Chef John Fearrington knows his way around hunting camp kitchens, that’s for danged sure. A powerful and articulate storyteller, he describes strong family ties and mom’s home-cooking nourishing his body, mind, and soul, giving him a profound sense of community and sending him on a colorful life journey from the deep inner city to Strait Lake Lodge, Arkansas– and beyond. Great conversation fodder that you’ll chew on for a good long while.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, today I am in Arkansas at Strait Lake Lodge. You all heard me say a million times, if you want to get a great idea of the people you’re hunting with and what it’s all about, just put your foot under the right table and man, today’s guest, Mr. John Fearrington, is the chef at Strait Lake and he does it right. John, how are you, man? I’m glad to be back and I was glad to pull up last night and see you. And the same as I always think of you, you’re nothing but a blur behind the kitchen, you going and going.
John Fearrington: When I saw you walk in there, I was like, shit Ramsay Russell, pardon me if I curse on that, I am from the south and sometimes growing up, I couldn’t say nothing. So I’ve been waiting to talk for 47 years of my life, so I’m going to talk. When I saw you, I just remember my first encounter with you and understanding your world as Max Sharp introduced this world to me. And meeting someone like yourself and then following you and just really opening my arms to so many more people, I said, wow. And for you to walk in, which I actually had forgotten you were coming, really kind of just cemented and just said we in the duck season.
Ramsey Russell: Last time I saw you, was that your first year?
John Fearrington: That was 2020.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Was that your first?
John Fearrington: That was my first year working with Max Sharp at Strait Lake, my first year.
Ramsey Russell: Seems like a lifetime ago, it’s only been a couple of years.
John Fearrington: This is my 4th year.
Ramsey Russell: 4th year.
John Fearrington: I’ve worked with Strait Lake for 4 years and I got another 4 in me.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah, you got more than that, you’re a young man.
John Fearrington: I got another decade in me.
Ramsey Russell: You’re a young man.
John Fearrington: This has been my career.
Ramsey Russell: Last night you cooked one of my favorite food groups for supper, very simple, not fancy for a chef, hamburgers. Why hamburgers? Because here’s why I say that, I go to Argentina, I go to these different places and they cook all these great foods, you’re going to be somewhere for a week or more, they all try to do something like, you all want to knock it out of park one night, cook hamburgers, that is just an American comfort food of epic proportion.
John Fearrington: I added burgers because one of the members literally came up and said, you know what chef, I just want a good old hamburger.
Ramsey Russell: Good old hamburger.
John Fearrington: And when he said that, I looked at him and thought, well, he’s not critiquing me on, he doesn’t want filet mignon, he doesn’t want duck, he doesn’t want a nice thick pork chop, he’s just simply saying, break it up, chef, we just normal people, I want a good old hamburger with French fries. And when I thought about that, I said, well, shoot, that’s one of my favorite foods. How would I not want to cook one of my favorite foods for the members of Strait Lake Lodge when I know I’m going to cook it well. Hamburger Night is one of the best nights that all of these members look forward to.
Ramsey Russell: I do not eat, will not eat a store bought hamburger. Now, if it’s a mom and pop restaurant, I need a burger from there, but these golden arches, I ain’t going there, that ain’t food.
John Fearrington: That’s not my cup of tea.
Ramsey Russell: But when I get back from long road trips, I’ve got a hankering when I get home, my wife goes, what you want to eat? And I go hamburger.
John Fearrington: Hamburger.
Ramsey Russell: I want a hamburger. I want to sit at my table and eat a hamburger.
John Fearrington: Yeah. I enjoy cooking them, I don’t ground my meat, but my food source here locally in Macquarie is from the mad butcher, they ground the meat. So I know I’m getting a high quality Angus beef burger and I patty them up like I did and throw them on, they actually had a lot of smoke flavor in them last night.
Ramsey Russell: They sure did.
John Fearrington: And that’s because I’m using that big lifetime smoker grill out there.
Ramsey Russell: Man, what a smoker.
John Fearrington: It’s an industry, that whole thing sitting out there on the back porch is an industry.
Ramsey Russell: Somebody said that you smoked those baked beans last night, talk about that because they were good..
John Fearrington: They were Bush’s baked bean, I put venison, ground meat in there, I roast my black pepper from the onset. I learned that from a friend of mine in Wyoming, I got to give him credit. Nate is a chef, owns a place in Wyoming. When I met Nate a few years ago, I tasted his black pepper and I said, man, why your black pepper tastes so strong and smoky? He said to me, I roast my black peppercorns.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
John Fearrington: I said, okay. 6 months later, I started roasting my black peppercorns.
Ramsey Russell: How do you roast a black peppercorn?
John Fearrington: I literally pour the corns right onto a pan, pop them right in a 350 oven, walk away from them, come back and they’re kind of steaming from whatever little bit of moisture that’s left in there, if it’s any, comes out and those things are now almost charred and they have so much essence of pepper and smoke that it has not lost any of what its true nature of a black pepper is. I just have intensified it by smoking it.
Ramsey Russell: Do you put them in a pedestal and grind it?
John Fearrington: And then I just grind them, I’ll hit them with a mallet, break up the corns if I don’t have a pestle and I tell you, it transforms my food.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.
John Fearrington: I put that in the baked beans last night, along with some touch of garlic, but that venison and of course, my brown sugar and my molasses, that’s a meal in itself.
Ramsey Russell: They were cooked down like baked beans are supposed to be. They were thick, the sugar had caramelized. One of the boys next to me, he wasn’t from around here, he’s from Missouri, I think, really nice guy. What was the name of that company?
John Fearrington: Yeah, outfitters, I forget the name of it.
Ramsey Russell: I can’t believe that, I sat there and hunted with him, we talked about it. But anyway, he said, man, these are interesting, these are filling this, I said, they feed your soul, they feel your soul, that’s what them kind of beans –
John Fearrington: That’s what a good bean supposed to do.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what it does.
