Eric Flatt, co owner of Tonto Bar & Grill and Cartwright's restaurants in Cave Creek, not only sources from ranchers, he's also an avid and accomplished hunter himself. Flatt grew up on a small ranch in Colorado and started fishing and hunting as a child. "It's knowing where your meal came from and what it took to make it," says Flatt about the joys of hunting for your own meat.
Being a hunter has influenced Flatt's choice of items on each of his menus including Cartwright's famous "Trio of Tenderloins," which is 3 oz. of 3 types of meat: Elk, Beef & Buffalo. "I love it when guests have this for the first time," says Flatt. "They always pick elk or buffalo first and always beef last." We chatted with Flatt who shared insight on his menu, hunting in Arizona, and how he uses his meat. (Vegetarians, you've been warned!)
So what can you hunt or fish for in Arizona? "Just about everything," says Flatt. "Elk, deer, javelina, turkey, quail, dove, ducks, geese, and lots of trout." Flatt eats his own game at home but is proud to rely on local ranches and farms for meat including Two Wash Ranch in New River. In fact the menus at Flatt's places always have a unique twist on local meat. "We just added a new entree of mesquite wood-grilled 14 oz. all-natural bison buffalo rib eye with horseradish demi, wild rice risotto, portobello mushrooms and slow roasted garlic herb campari tomatoes."
Think that most hunters are always meat centric? Not true for Flatt. Both of his restaurants use local items such as ocotillo flowers, cholla buds, jojoba beans, saguaro fruit, prickly pear fruit, palm dates and Mormon tea."Remember as a chef, I enjoy hunting or foraging for vegetables as much as anything," says Flatt. He makes a "Three Sister Salsa" for his restaurants, which is served with a trio of chips: corn, flour and fry bread. The salsas are corn and tomato, chayote squash and tomatillo, and Tepary bean with red chilies. This dish was inspired by Native Americans who grow these three plants together. Flatt says, "The corn grows straight stalks where the beans could use this to climb. The squash was planted around them to shade the ground and preserve the moisture."
Flatt is dedicated to his craft and his love of Arizona shows his menus. "Hunting really helps to complete all of my needs. Most of the places I go are off the grid and I really like it that way. It takes a special kind of person who can climb up a tree and sit in a stand for 12 hours without coming down. You learn all of the sounds that nature has to offer and what they all mean," he says. Of course licensing is important for fishing "I put in for tags so whatever I can get drawn for, I will make the time to go," he says. In just a year, Flatt might spend 40 days or more, hunting.
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For Flatt, it's not only about the respectful hunt but also about the process including enjoying the meal with friends and finding a creative way to make a meal based on what is available. "I am at ease being out in the field alone, then finishing up the day with a group of hunting buddies or a couple of families while camping." Recently, he hunted in Cibola for ducks and geese. "Arizona is so diverse that each area holds a special place. I love to hunt Quail and Dove in the lower desert areas," he says.
Unlike some hunters, this chef is adept with a knife and processes all of this own meat. "Being a chef, it is not just pride but the need to break every usable part down and think of what is to be made," Flatt relates. Inspired? Heed the words of the experienced. "With most 4 legged animals it goes like this for me: the tenderloins and back-straps (NY, Rib Eye & Sirloin) come out and are cut into steaks, portioned and wrapped. The hind ends are of varied uses, I like to keep some larger pieces for braising or slow roasting in my wood oven. I also like to cut some into nice tips for all kinds of uses, like chili, stews, carnitas, etc. The front legs contain the least amount of meat with the most amount of tendons and work. This all get cleaned and is used for grinding," says Flatt. "You can make jerky out of this, but I cherish deer too much to make jerky."
If you're inspired and interested in hunting in Arizona, but sure to read up on rules, safety and regulations via the Arizona Department of Fish and Game. Or, you can take a trip to Cave Creek to branch out from the ordinary and try the beef, elk & buffalo meat loaf at Cartwright's or onion-crusted fresh-water walleye cat Tonto Bar & Grill.