The texts and calls don’t stop coming as Javier Arze tries to give a tour of his giant Lorton warehouse, the home of Huntsman Game, his wholesale specialty food and game business.
“The quail come from Richmond, Virginia,” he answers one caller. “We raise those birds, so we control the whole breeding process. We don’t give them protein pellets. These birds actually fly. They are $4.75 apiece. I can send you a sample if you’d like to see it.”
The caller is a sous-chef at Blue Duck Tavern. In the span of the next 15 minutes, Arze answers calls from Society Fair, Fiola, the Oval Room, a Shenandoah Valley beef supplier and some scientists who are developing an innovative way to grow mushrooms.
In a large walk-in cooler, Arze picks up a vacuum-packed bird. “We bring everything in fresh and send it out fresh. We are the only company that stocks squab fresh in the D.C. area,” he says. “Poussins come in with head and feet on. The USDA doesn’t allow most places to leave them on because they go bad so quickly. These were killed yesterday, and tomorrow they’ll be gone.” In another cooler, loins of Randall Lineback ruby veal, from Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville, Va., are aging.
Arze’s client list is a who’s who of chefs in town and some beyond, such as Cindy Wolfe in Baltimore and Marc Vetri in Philadelphia. The squab on Robert Wiedmaier’s menu at Marcel’s comes from Arze, as does the guinea fowl at chef Seng Luangrath’s Thip Khao, the ground beef in Central Michel Richard’s ballyhooed burger, the Spanish saffron at Jaleo and the quail eggs at China Chilcano.
“He’s the go-to guy for specialty items,” says Fabio Trabocchi of Fiola , who has bought, among other items, wild Belon oysters, duck eggs and sea urchin from Arze. “The advantage is his culinary background. He gets it. He knows what we are looking for and what the process is behind what we are doing. He’s not just some salesperson from some company.”
Indeed, the fact that Arze, 49, worked as a chef under legendary taskmaster Yannick Cam gives him platinum status credibility and respect. That chef has always emphasized the supremacy of top-quality ingredients, and Arze takes that to heart in his own business.
Chefs also seek ingredients no one else is using, and Arze is widely known as Sherlock Holmes in that department. Right now he’s on the lookout for Belgian imperial osetra caviar for Wiedmaier, blue-foot chickens for Trabocchi and cuyes (guinea pigs) for José Andrés. He thinks he has found a farm in Orange County, Va., to produce the guinea pigs for him.
Arze has sourced yak, alligator and English woodcock, the last of which weigh less than a pound whole and unplucked and sell for $40 apiece. “One guy wanted lion. I said absolutely not. Even if it was legal I wouldn’t get it,” he says.
An avid hunter since childhood, Arze is particularly knowledgeable about game and hunts regularly with chefs such as Nick Stefanelli, John Melfi, David Guas and Wiedmaier. Last November, he organized a partridge hunt for about 20 at Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville, Va., with Bryan Voltaggio (Volt, Family Meal, et al) providing lunch for everyone afterwards featuring ruby veal. The birds felled that day were donated to the anti-hunger nonprofit group Miriam’s Kitchen.
Wiedmaier hooked Arze up with the farm’s owner, Joe Henderson, who had reached an impasse in his effort to sell his ruby veal to chefs. He was selling only whole animals, and few chefs had the ability to deal with breaking down, storing and selling so much meat. The two are a good match, both avid conservationists committed to animals being raised correctly in a natural environment.
Arze found a slaughterhouse that was pristine, processed animals humanely and could package the meat parts for Henderson to pitch to a wide range of clients. Henderson and Arze are now working on an e-commerce site to sell the veal online.
Arze came to Virginia from his native Bolivia in 1983 to study engineering and business. He stretched that process out over many years and supplemented his income by working in restaurants, which turned out to be his true passion. He eventually became executive chef at Joe Theismann’s. Looking to up his game, he offered to work for Cam for free for a year, and did. Cam didn’t even acknowledge him for two months, noting that most cooks never make it that long. Arze was with him for 15 years.
Arze happened into the supply side of the restaurant business part-time when an opportunity presented itself in 1997. He met a scientist raising bobwhite quail in North Carolina who was looking for someone to sell the birds beyond that state. So Arze started Huntsman.
Knowing what high-end restaurants were looking for gave him an edge over the competition. Soon his product list expanded to include rabbits, foie gras, squab and lamb. The client list expanded, too, so Arze and his wife, Anne Marie, who worked in the jewelry industry, decided to go all in, quitting their jobs and making Huntsman a full-time pursuit as co-owners.
As luck would have it, their first day of work was Sept. 11, 2001. With the subsequent economic upheaval, they had to take out a home equity loan to make it through, and neither drew a paycheck for eight months.
“The chefs were very supportive, though,” says Anne Marie, “and we slowly made our way out of it.” Sales that first year approached $60,000. This year they’re on track to bring in $5 million.
One thing they did that set them apart was to create relationships with local farmers.
“Local wasn’t even an idea then, but I started focusing on what we could get from around here,” Arze says. That included Amish poultry and venison from Pennsylvania, and Virginia pork, beef and lamb. “Why buy fatty commodity lamb from Colorado when we could get it lean and beautiful from the Shenandoah Valley?” Arze asks rhetorically.
The North Carolina quail business couldn’t compete with big farms and failed, so in 2002 Arze partnered with Spencer Moore at Beaver Creek Game Farms in Richmond, which now supplies Huntsman exclusively with bobwhite quail, pheasant, partridge and the birds’ eggs.
Arze speaks with passion about the birds’ quality. “Tall nets keep them in the farm. Most game birds sold in this country are caged and fed soy and corn. So guess what they taste like? Chicken. Our pheasants eat sorghum, millet and insects, like they’re supposed to. They take longer to grow and therefore cost more, but when people taste them, they say, ‘Wow!’ ”
I can attest to that, having tasted his quail at Gypsy Soul, roasted squab at Blue Duck Tavern and pheasant at Fiola. With pointers from Arze and his wife, I set out to create some recipes of my own.
“Squab has fat that has to be melted, so sear the birds and then roast them over high heat. That is the key,” says Arze. Famed chef Alain Ducasse roasts them in a special oven at 700 degrees, he notes, but he suggests around 500 for the rest of us. “And don’t overcook them. They must be medium-rare.”
I seared them as instructed and roasted them with carrots at 450 degrees, inserting a meat thermometer into a thigh and setting it at 125 degrees. After 15 minutes, the squabs were done. I served them with a simple but hearty sauce made from concentrated chicken broth, dried porcini mushrooms and dried apricots.
For the quail recipe, I chose the Frenchified masala known as vadouvan for an Indian flavor base emboldened with fenugreek, mustard and cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves, black peppercorns, chipotle chili flakes and mace. I coated semi-boneless quail halves with the spice mix, dredged them in seasoned cornstarch and deep-fried them until crispy and frizzled.
Anne Marie Arze, who is Belgian, sears paprika-covered pheasant in butter, roasts it for an hour at 375 degrees and serves it alongside apples baked with butter, nutmeg and brown sugar. I went the Italian route, stuffing my birds with brioche, rapini (broccoli rabe) and mild sausage, draping their breasts with bacon and roasting them at 375 degrees for 75 minutes. Cooked to a 160-degree internal temperature, my golden birds were slightly sweet, with a whisper of gaminess, and so succulent they needed only pan juices as enhancement.
They did not taste like chicken.
Hagedorn is a food writer and former chef.