John Fearrington: Seriously. Whether it’s Pintos, black eyed peas, crowder, it doesn’t matter. Back in the day and like I said, I tend to think I’m a food historian, I remember my parents telling me a pot of beans is what fed them.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
John Fearrington: As simple as that.
Ramsey Russell: Sounds like my college days, John.
John Fearrington: Sometimes that’s all they had, was a pot of beans and cornbread. And I don’t look at that as insulting on not having resources, I look at that’s what allowed them to continue to have 7 children and flourish and here I am doing exactly what my mom did and cooking and providing for my family, more importantly.
Ramsey Russell: Tell you what, a pound of dry beans and a couple of ham hock I could eat for almost a week back in college.
John Fearrington: I got my first ex-wife that way, I think, is with a ham hock. She said, I got at with the salad, ain’t thought about that in a while. But she said I had at the salad, that’s a true story, I am divorced, but that’s a true story, I remember.
Ramsey Russell: But it could have been a ham hock.
John Fearrington: It could have been.
Ramsey Russell: How did you learn to cook? Have you been to culinary art school?
John Fearrington: No.
Ramsey Russell: You’re a chef, by all technical definitions in my world and everybody at this camp, you are a chef.
John Fearrington: I am a chef.
Ramsey Russell: But you have not been to formal culinary arts school.
Transition from Food Sales to Culinary Career: A Personal Journey Across the Country.
I left food sales and moved literally across the country from North Carolina to California, because I actually had an inferiority perspective on wanting to call myself a chef.
John Fearrington: I am a chef that had 17 people working in the restaurant in San Francisco. I don’t like to say under me, but I had a team of 17 people that we contributed to a very successful restaurant for many years. I, in 2008 switched careers and started cooking, I left food sales and moved literally across the country from North Carolina to California, because I actually had an inferiority perspective on wanting to call myself a chef when I didn’t go to culinary school. So I said, one way for me to combat that is to submerge myself and immerse myself around a bunch of successful chefs and a bunch of restaurants and why not do that in a place like San Francisco, where it’s a food place, it’s one of the 3 or 4 big Meccas, New York, Chicago, Miami, LA, San Francisco. I said, if I can learn how to cook in San Francisco, I’m good.
Ramsey Russell: That is kind of a foodie Mecca, isn’t it?
John Fearrington: It’s beyond. I don’t know how things are now, but when I moved out there in 2009, 2010 and about 6 months later, I found myself living in a little small studio, not even a 4th of this room we’re in right now in the middle of Chinatown. And at one point, I was working at 3 or 4 restaurants at one time, an Indian restaurant in the financial district, Italian restaurant, which I was the chef at in Fisherman’s Wharf. I had a part time job early in the morning at a café, I’m talking 05:00 in the morning to 08:00. I was there opening up, learning how to do pastries and things of that nature, before I knew it, I said, well, I’m learning a great deal. I’m learning about all these different nationalities, all these different foods. Most of the people who I would go in, encounter would be like, well, you’re from North Carolina, we want to have some of your soul food.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
John Fearrington: I used to run away from that Ramsay, for years I did as a chef. Truth be told, I really do pay homage to Will Terrion, who is my mentor. Will trained me when I graduated from college in 1999, I had my daughter in college, so I was quite ready for the workforce and my parents instilled that in me. Listen, you have this child, you need to go ahead and start earning and being a father. And I took that bull by the horn and have been the best father I could have been for my baby, for Taylor, who’s now 25 years old, who’s wonderful and in school in North Carolina now. But where I was going with that, I could not be in the position and truth be told, Ramsay, I could not be in the position that I am in right now if I did not have a mentor by the name of Will Terrion. I walked through that door and that 6’5ft at the time, 300 pound man, French Canadian individual who had gone to Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, had worked with some unique people in Atlanta and some major food distributors. He said to me within 2 weeks of me meeting him, if you stick around with me for 2 years, I’ll teach you how to always be able to feed your family and survive with cooking.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. What did he see in you, do you think?
John Fearrington: What’s that?
Ramsey Russell: What was it he saw in you that made him say that? What was it, your interest, your hard work, your dedication, your passion?
John Fearrington: We had a commonality, I think, because he had played sports and I was coming off of being a college athlete as well. So we had that initial commitment that was a bond with one another and being in Chapel Hill, it’s hard not to root for the Tar Heels, of course. So we had that commonality, I think I would tell him about my family and then he met my father, he would meet people in my family and he knew my brother worked in law enforcement. He would be like, this kid got all these older siblings and he’s interested in cooking when he could really go and do many other things in life and that’s what I chose to do.
Ramsey Russell: You were telling me something at breakfast about, I said, how did you learn to cook? Who was your first influence? Talk about your Mama. You said it help you be an athlete, her cooking help you be an athlete.
John Fearrington: Listen, the parents I had, Lowland, Johnson, Fearrington, listen, they were the most peculiar people to me also. But I’m the youngest of 7, I saw this woman cook for 20 plus years without calling in one day, she cooked for 9 people every day, she cooked for a large family, Ramsay. And not only that, I’m from the environment, where if there was a hungry face that was walking in that community, they could come to my mama’s house, my daddy’s house and they would get fed.
Ramsey Russell: Everybody was welcomed.
John Fearrington: So when I saw that being created and that type of lifestyle, I had no idea that we were a poor family, that was the last thing on my mind, finances and not being able to have something. My parents were incredible. I learned how to cook from my mom, I watched her, I saw how she approached food, I saw her put a bone in a pot of water and cook it for 5 hours before anything else went in it and I was like, what in the world? And that’s when I understood that the essence of flavor comes with stocks. And I said, I’m not going to cook too many foods without having a stock. Now I cook things like beans, rice, I start with a stock, not just regular water –
Ramsey Russell: You got a bone in the pot down there right now.
