Food for thought
“Most people probably know I can open a bottle of wine, but they probably don’t know I can field dress a deer,” says a smartly dressed Mike LaValle, looking out over the city from the 34th floor of the Ruan Center. Judging by his appearance, that seems like a fair statement.
LaValle, who is the general manager and culinary director of the Des Moines Embassy Club, says he feels more at home in the outdoors than in the penthouse-level clubs, and that his interests in hunting and the culinary arts mesh beautifully.
“We take the natural world as chefs and render it in a pleasurable and easy-to-consume way for our diners,” LaValle said. “Everything doesn’t come in a cellophane packet. If you’ve harvested and cleaned and cooked something, you’re real honest about being a meat eater.”
LaValle’s interest in hunting goes back to when he was a young boy in Webster City. His parents, who were both in the restaurant business, worked long hours, so LaValle spent a lot of time with his friends, who introduced him to the sport.
“I had a lot of freedom to roam the fields and the streams because my folks were each managing a restaurant that our family owned,” he said. “We were all Daniel Boones and Tom Sawyers back in those days. I spent a lot of time outdoors – no couch potatoes in my decade. We were left to entertain ourselves.”
LaValle and his friends would disappear into the woods at sunrise and return at nightfall. He said they took a variety of weapons – slingshots, bow and arrows – whatever an 8-year-old could get his hands on, into the wilderness for their adventures. A lot has changed in the last 40 years, he said, but the appeal of being outdoors remains the same.
“I just really love walking in the country, being in the fresh air and getting off the beaten path,” LaValle said. “It’s a very grounding thing.”
Now, LaValle is just a little more prepared for the conditions than he was during his boyhood days. He has invested in high-tech clothing and supplies to combat unfavorable weather, and says he doesn’t let the weather determine whether he hunts.
“I’ve said this forever, that if you’re waiting for a nice day in Iowa to do something, you won’t be doing much,” he said.
This year, LaValle could not wait until Iowa’s pheasant hunting season began, so he took off with three others – a French chef and his two students – to South Dakota for an early hunting trip.
LaValle hunts pheasants, wild turkeys and deer during their seasons. He said he has does both bow and rifle hunting. He is also an avid fisherman and enjoys hiking, skiing and other outdoor activities. But hunting, he said, makes him feel the most connected with his surroundings.
“It engages you in some natural ways,” LaValle said. “You’re thinking about every aspect of what could happen and trying to figure it out. You just focus on where you are and what you’re doing, and what was that sound you just heard behind you? Has the wind changed so that I should change the way I’m walking? You’re just in a different place.”
Also, LaValle enjoys preparing his quarry. He admits that it is more challenging to prepare a wild-game meal, but the extra steps are worth it.
“I have access to a lot of food, but I do really like wild game,” he said. “I know how to handle it and cook it. It is more work to prepare, without a doubt, but it’s a pretty good meal.”
But even more important than the mental stimulation from being outdoors, and the good food that comes from his hunts, LaValle said the relationships and interactions with his friends have made the most significant impression on him.
“You remember some trophy-sized buck, but I would say the best memories would probably be the laughs with friends,” he said. “The happiness and the laughs that you have along the way are the most memorable part. I’ve been out with friends and I have laughed to the point of tears in a cornfield I don’t know how many times. Funny things happen, and with your friends, there’s just a general happiness involved.”