We stopped at a light signal that I didn’t notice. The headlights of the UTV went out and I froze in anticipation. Deer eyes blinked in the distance. Stars were blinking in the sky. A gunshot rings out. A shooting star streaked across the sky. And without fanfare, the UTVs rushed in in search of the carcass. When the team found him, they hoisted him onto Jake’s shoulders; the deer was heavy, still, and warm as it walked through the dew-covered grass to rest it on the bed of our vehicle. The moment was peaceful, respectful. “We’re taking him to the next stage of his life,” Jake mused.
Over the course of one evening, Maui Nui Venison hunts, milks, and butchers under the scrutiny of the USDA inspector. At night, the deer are relaxed, unable to detect the harvest crew in the dark. Using FLIR allows the team to spot animals from afar and harvest them without scaring them away. Deer die quickly and without stress. This results in a beautifully tender meat, lacking the game flavor usually found in venison. “Stress plays a huge role in the taste of meat,” said Bryan Mayer, game manager at Maui Nui Venison, when I visited him the night before the hunt. If an animal is stretched before or during harvest, its glycogen stores are depleted, which means “you have less lactic acid to break down the muscle and make it tender.”
Before the hunt, Mayer prepared a myriad of cuts for me and Jake: butterfly thigh, strip loin, tenderloin, sirloin, chops and a smash burger (arguably the best I have ever had). All sprinkled with salt a day earlier, quickly seared on cast iron and drizzled with ghee, rosemary, sage and thyme. Maui Nui Venison sells the whole animal online, in the form of bone broth, individual organs, ground meat, jerky, and even pet treats. To make its products more accessible to locals, the company offers reduced-price packs. For communities in need, it distributes game through food banks and other organizations fighting against food insecurity.
Restaurant chefs across Hawai’i and even on the mainland, including those from Alinea, Saison, and The French Laundry, are putting Maui Nui venison on their menus. At Fairmont Kea Lani Restaurant Kô in Maui, executive chef Jonathan Pasion pays homage to the deer in two preparations. His appetizer is a thinly sliced grilled strip loin placed on a Moloka’i sweet potato bao bun with marinated green papaya and calamansi curd. As a special, Pasion sous vide a rack of baby back ribs and lay it over a Filipino coconut adobo with ‘ulu tater tots, sweet Maui onion soubise, and upcountry persimmon. “The method by which Maui Nui Venison harvests, processes and sells venison presents a great opportunity to educate our local community on how to foster a sustainable lifestyle,” Pasion told me.
Perry Bateman, Executive Chef of Mom’s fish house in Maui, and whose tenure is approaching 35 years, includes venison on his menu to honor the island’s food resources and to support Maui Nui, which he calls a regulator. “Jake and his team have put in place a legal and humane way to solve the problem,” said Bateman. “He’s got a broken system, and he can actually turn this invasive problem into food to help a lot of people.” Bateman grabs the game and serves it with a fern, kula kale and persimmon salad, and a Hawaiian orange vinaigrette made with Maui olive oil and Maui honey. It is a luxurious balance of the bounty of the earth.
During one of my conversations with Ku’ulani Muise, she spoke about the right of a species to thrive in its own home. “I am thinking of a whole series of life forms – the kiwikiu, the ‘iliahi, the curly koa, and so on – and their right to persist here in their place,” she said. “While we never like to take a life, we recognize that along with many of Hawaii’s conservation initiatives, harvesting Hawaii’s wild deer, for both commercial and subsistence use, is an important management tool. . From field to fork, the Axis deer journey reflects this ambition: to protect threatened ecosystems, provide for the needs of the community and, above all, restore harmony from mauka to makai.