John Fearrington: I do. That bone has been in that pot for probably 3 hours, I am going to put pinto beans in that pot. So I feel like I still reach in my mother’s bag of tricks for the essence of who I am as a chef.
Ramsey Russell: Where do you think she learned to cook?
John Fearrington: From her upbringing. My mother lost her mother at a very young age and she was raised by my grandfather, who I never met. Ramsay, ironically enough, my parents were born in 1929 and 1936, my grandparents were all born, maybe one of them was born in the 1900s. Outside of that, I never knew any of my grandparents. I had a grandparent that was born in 1887, that would have been, I believe, my father’s father, who was born in 19 – my father was born in 1929, his father was born in 1887.
Ramsey Russell: My goodness. Did your dad hunt? Did you grow up hunting at all?
John Fearrington: No, I didn’t. We grew up outside in the woods hunting, but I never shot. My dad used to let me carry the shells. But Ramsay, I was so young.
Ramsey Russell: Because you said he was 47.
John Fearrington: He was 47 when I was born. And there’s a 3 year difference between me and all of my siblings, so it’s literally 3 year blocks and all of my siblings all the way up to the oldest, who are approaching 70, to be quite honest. And he was hunting with my older brother Nate and then Scott was catching into that. Nate became an athlete and the brothers followed each other. And once that occurred and my father, we moved from the country to more of the urban city area, the hunting went out the doors and the shotguns and the shells went out the door. I will tell you a funny story to tell you how much I did want to hunt once we moved into the city, I went and grabbed a shotgun and I loaded it and I just went out in the backyard. Now I got neighbors and I went and I set me up a target on a tree and I was using my daddy’s 12 gauge and I was probably about 20ft away from it and I’m letting them rip, boom, boom. And after a while, I’m in a city limits now, after a while, I’m sitting there saying from I hear a distant faint of a siren and it’s getting closer and I said, oh, man, Ramsay, I couldn’t have been no more than 9, 10 years old. I said, that’s the police coming. My mama swung that back door open, saw me with that 12 gauge in my hand, put her hand on her hip and said, I know you ain’t shoot that gun out here, her voice was cracking. I had the gun cracked open, it was smoking, she said, baby, we’re in the city, get your ass in this house. I said, mama, don’t tell daddy I shot this gun, she said, I got to, John, I got to tell Johnson, you shot that gun in the city limit.
Ramsey Russell: You didn’t get a whooping, did you?
John Fearrington: Let’s move on to the next question. Man, I got scars to prove that whooping, man, I got scars on me to prove. My father was a disciplinarian and truth be told, I wouldn’t have changed anything of that because having 3 boys that are – you better be.
Ramsey Russell: World be a different place if parents were disciplinarians today.
Homework and Coffee Table Conversations: The Moment of Truth
And he looked at me and said, no, baby, I can’t read and he kept drinking his coffee and I looked at my father, who was this massive hero, protector, disciplinary father, strong.
John Fearrington: I tend to think that’s where some of us have lost it. I had the best parents in the world, people hear me say that left and right. My father was illiterate, I found that out one day sitting at the table and asked my father to help me out with my homework and I pushed a book over to him and he pushed the book back to me and kept drinking his coffee and I pushed a book back to him, and he pushed the book back to me and I looked at him, I said, what, you can’t read or something? And he looked at me and said, no, baby, I can’t read and he kept drinking his coffee and I looked at my father, who was this massive hero, protector, disciplinary father, strong and I said, how can he not read the word cat and dog? My mama said, he’s been working since he’s been younger than you.
Ramsey Russell: That story reminds me of, you felt this need that you needed to go to culinary art school, but I know a lot of successful people that ain’t been to college or been to whatever. And they get off and get to art school and opt or they pour themselves into their profession and here they are, successful.
John Fearrington: I agree. That’s my route. Although I went to college, I played sports in college. But truth of the matter is, when Taylor was born, I went from being a starting defensive back to cooking for the athletes at my college because I stopped playing sports. So I used to be ashamed of that when I was younger in my 20s, but when I realized how humbling and how powerful that was for my young self to take that role and hang up a sport, football, that I had been playing since I was a kid and was good at it, to stop playing and say, you know what? That little girl who’s looking at me as more important and I need to feed and I need to protect and I need to educate and raise this little girl.
Ramsey Russell: You just kind of took what you had, stirred what you got, what I call it, stirred what you got. Food was kind of important to you or whatever, you had an interest or had something to start in it and from there, here you are, not just here, but a lot. I asked you one time where you get your recipes and stuff and you said something about you just collect them everywhere.
John Fearrington: I do.
Ramsey Russell: Just like the black peppercorn.
John Fearrington: Yes. The black peppercorn that I got from Nate out in Wyoming. Nate also worked on the range, as I call it with ranches and lodges for his career before he opened up his restaurant. Congratulations to him opening that up over the last 2 years in Cody, Wyoming. I’m still in culinary school, Ramsey, this is my culinary school.
Ramsey Russell: Life is culinary school.
John Fearrington: Going down to Louisiana during COVID –
Ramsey Russell: What did you do down there during COVID?
John Fearrington: So I went down to the farm to Max’s, to Max Sharp’s property down in Benton, Louisiana, during COVID That was right after duck season, my first duck season here. And it was such a weird time, I remember being on the phone with family back in North Carolina, Ramsey and I was in this area near Texas and Louisiana and at the onset of COVID people were scared of people in Texas and Louisiana for some crazy reason with all of this stuff going on. So I remember calling home and literally hearing it in their voices. So I said, man, I ain’t even going to go mess with them, I’m going to go ahead on down to Louisiana. And when I went down to Louisiana to the farm, to Max’s, I just learned more about cows, more about farming, more about people in the south in Louisiana, I hadn’t had any experience with. Well, little did I know that Cajun and andouille and crawfish and alligator and hunting and all of that was about to seep into my soul and give me a juggernaut of what I’ve been looking for.
