Chef Jonathan Justus no longer cared how much wood his woodchuck could chuck.
It was time for the home wrecker to go — and what better way to humanely dispatch the critter that had been feasting in his garden and burrowing under his foundation than to roast it on a spit and feast on it with the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern.
Zimmern was in Kansas City in June to shoot an episode airing at 7 p.m. Tuesday. While Zimmern’s travel itinerary naturally included pit stops at well-known barbecue haunts, he also got a taste of pig spleen at Local Pig in the East Bottoms and pig snoot from the Tenderloin Grill on Southwest Boulevard.
On the final day of the shoot, Zimmern and crew set up in the outdoor kitchen behind the 550-square-foot Paradise, Mo., home of Justus and his wife/business partner, Camille Eklof.
Justus refers to himself as a “sustainable ominvore.” For Justus Drugstore, his restaurant in Smithville, Mo., about 25 miles north of downtown, the chef procures the bulk of his menu ingredients from local or regional farmers and food artisans.
A few years back, I accompanied Justus on a foraging expedition in the surrounding countryside as he marked the GPS locations of pawpaws, persimmons, sumac, chicory, hackberries, blackberries, buckwheat, stinging nettles and wild ginger. But roasting a woodchuck on a rotisserie powered by a motor salvaged from an old exercise treadmill was about to elevate his omnivorism to a new nose-to-tail extreme.
As Justus and Eklof excused themselves to work in their home kitchen preparing side dishes for the TV meal reveal, I found Zimmern sitting at a picnic table in the shade scrolling through emails, including an update from his other camera crew, which was shooting in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The success of his franchise keeps Zimmern on the road two-thirds of the year. Yet far from jaded after 200 episodes, the host with a cast-iron stomach continues to enjoy his exotic food forays.
When I asked him if a Midwestern critter cookout seemed, well, anti-climactic after dining with a shaman in some remote village, Zimmern insisted that Midwestern cuisine is equally deserving of time in the spotlight.
“Kansas City has become a hotbed of creative opportunity,” he said, “and you can see it everywhere you turn.”
Even if Zimmern is not a woodchuck virgin, he was eager to try Justus’ interpretation. Anyway, he added, the notion of “bizarre” foods is really just an entry point for telling larger stories about the importance of biodiversity and sustainability.
Zimmern focused on Justus because the chef is “idiosyncratic” and has a “Willy Wonka, mad-scientist-crazed” personality with a passion for diversifying the foods Americans find palatable.
Of course, different times and circumstances have dictated acceptable dinner fare. Research for the show turned up a newspaper ad that Henry Perry, the grandfather of Kansas City barbecue, used to tout his wares. Back then Perry cooked woodchuck, possum, goat, raccoon, mutton, beef and lamb.
Despite the historical precedent, Zimmern knows that some viewers might still be feeling queasy about woodchuck. As the crew members took their positions, he belted out the refrain “Woodchucks roasting on an open fire …” sung to the tune of a familiar Christmas carol.
Then, as Justus trussed the meat on camera, Zimmern wisecracked, “The last time I saw a truss like that I was in a movie theater watching ‘50 Shades of Grey.’ ”
But there is the serious side to the critter cookery: “We, as a society and culture, eat such a narrow band of things, and we do need to get more diversity in our diet,” Justus said.
“This is a very clean animal. I’m not going to do a lot to it,” he told Zimmern. “I’m not going to cover up the flavor. You don’t need to. This is red, lean meat. We’re not going to overcook it. We’re not going to turn it into barbecue per se. We’re treating it like steak. We’ll go for a steak temperature — red throughout.”
The woodchuck roasted over the open hearth fire for about 30 to 40 minutes, and then Justus, Eklof and their artist-friend Jeff Becker, who designed the spit contraption, sat down to sliced woodchuck served on a bed of arugula dressed with a light mustard-horseradish sauce, baked beans and a watermelon-mulberry-basil salad.
“This is a 100-yard meal,” Zimmern said, as he dug into a plate with gusto.
The moral of the episode?
“I think for people watching us eat groundhog today, it will allow them the next time they’re at the fish store to skip the farmed salmon and go with a locally grown or caught fish. A little fish with the head on it. Let’s start there,” Zimmern said. “Let’s eat rabbit once in awhile. Let’s go meatless once in awhile, and our destroyed food system will correct itself.
“At the end of the day — after trying these (bizarre) foods in a hundred different places around the world with people who cook critters all the time — they’re delicious. I’ve had supermarket pork chops that have been the worst meals of my life, so I take offense when someone looks at this and says, ‘Eeuwww!’ This is gorgeous, gorgeous meat.”
Zimmern cleaned his plate, but not before he offered me a piece of the woodchuck from the pointed blade of his pocket knife. It tasted like rare grass-fed beef that has been rubbed with a slightly summer sausage-y blend of spices, including rosemary, savory and paprika.
For an encore, Justus tossed the animal’s heart and liver on the embers. Moments later he and Zimmern told the lead cameraman the organ meat tasted of the strawberries the woodchuck had been pilfering from the nearby berry patch.
“It tasted like a strawberry-glazed meat,” Justus recalled months later, the flavor still etched in his memory. “It was even sticky with the juice, like a lollipop that had just come out of a child’s mouth.”
After the woodchuck roast, Zimmern and crew headed to Justus Drugstore a few miles down the road. There they got what are likely to be scene-setting shots of Justus filleting a sustainably farmed hybrid striped bass from Colorado and of the housemade vinegars in the restaurant’s pantry.
As the dining room filled up for dinner, the presence of cameras in the tight kitchen meant Zimmern took a seat off to the side at the bar. Curious, I asked him if he was in the habit of cleaning his plate during meals eaten on a live set. Surely, I thought, there had been something in his travels he could not stomach.
“A clean plate is a token of my respect,” Zimmern replied. “I consider it a privilege to have really, really smart food people work really hard to put food in front of me. I don’t need to tell you that Jonathan is a chef without peer in this state.”
For his part, Justus wants viewers to keep an open mind before they say yuck. After all, when the 50-something chef was growing up in Smithville, sushi was considered exotic fare.
Where to watch
“Bizarre Foods” airs at 7 p.m. Tuesday on the Travel Channel.