Hunter's Moon: Mark LaBrooy
Brendan McCallum talks with Mark LaBrooy of Three Blue Ducks fame, as the celebrated chef urges people to consider a return to the ethos and benefits of hunting and gathering wild game.
There would be few that follow the Australian culinary scene who would be unaware of Mark LaBrooy, the lanky, charismatic chef who forms one-third of the original Three Blue Ducks crew alongside co-founders Chris Sorrell and Sam Reid-Boquist.
The establishment and success of that almost-instantly legendary venue, originating in Bronte before metastasising into a mini empire of Three Blue Ducks up and down Australia’s eastern seaboard, has been well documented - three lads with a summer-spun dream of opening a sustainable farm-to-plate restaurant, who actually pulled it off in spades despite only one of them – LaBrooy, who apprenticed under Klaus Hubert and at Tetsuya's before a sustained stint as a sous chef in Zürich – having any real hospitality chops.
So far, so familar.
Mark LaBrooy talks about the benefits of hunting wild game with a sustainability-centred philosophy.
The original Bronte restaurant may be but a memory now, but with Three Blue Ducks venues operating in Brisbane, Byron, Rosebery, Melbourne, and Nimbo Fork just outside Tumut north of the Victorian border, you’d think LaBrooy would be taking a little time off to just relax and catch some waves again. You’d also be wrong.
Instead, LaBrooy, a self-confessed restless soul, has a number of irons in the fire, some of which he teases but does not reveal over the course of our chat. One of those irons, however, is his online newsletter, the Catch & Cook Journal.
In it, LaBrooy takes subscribers on a journey into the wild in pursuit of game, most notably wild deer, of which a number of species were introduced here in the mid-19th century. With no natural predators, their populations have exploded exponentially over the decades, wreaking havoc on native ecosystems across Australia's states, including Tasmania.
Mark LaBrooy hunts everything from venison to wild seafood and typically cooks it over a fire.
Fire in the belly
The resulting recipes LaBrooy features in Catch & Cook, highlighting everything from venison to wild pig, poultry and seafood, are focused and uncomplicated, typically cooked over flame, and utterly delicious, foregrounding the natural flavours of the central proteins. I ask whether, in many ways, donning the hunter’s mantle is an extension of “The Way of the Duck”, the sustainability-centred philosophy behind Three Blue Ducks of using every part of the animal possible.
“Our food system is broken,” LaBrooy says by way of reply. “Our sheep and cattle prices are soaring through the roof, yet these animals are killed and left to rot on the ground.”
He cites the tens of millions of dollars spent in New South Wales and Victoria alone in attempts to curb the wild deer populations rampant in those states. “This is a sustainable, wild, organic red meat protein that is insanely nutrient dense.”
LaBrooy speaks with a clear, articulate sense of passion about what he's learned in his wilderness sojourns. When asked where the fire in his belly comes from, what drives him to cook, to excel, to push the envelope where he can, the answer is surprisingly honest, raw, and affecting.
“This actually goes into a bit of a dark space,” he says. We're chatting over Zoom, which he admits makes him feel like a Bengal tiger in a very small cage. “I suppose it comes from quite an abusive childhood, essentially. A bit of a shit run as a child with my stepdad.”
He pauses for the briefest moment, before seemingly giving himself permission to proceed. “Yeah. He was pretty brutal to me and my brother, telling us we’d never amount to anything, particularly me. I think there was a bit of proving that needed to go on – fuck you mate, I’ll show you what I’m capable of.”
Mark LaBrooy explains the ethos of the hunter is to minimise suffering and conserve the land.
Return to nature
That sense of proving oneself found new expression following a trip to Scandinavia a few years back, when Mark – already an accomplished freediving spearfisher – was introduced to an equally ancient means of securing protein in the wilderness that lies outside our contemporary comfort zones.
“I had a pretty good understanding of the seasons and what happens in the ocean. But I had no knowledge of hunting on land,” he says. “While in Scandinavia, I learnt there was a real honour in being somebody who was a land-based hunter able to provide red meat protein to your family. There’s an enormous sense of achievement if you’re able to hunt and harvest these animals cleanly and feed your family with it.”
There's an enormous sense of achievement if you're able to hunt and harvest these animals cleanly and feed your family with it.
He describes a recently secured harvest: deer legs, backstraps, 40 or 50 kilos of trim that he’ll turn into salami and sausages. I ask him about the natural objections that many understandably raise when the question of hunting raises its head, about the suffering of animals. The ethos of the hunter, he explains, is to minimise suffering, perfecting your art, communing with and conserving the land.
For LaBrooy, it is higher ethical calculus that seeks to encompass the environment as a whole. Yes, there are those who abuse hunting, but “it’s not just guys burning around in flannos in the back of a ute, sucking down Bundies and shooting shit,” he says. “It's bigger than just something to eat.” He cites the wild brumby populations destroying our high countries, feral camels and water buffaloes up north, wild pigs. “These are animals with no natural predators. This isn’t how ecosystems work, and it’s not how animal biodiversity works,” he says. “We need to play a hand in it because we introduced these species.”
LaBrooy gets a sense of achievement from hunting and harvesting, being able to cleanly feed his family.
Tempered by flame
Naturally, fresh caught game tastes best cooked over flames under a night sky of blazing stars. LaBrooy talks of fire with reverence. “It’s the oldest TV of time. Some of the best meals I’ve ever made have been just two or three of us cooking over a fire in a campsite,” he says. “You grow up cooking in a commercial environment, everything’s so regulated; it’s so easy to regulate heat.”
It’s a wild medium, that needs to be managed. “You can make more fire, but you can’t just turn a knob. You need to watch it and maintain it and mitigate risks, but it gives you the ability to impart an amazing amount of flavour as fats render off into the flames and rise back up into what you’re cooking.”
The fire rises, LaBrooy clearly enthused about the subject. “Every single of our Three Blue Ducks kitchens has one of those platinum commercial firepits," he says. “I think Lennox [Hastie] designed one of those pits, he did a cracking job there – and it’s just an integral part of how I cook: at home, commercially and in the wild. I love it.”