Ramsey Russell: Seep into your soul.
John Fearrington: It was there.
Ramsey Russell: South Louisiana will do that to you, won’t it?
John Fearrington: Man, just the culture.
Ramsey Russell: The culture that revolves around food and people.
John Fearrington: Yes. It was bigger than what I actually was accustomed to in North Carolina. It opened my eyes and it wasn’t a country thing, it just opened my eyes to a people thing and food and how it crossed over bridges and borders and color and all of these things and that’s what I learned. I would be working throughout the week and on the weekends because I didn’t know many people, I would go and drive down south, whether it was to New Orleans, Lafayette, or Monroe, get me a cheap hotel room, literally walk around, find different places, most of the places were closed, Ramsey, but I would go and look at menus that were posted on the people’s windows of the restaurants and read and see about ingredients and food and the places that were open, I would go in and just sit there sometimes for 4 or 5 hours reading a book and just let them know that I was going to be doing that. And sometimes I would be the only person that was in that restaurant and before you know it, I’m in the back of the kitchen, because listen, I want to go and see and I would just start looking at ingredients, seeing what they were opening up, people’s coolers. Eventually, people are very comfortable with me, I think I kind of exemplify that, where I’m harmless to a degree, all I want to do is just keep soaking up information and food information and knowledge.
Ramsey Russell: So you had gone out to San Francisco and learned to cook under your mentor and then hooked up with Max.
John Fearrington: I hooked up with Max, decades later, I started cooking and working in restaurants, Ramsay from all over San Francisco and that led me to coming back to North Carolina. Unfortunately, in 2014, my mother ended up passing away and I was the executive chef of a restaurant out in California. My family asked me to consider staying back on the East Coast and I did. So I resigned and packed up all my stuff, had not one job, Ramsey, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, moved back home with my sister, I believe. And I was back at home, my daughter was a teenager, so it was for the best, it put things back in perspective for me and that led me to being a chef at a pretty famous place in North Carolina called La Residence, which is a pretty historical restaurant in Chapel Hill, where I was the chef for close to 3 years. And they were so special and so good, they’re famous for being known for shrimp and grits and creating a very unique southern perspective, influence with French perspective. So all of that just really juggernaut at me and La Residence gave me an opportunity to also scratch some of the itches I had and one of them was starting to be a private chef. It was something inside of me, Ramsey, where I knew, as far as my independence and my happiness, I had to get from being in a kitchen. And they allowed me to take some contract positions with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Train Company and I was a contract chef traveling around on trains, cooking for people, cooking for executives, cooking for the employees, cooking for groups on Burlington Northern Santa Fe Train Company. They would fly me to Texas, I would have a meeting for a day, we would see what we had, who was coming, go get our food, pack up the train, next thing you know, I’m traveling all over the United States on a train, had no idea I was about to be doing that. All at the same time, I’m the chef at a restaurant in Chapel Hill. But I had a good team and they took care of things when I was gone for 2 weeks at a time.
Ramsey Russell: That sounds like a heck of an adventure.
John Fearrington: It was life changing.
Ramsey Russell: You’ve mentioned your mom a lot of times, John and what are some of the foods she cooked that you most remember?
John Fearrington: Chicken and dumpling.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
John Fearrington: Any soups. Because they started with that pot in the bone.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, started with that bone.
John Fearrington: She was an amazing person when it came to ringing chickens, I’m being serious, like, ringing a chicken neck and then that thing in hot boiling water and that thing is in some lard in that cast iron, frying chicken and next thing you know, the house is full of people I don’t even know. Like, this ain’t my family, but they smell it and they are here. And seriously, I’m being dead serious, any of my siblings would say, yeah, we just would feed people. But you know what, Ramsay, that was life. I don’t remember a person going without food, me growing up. Like, when I see homelessness now or someone going without food, I know it existed, I’m not naive to know that it didn’t exist, when I was a kid, the intent on fixing it by the community was so great back then, that that’s part of it, that’s gone right now. I saw my parents, my aunts, my uncles, making an effort to take care of someone who was down.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a great memory to have.
John Fearrington: That’s the memory I have of food.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, to hear you describe it, your mom and your home was like the hub of the community around food.
John Fearrington: Around food, I’m being dead serious. I remember that, I remember not being hungry, I remember –
Ramsey Russell: Tell me about these pastries that taught you to run quick because mama had a pie ready. You said that at breakfast, they said, oh, I learned to run, you weren’t late to a meal at my house.
John Fearrington: Listen, if you didn’t get to the table and you didn’t eat that food that was prepared, you did not eat. And we were growing, we were becoming athletes, things were happening so fast for us that we needed our energy.
Ramsey Russell: I bet you did, man.
John Fearrington: It was a couple of times, I was –
Ramsey Russell: It was 3 sons?
John Fearrington: It’s 3 boys, 4 girls.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I had 3 kids in the house and we bought a gallon of milk every time we passed by the store, whether we needed it or not, when you got 3, I can’t imagine having 7.
John Fearrington: I can’t imagine what my parent’s grocery bill was now, that I think about it. But I remember being late or something or being the last one to the table and I knew my mama had cooked a mess of chicken, but the little dang on wingette, I can’t even call it a wing, I got to call it a wingette. The wingette that was left on my plate cost an uproar and I remember I probably flipped over my plate or something at the table and before I know it, I had a hand on my shoulder from my dad that says, press me back down in that seat and he might have split or pull a piece of his chicken off and put it on my plate because he knew they had done me wrong. But I should have got there when she said, dinner is ready.
Ramsey Russell: If you ain’t early, you’re late.
John Fearrington: Yeah, but I remember plenty of times like that. But we were fast. Ramsay, we had to work when we were kids. So believe it or not, I actually was working at the age of 6 years old, we had a trash route. So my dad, when he would finish working at his job, his real job started and that was me and my 2 brothers and we took care of the sanitation in the county and we were a little embarrassed about it to be quite honest as young men.
