HATCHED: How Chef Matt Bolus Is Building a Brand By Bullet, Blade and Big Green Eggs.
Matt Bolus isn’t your average Southern BBQ guy. The Nashville, Tennessee, restaurateur has built a unique offering and a national following with the 404 Kitchen, a restaurant where the most important influence is the outdoors and the wild bounty of the southeast. Born and raised in East Tennessee, wild game is as integral to Bolus’ blood as plasma. Hunting, rendering, and cooking game are his fortes, and with that, the menu at his world-class barbecue and bourbon eatery is ever evolving. On any given night, the special is likely a novel spin on in-season game served with locally-grown vegetables and flavored with Bolus’ worldly kitchen influences—Southern roots, Mediterranean spice, and classic European flare.
The outdoors is not just where Bolus sources his ingredients; it’s also where he cooks them. Coupled with a lifetime of experience behind a rifle and grill, Bolus’ secret weapons rest in open air of the patio behind his kitchen—ceramic, Kamado-style grills called Big Green Eggs—imparting deep flavor with lump charcoal as a grill, smoker, or oven to produce some of the finest Southern-style food on the planet.
To learn more about his mission and strategy, and to glean a few tips on hunting and cooking wild game on the Big Green Egg, we caught Bolus outside 404 Kitchen and sat down over a cigar to pick his brain.
Where did your path with wild game begin, and how did it evolve?
I spent a lot of time at my granddad’s farm growing up. He’s the one who taught me how to hunt. Since groundhogs tore up the farm, he paid me for every one I brought in. Over time, that evolved to hunting whatever was abundant—namely squirrels, deer, pigs, and fish. I found being outdoors and hunting was where I was happiest.
At the same time, I got my cooking merit badge from the Boy Scouts and started cooking with my mom. I was taught to eat anything I shot, so the cooking brought it full circle. In high school, cooking became my hobby. Every time I got together with friends, I’d cook some obnoxiously large, cheap cut of meat. It seemed like a good way to impress girls, although probably more so their moms.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a professional chef?
I kept cooking and working in restaurants through college. Post college, I took a detour and went into finance for almost four years. One night, sitting at a computer calculating commission for the week, it occurred to me that I’d be happier scrubbing a kitchen floor at midnight with a bunch of pirates somewhere. I resigned, went back to restaurant work, and eventually got accepted into Le Cordon Bleu London.
How did butchery play into your path?
In London, I did an apprenticeship at a fishmonger then took a job in a butcher shop. I learned the old guard techniques of butchery, and since moving back to the States, I’ve always been the butcher or the guy filleting fish. It’s a skill I believe in deeply, and it’s been fun teaching it to the younger generation. Also showing my hunting friends how to get the most out of an animal has been just as rewarding as giving meat away.
How do you make the most of game in your food?
Butchery has taught me that nearly every part of the animal is useful in some way, and I try to take advantage of every usable piece; bones to make stock, liver to enrich the bolognaise, or tendons in my stock to bring out all the gelatin. I don’t want to waste anything; I want to honor that animal and maximize its use.
What’s your favorite technique for cooking game?
Once I learned all the different ways to cook and smoke on the Big Green Egg, it became my outdoor cooker of choice. Our restaurant uses them six days a week. For wild game, the benefit is two-fold. You can achieve very high temperatures, cut off the air, and have raging hot coals that give you beautiful caramelization. I cook a lot of game with high, fast heat—sear it all the way around and serve it rare to mid-rare. On the other side, I can also bring the temperature of the Egg down to 200 degrees for a low-and-slow cook with precise control.
Any secret tricks for making lean meat extra tasty?
We make special Old Fashions at our 404 Kitchen around Thanksgiving with bourbon-infused butter. We end up making pounds of bourbon-infused brown butter for the drinks, but its use goes well beyond that, and it’s incredible in turkey—a super lean meat. The trick is to inject it when the bird is cold to let the butter harden up. As the bird starts to cook on the Big Green Egg, that butter slowly saturates the meat. This is a technique you can use on any number of leans meats.
What separates the Big Green Egg from other grills?
One of the beautiful things about the Egg is its ability to slow-cook and go from low to high heat quickly. The Egg makes it easy to add take out moisture, especially with a reverse sear. For instance, I do a standing rib roast every Christmas that I slow-cook forever on the Egg, then pull off to let rest. Right before we sit down to eat, I fire the Egg up to 700 degrees for a quick sear. It’s delicious every time.
The Big Green Egg is also an outstanding smoker. What’s your method for adding smokiness to meat?
The traditional way might be using soaked wood chips, but I usually use high-quality hardwood charcoal instead. That way you get that little bit of a smoky flavor that amplifies without being overbearing. If I’m going for a good smoke, instead of chips, I’ll drop a big chunk of hardwood and get that smoky flavor slowly over the whole cook.
Is there a right and wrong way to cook wild game?
I don’t care if you cooked it in a trash can—if it tastes good, you did it right. Doing it right is subjective, and it comes down to the tastes of whoever is enjoying it. My advice is to experiment, toy with your recipes, and make little tweaks. Even if you need to throw a few things out along the way, it’s all part of the fun.