you are getting. There is a tremendous amount of poaching going on worldwide. We don't know where these animals are from."

Went Over Well in Chicago

But Johnston, 26, who served a variety of wild game dishes while working professionally in Chicago, sees nothing wrong with serving the exotic fare as long as it is legally bought and sold.

"In the Midwest, this is a popular item," Johnston said. "People there love just about anything wild. But this is an activist town and you don't serve it here."

Even though the exotic menu has brought a booming business to the hotel, owner Eli Cukierman said the festival, which ended Friday night, would not be repeated. Cukierman said he was not aware that Johnston had planned on serving such items as zebra and red deer, and that he would not have permitted it had he known.

"I don't think it's right to serve red deer," Cukierman said. "It's a little like serving up Bambi."

But the consumption of wild animals was defended by Night Bird spokesman Klaus Lange, who said that most wild game meat is lower in fat that domestic meat.

"We should eat the healthier meat," Lange said. "It does not harm anybody and it does not damage the wildlife."

Lange said that his company has worked closely with the Fish and Game Department for the last six years and that all its meat is legally obtained from game farms.

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