Ramsey Russell: But you ain’t embarrassed about it now.
John Fearrington: No, because we knew that all the other kids were able to do certain things, but me and my 2 brothers and my father and maybe some other cousins, hell, I think at some point one of my sisters was out there helping us out with the garbage route. And we didn’t know that, my dad was an entrepreneur, no one told us that, no one lined us up, the education on what he was doing wasn’t necessarily there. And the first entrepreneur I ever knew was my father and I didn’t know that until I was a grown man.
Ramsey Russell: Go back to doing what you have to do for your kids, man.
John Fearrington: Me and my brothers talk about that when we can have a cigar over the fire or something and we’ll be like, man, we didn’t realize how special we were growing up, we looked at it a little bit as torture or as they just like that. But truly, my parents were geniuses in their own souls, man.
Ramsey Russell: John, cooking for a crowd all the time like you do here and over in Colorado, New Mexico, cooking like it, that ain’t an easy job. Working with a staff of 15 cooks in a big restaurant like what you described, that’s a hard job. And I see you back here in the kitchen, plus keeping everything squared away, that’s a lot of work. And, I mean, that’s what came of it. You got a profound work ethic out of that deal growing up and didn’t even know it.
John Fearrington: I didn’t. But that’s what my moto is. The reason why I think I am successful as a chef is because I equated it with athletics. I ran my kitchens like a coach was running his football team.
Ramsey Russell: You got a coach whistle, you blowing at them, making running places.
John Fearrington: Tickets coming, pardon me.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all right.
John Fearrington: But yeah, I had that command and everyone loved working with me as the chef, I was a cooking chef, I was a chef that stayed in the kitchen and the last man out of that kitchen, making sure every pilot light oil had been changed or things of that nature. If somebody needed a ride home, chef, I need a few dollars, I was that dude, you know what I mean? Because I’ve been there. I’ve had a chef give me a couple of dollars to last me till that check came again, so I just know how it is. So being in this environment where in a sense, I say it lightly, a one man show, I know I have to have discipline, I know I have to be organized, I know that I’m going to be the one taking care of all those dishes and things. So to me, it’s really part of the existence of me being Strait Lake Chef. Like, I want that, I want that smoke, I want that organization, because I want to make sure that all of our members are taken care of. Hence the hamburger, that was a situation where I needed to take care of from a member’s request and now all of the members enjoy having what we had last night.
Culinary Journey Across Cultures: Traversing Chinese, Italian, and Highfalutin French-Southern Fusion.
The first time I ever cooked duck in my life 30 minutes later, it was lying in the trash can and my heart was racing and I’m looking at a table full of people anticipating dinner.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about getting into – you work for Chinese restaurants and Italian restaurants and then back on the East coast, back to a highfalutin French southern infused restaurant, working on the trains, catering for them and doing some different stuff, to getting into hunting lodges, plural. Because you’re here seasonally and you’re there seasonally. How did you make the transition? Because you weren’t cooking – I mean, wild game is vastly different than a lot of the rich meats you were cooking at those places. How did you make a transition? It had to be a challenge.
John Fearrington: It was. In fact, the first time I ever cooked duck in my life 30 minutes later, it was lying in the trash can and my heart was racing and I’m looking at a table full of people anticipating dinner. And I’m sitting there saying, I just threw dinner in the trash because I tasted it and I couldn’t even bite into that duck breast. I said, oh, boy, okay, this ain’t the same duck I’m used to cooking in a restaurant. I started reading a lot, listening to a lot of people and I just said, you know what, I got to look at what this animal is.
Ramsey Russell: And what is he?
John Fearrington: It’s an athlete.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
John Fearrington: This animal just flew quite possibly from Canada, has gotten down here on the little bit of food that it’s able to find throughout its journey and now I have it in my hands in my kitchen. This animal is lean, this animal doesn’t have much fat, this animal has a great diet, I can tell from what was in the crop. And I said, John, let’s look at this like, almost like a fillet, like a steak, let’s look at it as a chuck roast and you got to braise it in order for it to break down, go from a stage of being real tense and then after the breaking and the braising cooking technique, it’s going to loosen up and that meat is going to now be able to be peeled apart with your 2 fingers. That’s when I started understanding wild game, its diet, the nature of it, its habitat and started saying, okay, I got to treat this thing with zero fat, I got to add some fat to it. This thing is going to be on high heat fast, I need to go ahead and pull it off right at rare, medium rare, anything more than that, I might as well get rid of it, it’s not doing what it’s going to do. And that’s what I learned about wild game. In fact, what then I learned is the energy that I got after eating a piece of elk or a piece of duck versus eating a piece of domestic, my energy level was different. The fats and being lethargic afterwards eating a big steak, that has never happened to me when I eat game. Any game that I eat, whether it’s duck, moose, elk, pig, even pig, I’ve never felt lethargic. I felt like I could get up and run a marathon afterwards. And to me, that’s the essence of that animal and what is given to us as individuals when we harvest and kill that animal.
Ramsey Russell: We’re at duck camps, let’s stick with duck for just a minute. What flavors, seasonings do you use when you’re cooking duck? Talk about cooking duck. I like duck recipes, I like to know how to cook duck.
John Fearrington: One of my most go to is when I marinate the duck breasts in a marinade called Claude’s.
Ramsey Russell: Never even heard of it.
