When Chicago chef Don Yamauchi took over the kitchen at Tribute in Farmington Hills, Mich., one of the first things he planned to do was eliminate the rabbit dish, figuring it wasn't very popular. But he was surprised to see that it was one of the restaurant's best sellers. He just released his new menu and the rabbit remains, one of only two dishes he kept.
Widely accepted as a food in Europe, rabbit is beginning to show up at more fine-dining restaurants in the United States as top chefs seek out interesting, high-quality ingredients to appeal to their increasingly sophisticated, more adventurous diners.
At times at the Ritz-Carlton Dearborn, Mich., chef de cuisine Regan Reik includes rabbit on tasting menus and as specials. He likes to offer it as an appetizer, because guests are more willing to take a risk on a first course than a main dish, he says. Some guests expect it to have a gamey flavor, "but once people have it, they think it tastes like chicken," he says, chuckling at the often-used comparison.
Nutritionally, the two meats are similar: Farm-raised rabbit is a bit higher in fat and calories than chicken but a little lower in cholesterol, with about the same amount of protein. And like chicken breast, chefs say, it can become dry and overdone if it's improperly prepared.
But a number of factors have prevented the rabbit meat industry from expanding in the United States. Not surprisingly, one is consumer resistance to eating animals that some people keep as pets. The other, says Pat Lamar, co-founder and president of the Washington-based Professional Rabbit Meat Association trade group, is that too few people raise rabbits.
"The problem for processors is that they can't get enough rabbits," she says. "The demand has been there for a long time and has increased considerably within the past few years because of avian flu and mad-cow disease, but the growth of producers has not."
That's because profit margins are small and the animals are difficult to raise in significant numbers, she says. Rabbits don't graze like cows and can't be put out to pasture. Instead, they must be raised in cages in barns to protect them from diseases, predators and territorial fighting, and they require careful, constant attention.
"You have to be very dedicated," she says. Many people who try the business last less than two years.
Stephen Edwards, 51, is one of the success stories.
He and his wife, Debra, have been growing medicinal ginseng and goldenseal as well as poultry and rabbits in Boyne City, Mich., since the late 1980s. Edwards feeds the rabbits an all-natural diet of nonmedicated, hormone-free pelleted feed, alfalfa hay and grain, and uses their wastes to fertilize his plants, "so it's all cyclical and sustainable," he says.
At first, he sold the rabbits at farmers' markets. But then he decided to aim for a more upscale clientele: high-end restaurants.
His first sale was to Harlan Peterson, owner of the renowned Tapawingo in Ellsworth, Mich., five years ago. Peterson agreed to try it on his menu after seeing a sample of the fresh product and being assured he would receive it fresh, consistently and within certain weight specifications, features he'd never been able to find before, says Edwards, who is licensed by the state to do his own meat processing.
Today, Aspen Hills Farms rabbits are offered not only at Tapawingo but also at many more top dining spots in northern Michigan.
Edwards says he personally processes the meat he sells to restaurants to ensure a top-quality product. "When you're working with some of the finest chefs in the Midwest, there's no room for error," he says.
Sales have grown from 20 or 30 rabbits a month five years ago to 100 to 200 a month today. That's about his limit, because the animals are labor-intensive.
"Rabbits are sensitive. They have to be cared for three times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I make sure every little bunny has food, water, hay and all the comforts of home. They provide me not only their meat protein but also fertilizer for our plants. I've never met a rabbit I didn't like," he says.