An avid outdoorsman who enjoys hunting and fishing, especially with his son, Walker, Chef David Bancroft is the chef and owner of two popular restaurants—Acre and Bow & Arrow—both in Auburn, Alabama. He has been a 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: South. He won Food Network’s Iron Chef Showdown in 2017. The Alabama Butcher’s Board charcuterie at Acre, served on a piece of Alabama oak from a tree he chopped down with his grandfather, is one of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.
More than just farm-to-table, Bancroft practices a snout-to-tail and root-to-leaf way of cooking. But his philosophy about food is simple: “Honestly, it’s just respecting the land and trying to leave it better than when you got it.”
Bancroft made a national name for himself and created an outlet for his self-taught skills as a farmer, forager, and chef when he and his wife, Christin, opened Acre in 2013. They built it on an acre in the college town’s historic downtown and filled it with architectural details and items from his family’s farm. Bancroft landscaped his acre with edible things: figs, blueberries, okra, persimmons, watermelons, cantaloupes, peppers, lettuces, tomatoes, and herbs of all kinds. He sources directly from this kitchen garden (parking-lot pears are always a treat) as well as: local farmers, Gulf Coast fisheries, and makers. Bancroft sources throughout the Black Belt region of Alabama for a seasonally driven menu of modern takes on Southern favorites.
He opened Bow & Arrow across town in 2018. It’s best described as South-Texas-smokehouse-meets-Alabama-potluck. Bancroft was born in Alabama and raised in San Antonio, and this restaurant showcases culinary traditions from both places (sometimes on the same plate) with dishes like a burrito filled with pulled pork, rice, borracho beans, homemade collards, brisket “bark,” queso, salsa de fuego, pickled jalapenos, and Hill Country hot sauce.
Bancroft spent formative years on his family’s South Alabama farm in Hartford hunting and fishing with his grandfather and learning how to smoke and grill what he caught. He watched his grandmothers, Bebe and Mama Jean, cook Sunday supper and learned to serve others with a gracious heart.
Growing up with a deep and genuine respect for the land and its bounty—Bancroft was taught by his Grandpa Kennedy who was a model of self-sufficiency and ingenuity and a good steward of his land. Kennedy was a fish farmer and a cattle farmer who also grew cotton, pines, peanuts, and raised chickens. He took his fish business to another level when he built Ten Mile Creek Farms Restaurant. You couldn’t get catfish any fresher unless you caught it yourself and cooked it on the riverbank.
“Watching the way that my grandfather lived off the land, trying to better every little inch of property that he had—that’s what I loved,” Bancroft says. “And then hearing his stories about hunting quail and duck hunting. … I’m teaching my son, Walker, now. And the methods and the lessons and techniques that I know, are all generated from watching him in action and hearing his stories. ‘This is how my dad did it. This is how I’m going to do it, and, dang it, this is how you’re going to do it.’ I’d say, ‘Yes, sir, Grandpa.’”
These life lessons turned into a lifestyle, and Bancroft has made it his business. A lot of chefs, he notes, “are trying to incorporate that as part of their story … and I applaud that. But this is what led me into the food industry. This is what led me into trying to make an improvement and better the food that’s being served in our community, and, in all honesty, for me, that all leads into just storytelling,” he says. “I love an opportunity to go out and serve. It’s fun doing a dinner for 100, but it’s magical and more intimate to do a dinner for four; connecting and talking about pastimes, things that remind you immediately of your grandparents and going out into the country.”
He recognizes the advantages of his upbringing. “It’s unfair for a chef to already have all of that experience ingrained in their minds, like my grandfather did. And so, for me, it’s an obligation … All of those stories and the things that Grandpa taught me, those life lessons, that is literally a level of accountability for me. That’s what set the bar.”
So, Bancroft hunts and he fishes and he shares his experiences with his nearly 20,000 followers on Instagram and, more personally, with his friends and family.
heating it up
He recently cooked a wild turkey for a group of friends, and he did it his way. He used a sous vide machine to cook it to an exact 148 degrees Fahrenheit, and then he finished it on a hot grill. (That temperature is not in the guidelines we’re all used to, but Bancroft says that’s what’s possible with “a wild-harvested turkey, that’s been digging up bugs and crickets” and not raised in a factory setting.)
“I took the legs from the bird and roasted them and showed (my guests) how to use other parts,” he says. “Where hunters only take the breast, I took the thighs and legs and roasted them super dark and made roasted leg gravy. I pulled the pot out to the table with the roasted leg drumsticks sticking out” next to the ladle. He served this with sweet potato dumplings. “Basically, it’s sweet potato gnocchi,” he says, “but in the South, we call them ‘dumplings.’”
When Walker shot his first turkey, around Thanksgiving a few years ago, Bancroft cooked a celebratory meal. “I went very ‘chef-y’ on this one,” he says. “I took the thigh meat and made a little stuffing, like a farce, out of it, a sausage mix. And then I took the breasts and pounded them out thin and then lay that sausage in the middle … rolled it back together and then wrapped it in the skin of the turkey. I tied it into this ballotine shape, sous vided it so it was perfectly cooked and then rolled that bird in a cast-iron skillet … to crisp up the turkey skin. And, of course, I made turkey leg gravy. And my family was just looking at it like, ‘What in the world did you do to our Thanksgiving turkey?’”
Bancroft says: “For me, hunting and fishing isn’t just about getting away from things and trying to connect. This is legacy. This is tradition. This is something that was just ingrained in me as a child. This is a story that so easily and effortlessly rolls off my tongue.”
Sous Vide Wild Turkey Breast:
- 2 fresh, cleaned, rinsed turkey breasts
- 1 stick salted butter
- 2 crushed garlic cloves
- ½ Tbsp. Worcestershire
- ½ tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
Heat immersion circulator/water bath up to 148°F. Clean and remove all sinew from the turkey breast. Melt the butter in a small mixing bowl, and add garlic, Worcestershire, salt, and pepper and stir together. Place turkey, bay leaves, rosemary, and butter marinade into a vac seal bag and vacuum tight (or just tight enough to allow for sous vide process). When the water reaches proper temperature, place the turkey bag into the water bath and allow to cook for 3 hours or until the turkey reaches 148°F.
Just before the turkey reaches temperature, preheat your grill to high heat. Remove turkey from bath and allow it to rest for at least 5 minutes before removing from vacuum bag. Reserve the drippings in the bag. Then, place the turkey on the hot grill for about 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Baste the turkey with the drippings and allow some of the butter to ignite and provide some beautiful white “butter smoke.”
Remove from grill and transfer to a cutting board. Rest 2 to 3 minutes before slicing.
Wild Turkey Leg Gravy:
- 2 dark-roasted turkey legs
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 1 small diced white onion
- 2 qt. seasoned chicken stock (or make roasted turkey stock)
- 2 bay leaves
Thicken with cornstarch
Melt butter in a medium sauce pot and add diced onion. Slow cook until the onion becomes very tender and almost translucent. Add chicken stock to pot and bring to a slow simmer. Add the roasted turkey legs and bay leaves and simmer until the stock has reduced by half.
Remove the turkey legs and continue to simmer until the stock reaches desired saltiness. Make a thick slurry of cornstarch and water and whisk into sauce until it reaches your desired thickness. Adjust salt if necessary. Ladle sauce over sliced turkey breast.
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