John Fearrington: Claude’s is a marinade, they call it a fajita marinade, it’s very smoky, it’s very dark. It has undertones of hickory coffee, very smoky, rich. I usually marinate duck in there for up to about 48 hours, game changer. It pulls whatever little blood out. Personally, I don’t think duck has too many impurities, when it comes, that’s just me. Others think so, but when you say you got to bleed in and get all the blood out, well, that marinade takes it out and infuses it with its essence of what Claude’s is, it’s made in El Paso, Texas. That transforms that duck breast for me, for me now to be able to do like I did yesterday for breakfast, I did a candied duck breast, if you will, like, similar to that ham that we had this morning. I took teal duck breast, I had them out of the marinade, just rinsed them off, took my Jacquard tenderizer which is a prong style tenderizer, hit it twice on each side of the little small teal duck breasts have silver dollar and maybe one or two times on each side and did that to all of the 20, 30 breast. Seared them on my blackstone for about 30 seconds on each side, I promise it was that fast and then I had my slurry, I call it, of my brown sugar, touch of garlic, touch of salt, roasted black pepper, my smoked black pepper, molasses and that’s what I put on that duck for breakfast.
Ramsey Russell: Is that what you put on that ham this morning?
John Fearrington: That’s what I put on that ham this morning. And I served that duck yesterday with grits with creamy cheddar grits.
Ramsey Russell: They were bragging about it last night, when I got here.
John Fearrington: It was remarkable. I actually put a post on my Instagram this morning with it and I looked at that picture of the plate that I plated up and I said, man, this is beautiful. This is absolutely beautiful, it was just absolutely amazing. I enjoy making tacos with the duck meat. To me, tacos also is one of those things where I want people who’ve never eaten duck, Ramsay or who’ve never eaten what they’re hunting and they want to transition on being able to say, oh, I can do that, well, I make tacos and tacos. Everybody like tacos, I’ve never met one person who don’t like a taco and if I do, I don’t even know if I want to be friends, that can’t be a good friendship. Somebody don’t like tacos, that’s terrible. So that’s usually my transition. I’ll cube it up and saute it with some onions and garlic real fast so it’s still nice and very flavorful and vibrant and put that on a corn tortilla with some Pico and some cilantro and a lime wedge, that’s a wrap. That’s going to be something that you can really enjoy and understand that profile, it’s going to be different than beef, different than chicken, different than carnita, it’s going to be something of true essence of this wild game in the delta that we’re here in.
Ramsey Russell: It’s hard to beat duck tacos, good duck tacos. Have you ever chicken fried them? I Mean, you’re talking about your mama having world famous fried chicken. Fried chicken, fried duck, my wife, who does not like duck, will eat chicken fried duck.
John Fearrington: I do chicken fried duck, I bread up chicken fried duck and I make me – being from North Carolina and being biased to the vinegar based barbecue that we have there, I heard you all talking about that Texas barbecue. I ain’t want to chime in, so I bit my tongue like my mama told me, just bite your tongue, boy, just bite your tongue, I didn’t want to throw in my pork barbecue information, but I love beef barbecue. I make my sauces when I do chicken fried duck and usually it’s a honey mustard, a type of vinegar barbecue sauce and everybody likes ranch, so I just throw that out there. But yeah, I treat it just like I’m breading up a piece of chicken, season my flour, add a little cornstarch in it fast, it’s going to be pounded out thin, some peanut oil in the cast iron, I probably do not fry that chicken fried duck no longer than 4 minutes. Pull it out of that oil, drain it, it’s ready.
Ramsey Russell: Have you ever cooked duck, breasted ducks. A lot of the ducks get breasted, a lot of recipes you’re talking about are breasted ducks, we all breast duck.
John Fearrington: I love whole duck, though.
Ramsey Russell: Whole duck. Because the 2 thoughts I’ve had for you as a cook, one, a whole pick duck on that smoker, I love smoked duck. And number two is a breasted duck with the skin on.
John Fearrington: Yes.
Ramsey Russell: That’s how I like. Especially these old, fat rice field mallards.
John Fearrington: Yes, sir.
Ramsey Russell: Man, when they’ve been down here a while hitting in these rice fields, they start putting on that fat, I like to saute them with the fat on, because I love the fat.
John Fearrington: I love the fat. And if you crispy that fat right –
Ramsey Russell: What’s the secret to that?
John Fearrington: High heat and making sure, in my opinion, that that duck skin chicken breast is patted dry. If it’s wet from moisture, marinate, you can marinate it, but just pat it dry, if you got that skin on and when it connects with that iron and a touch of oil, you can’t move it around, you let it sit and walk away. You can peel it and just to see if it’s browning on that side, but immediately put it back down. Most people, you know what it is and I used to be this way, Ramsay, when I started cooking, you’re excited about what you’re doing, so you pull it off too fast or you anticipate you want to taste it. To me, and I’m not proud on saying this, it’s been plenty of times I’ve served food and didn’t taste it because I know where I’m at. And I don’t have to taste it. So when that member, someone says, chef, I got to be honest, that was the best such and such, and I didn’t even taste it, I humbly have to say, well, I appreciate that you enjoyed that, because to me, I’m going to do it even better than that. And to me, that’s food, food is an education. I’m not the best cook in the world, I don’t want to be the best cook in the world, but you’re not going to find too many people whose food tastes as good as mine. I just leave it at that. I’m not the best chef, I’m not the best person in the kitchen, but show me some people whose food tastes better than mine and we can talk.
Ramsey Russell: You talk about learning as you go and stuff like that, but have you seen, since you started, say, cooking duck or cooking anything that your flavor profiles and that what you want to cook and how you want to cook has evolved?
John Fearrington: Yes, it’s evolved through the embracing the wine and the alcohol and the herbs. Once I got more comfortable, Ramsey with game, with duck, I started then incorporating the things that I’ve incorporated years ago into my food, when I’m braising or when I’m doing stews or when I’m making a sauce and that’s wines, whether it’s white, red, whether it’s liqueurs, whether it’s Sherry’s, Madeira, Marsala’s, et cetera. Now, I’m able to – I did a duck Marsala with mushrooms, I didn’t want to share it, I didn’t want to serve it because I said, no, let me just eat this pot of duck Marsala, I’ll make them something else.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t even know what Marsala is.
American Cuisine Connection: Marsala’s Impact and Integration into the Tapestry of American Culinary Traditions.
Marsala is a wine, it might be an Italian or French wine, but very deep in flavor and very historical in American cuisine, too.
John Fearrington: Marsala is a wine, it might be an Italian or French wine, but very deep in flavor and very historical in American cuisine, too. But I made that with duck sometime last season and Lincoln, one of the members, expressed to me this year, he said, I want you to make that again when I’m here. So to answer your question, it’s evolved with me because now I’m treating the protein just like I treated the other proteins that I’m accustomed to. Does that make sense?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
John Fearrington: Herbs, wine, sous vide. Like the sous vide and wild game should go hand in hand for people who have difficulty in cooking wild game, I truly think that the sous vide perspective and cooking way is an awesome way for someone to do wild game. Are you familiar with the sous vide?
Ramsey Russell: Yes, I am.
John Fearrington: And the reason why I think that is because it’s being braised and you’re cooking in that water bath and you have a protection, if you will. It locks it in and it’s not going to go over what you set that sous vide temperature on. So if you’re smart, you always set it 5° or 10° where you want it to be. So, for example, anytime I’m doing duck in a sous vide, truth be told, I probably set it at 100°.
Ramsey Russell: One thing you haven’t said, actually how to cook duck, you haven’t mentioned poppers one time. Do you cook poppers?
John Fearrington: I do. I love poppers. That’s the thing that everyone expects and wants.
Ramsey Russell: Because it’s easy and it’s simple and it’s universal. But I think that cooking duck, to a lot of people is a lost art, even to ardent duck hunters, it can be dawning properly cooked duck.
John Fearrington: It can be. I made black pot duck last year, which is similar to a gumbo duck. A friend of mine, Jason, he sent me the recipe, I still have it and locked it in my notes and have prepared it twice, it’s similar to starting a gumbo.
Ramsey Russell: What’s Cajun called making a gravy.
John Fearrington: Making a gravy.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
John Fearrington: 100%. And I use Castor River Rice, which is a friend of ours here at Strait Lake, so whenever I’m putting those combinations together, man, it’s a winner, it just is. I love poppers, I love appetizers. But if someone says this is what they’re accustomed to, I’m going to go the other way. I’m going to try to introduce something different, that’s my only reason why I’m not – And I’ve done poppers and I do poppers incredibly well. But I’m going to introduce you to something different.
Ramsey Russell: Everybody sure was bragging on whatever you cook for breakfast yesterday morning with them ducks, them candied ducks you were talking about. My end of the table today at breakfast, they loved it, they said, man, them ducks yesterday.
John Fearrington: I got some more, I wish you were going to be here tomorrow morning, I might have to convince you to stay, we’re having them again tomorrow, I got some marinating.
Ramsey Russell: We shot a bunch of teal this morning.
John Fearrington: I got some teal in the marinate right now.
Ramsey Russell: Have you started duck hunting? Have you started hunting? You’re a little boy out there getting the police coming at you hard, but you hunt now, I’ve seen pictures of you hunting.
John Fearrington: I do.
Ramsey Russell: Getting this job and working out west on that elk Branch, did that get you -?
John Fearrington: You when I met Max Sharp and his introduction back into the outdoors in a sense for me, not introduction, but transitioning me back into something as a kid that I hadn’t really thought about. Once I got into the timber and in that environment, I got to be honest, it always puts me back thinking that this must have been similar to what my 2 older brothers were feeling with my father.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
John Fearrington: Anytime I’m in the woods, it puts me back to think about my family and childhood and things of that nature.
Ramsey Russell: What’s supposed to do.
John Fearrington: And I wish I would have had an opportunity to go out in the woods and shoot with my father, I think it would have been pretty – I went out there, but just being older and getting that experience, I think that my brother Nate got, I don’t know, Ramsey, it may not have placed me where I’m at today. So I don’t want to change.
Ramsey Russell: Everything happened for a reason.
John Fearrington: But I have to admit that now, being able to go out into the woods, especially around this property and see what through the lenses that these hunters are seeing and to see that beauty of those ducks falling into the hole, I can’t describe it to too many people, sometimes I have to show them a video.
Ramsey Russell: But to somebody that did grow up hunting with his folks, that did grow up hunting when I was younger, it connects me to those past generations going out hunting, it reminds me of my granddad, who I never duck hunted with, and that was my biggest duck hunting influence. I never duck hunted with him, but yet, sitting out there in the woods or hunting, I oftentimes think about him hunting, it connects us somehow.
John Fearrington: What was your grandfather from?
Ramsey Russell: Granville, Mississippi, my hometown and he was a duck hunter. But he wasn’t duck hunter like guys today, people that duck hunt today, it’s like a major identifier of who they are. But that generation then, he duck hunted, but he was an attorney and he was something else, I don’t know, it was just different, it’s just something he did.
John Fearrington: It wasn’t worn on the sleeves like it is today, it wasn’t worn around the neck like it is today.
Ramsey Russell: It wasn’t 24/7, 365 state of being, it was just they duck hunted.
John Fearrington: Yes, sir.
Ramsey Russell: Him and his buddy duck hunted and he cooked duck and pride himself on cooking duck. His famous recipe was a stew, I made a mistake calling it a soup, I thought a stew was having a thick broth, it was a thin broth and he didn’t like it, it was a stew. And I can remember a lot of the local camp, a lot of his buddies from growing up would come by the house and he’d make them a stew to take the camp, that was just kind of his thing. And whatever was in the freezer went in there, son.
John Fearrington: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: Ducks, doves, venison, whatever he had, that all went in the pot.
John Fearrington: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: That’s how he made a stew.
John Fearrington: Yeah. No, I have to agree and those are the best stews, I think, being honest, when I made a duck soup here, I’m going to call it a soup for this and I threw all the vegetables that I need to throw into and it actually wasn’t a meal, it was a cold day and I just said, you know what, I want to do this duck soup and just sit it out here for these guys all day. By the time dinner rolled around, that whole big pot was gone, they had throughout the day just got them a bowl and I realized, I said, wow, that was a winner. To me again, especially in the wintertime, it was just about the comfort of that fireplace that you and I were talking about, man, I’m a stickler for a fireplace. After a hard day’s work, Ramsey, you give me a cigar and a fireplace, you won’t hear a peep out of me, I’m good. Because that’s reflection time, as you say and I think that’s what Strait Lake kind of creates, this opportunity to reflect on your life and on your family.
Ramsey Russell: John, how important is food and your meals? Just put food in general and your meals. How important it is to a camp environment to you? What makes meals so important?
John Fearrington: I didn’t realize until I had completed my first year here at Strait Lake and went on down to Louisiana with Max and saw that he still didn’t skip a beat when it came to the food and the family. Like, it was no transition from Strait Lake back to his home, they went together. That’s how food is with me. There’s no transition just because I get to another state line to do what I’m going to do. My bag, if you will, that I carry is all of me, it’s just what you get when I’m going to be the man cooking the food, I’m going to bring everything that I’m a bring, I don’t know how to cut out any little bit of it. So you’re going to hear about my influence of my mother, you’re going to hear about my influence of North Carolina and barbecue and flavors and my visions of the elders growing up and going to a family function and seeing off in the distance a big old cast iron kettle swinging over an open fire. And as I get out the station wagon and run up to it and look in it and see nothing but a pot of hot oil and fish frying in it. Like, I remember that as a kid and I couldn’t have been 3 or 4 years old, man. And to me, those memories, I think I want these members here at Strait Lake to think that way about the food that Chef John has cooked, it’s as simple as that.
Ramsey Russell: Food brings families together, whether at hunting camp or at home. It unifies, doesn’t it?
John Fearrington: Yes. It makes you forget about what you were talking about, it makes you forget – actually, I remember my daddy sometimes my mama, I was like, mom, I need you to cook a good one tonight, because he need to forget, I need him to forget what he was going to whop me about, mama. And I would literally, Ramsey being there and just be like, no, mama, put a little bit more of that in there. And Ramsay, by the time dinner was over, listen, man, I was like, oh, yeah, he forgot, I’m sitting in there playing my little video game and I feel that hand coming grab me, I’m like, he didn’t forget.
Ramsey Russell: John, how can everybody get in touch with you on social media? You got a great Instagram account. What’s your account?
John Fearrington: You can reach me at Chef John Fearrington. My last name is spelled Fearrington. My email address is email@example.com. I started my company, Breaking Bread catering company a couple of years ago and now I have 2 other chefs that work with me. And believe it or not, Ramsey, which you don’t know yet, but you’re about to, these 2 other chefs are working at ranches in North America too and they got themselves the job, I introduced what I was doing to them, showed them a blueprint and we are as thick as thieves together and we talk every week. And both of them are down in Mississippi working at lodges down there.
Ramsey Russell: What is Breaking Bread?
John Fearrington: Breaking Bread is my company that I created.
Ramsey Russell: Catering company.
John Fearrington: Yes. So after the season, I do private events. So I’m a private chef in the home, I have clients in Louisiana, I have clients in Colorado in the Denver area. And literally, I’m traveling all over the country because I’m a private chef and that’s what I do in that opportunity once I’m out of my camps. So my season, basically, with the camp start August 1st and ends February 1st. And after that, last season was really interesting and it was really fun and I cooked with a professional golfer, so I traveled around with a professional golfer after duck season last year. And that was just an amazing for him to have me down at the masters cooking for him and his family was remarkable, amazing person from North Carolina, Harold Varner, is the gentleman who I work with and just was really tickled that he invited me and needed that service to be provided for him and his family as he’s out there performing and trying to bring home the trophy. And that led me to doing some other tournaments with him. So I’m looking forward to working with them again in the off season. I stay pretty busy and when I’m not doing that, I’m somewhere in a fishing hole or on a golf course, I got to be honest, I enjoy playing golf.
Ramsey Russell: You do play golf?
John Fearrington: Yes, sir. And I like being outside. Anything outside, you’re not going to find me inside the house, that’s a wrap, I’m done.
Ramsey Russell: Once you out of kitchen, is you going out?
John Fearrington: I got to be out. And I don’t cook really for me when I’m not cooking.
Ramsey Russell: I was wondering about that.
John Fearrington: Yeah, I’m a very, believe it or not, light eater. I’ve lost close to 75lbs over the last years of my life and I plan on maintaining that lifestyle. I could be 350lbs if I wanted to.
Ramsey Russell: I guarantee you.
John Fearrington: Yeah, I can do that, I can be 350 next year if I want to.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
John Fearrington: Don’t want to.
Ramsey Russell: Don’t want to. John, I appreciate you. Folks, you all have been listening to my buddy John Fearrington. And John, I appreciate you being here, you’re a very busy man here at this camp and keeping the kitchen going, keeping people unified at the table, keeping people happy and keeping all kinds of stuff going, man. I mean, the glass shines, the fires out in the back is always going, thanks to you and I appreciate you taking time to share your thing with us.
John Fearrington: Thank you. I appreciate you and look forward to just being around you in the future.
Ramsey Russell: What issue was you in Garden and Gun? You were recently in Garden and Gun?
John Fearrington: Yeah, I had a wonderful process with Eddie Nickens, who’s out of Raleigh, so I can’t wait to go and see him when I get back to North Carolina. But we did the interview and did the post some months ago and they interviewed 5 duck lodges across America and Strait Lake is one of them. And they have a piece on me in the Garden and Gun issue of December 22nd and January 23rd edition.
Ramsey Russell: Grab you a copy, folks and check them out. And John, thank you and folks, thank you all.
John Fearrington: Thank you, sir.
Ramsey Russell: See you next time.
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