A few weeks ago when Frontier chef Brian Jupiter and his crew carried a whole barbecued lamb into the dining room, they got a mixed reaction.
"It had a knife stuck in its neck, and its head was sticking straight up," he says. "This lady turned around and was like, 'Oh my god!' It just freaked her out. But then the group—six women and six guys up in the front—they just started cheering. It's a lot of work doing these whole animals, but the gratification you get when you put that thing on the board—I mean, people leave their seats."
Dinners of specially ordered pigs, lambs, goats, and wild boars smoked over cherrywood, applewood, and oak have been signature events at the lodgy alpine-styled Noble Square spot ever since it opened a month and a half ago—Jupiter's been smoking about four or five of them every weekend.
Along with those, Frontier employs lots of winsome young female servers, a frat-rock-skewing soundtrack, a bank of ESPN-tuned flat-screen TVs running the length of the bar, and an embalmed black bear overseeing the proceedings with preserved outrage. The second time I visited, on Saint Patrick's Day, the doors opened early for March Madness, admitting a noontime crowd of bros glued to the games, while Blues Traveler, Green Day, and Third Eye Blind blasted from the sound system. Switch the channels to Fox News and you could be sitting in Ted Nugent's man cave.
Then there's Jupiter's regular menu, which features barbecued rabbit with blackberry sauce, venison-black bean chili, pulled boar sandwiches, and braised elk shepherd's pie (for the recipe see our blog the Food Chain). It's easily the most game-focused collection of dishes in town. And though the chef admits his partners Mark Domitrovich and Dan McCarthy (who also own the Pony and Lottie's) were going for a dude-centric customer base, he says he's selling the wild animals to equal numbers of men and women.
Cooking game isn't totally new for him, but it is a departure. "I can cook the hell out of fish and shellfish," he says. "But with game there's very little room for error."
Jupiter, 29, began cooking at the age of eight at his grandmother's side in the Uptown section of New Orleans. "She did all the Cajun, Creole, and soul-food classics," he says. "I just think she did them a lot better than most people." He got his first job at a busy steak and seafood restaurant on the West Bank, where he took over the fry station on his fourth day. Holding his own through trials by fire such as the Friday-night all-you-can-eat catfish fry convinced him he wanted to make his life on the line, so at 18 he decamped for Johnson & Wales in Miami. Over a four-year stretch he earned his culinary degree and another in food-service management while simultaneously working in kitchens all over town, including stints at Nobu Matsushisa's Sirena and Nobu, his fusion restaurant at the Shore Club South Beach.
Despite his southern foundation, Jupiter figured he'd work primarily with Asian food until 2004, when Jason McClain, then chef de cuisine at Sirena, enlisted him as his sous chef when he took over the kitchen here at River North's clubby Narcisse. But after six months McClain bailed out, and Jupiter—then all of 23 years old—lobbied for and won the top spot.
That's when the game began. As he began to put his own stamp on the menu he started experimenting with lean, tricky proteins like venison and rabbit. "I had never cooked ostrich before in my life, so I thought, well, I'll just get rid of that dish," he says. "I made that judgment probably two weeks into being there, so I didn't really know fully what people liked." Customers complained, and Jupiter put his own ostrich preparation on the menu, where it stayed after he left for Bella Lounge, another celebrity magnet in the Viagra Triangle, where he put out upscale American bar food. Jupiter spent two years there, but the food wound up taking a backseat to the party. "When you're doing 30 grand in booze on a Thursday night, who cares about food, right?"
Dissatisfied, he left to open his own Cajun-Creole place near Hyde Park, but after nearly a year of planning, the financing fell through. He took a job teaching at Washburne Culinary Academy and followed that with a string of poorly timed gigs at dying restaurants like La Pomme Rouge and Violet.
"Every place I go to I'm going in when they already have their last layer of dirt put on them," he jokes. "You go in thinking you're gonna revamp some stuff and you never really know how far under they are until you get the call: 'We're closing.'"
This succession of bad runs has kept Jupiter's public profile lower than it deserves to be, which is curious because he's one of the few African-American executive chefs cooking at this level in town. That's something you'd think the angle-starved food press would jump all over.
It also informed the advice he gave his students at Washburne, where African-Americans are in the great majority. "I'm like, 'Listen, we're very few and far between, even as cooks in these kitchens. You have to get out there and really bust your ass more than the next man in order to be taken seriously.'"
That's what he did in 2008, when between jobs he began helping out a friend on the line at the Pony. Except for the 14-inch grilled cheese, the rowdy Lakeview joint serves conventional bar food well beneath Jupiter's skill set. But Domitrovich and McCarthy were impressed with his chops as well as his management skills, and they wanted to keep him close. They tapped him to reboot the menu at Lottie's, where he replaced formerly frozen products with fresh stuff and introduced pizzas. He soon did the same for the Pony, and took over the management of both kitchens.
The three began looking for a third spot to focus on Jupiter's food. When they grabbed the old Corosh space on Milwaukee Avenue, he was tasked with creating a menu to match the saloony western vibe they were going for.
It isn't all wild critters. I've eaten some of the finer oysters in the city there. There's a burger formed from Slagel Farms chuck that Rob Levitt grinds for Jupiter down the street at the Butcher & Larder. His gnocchi tossed with cremini mushrooms in sage butter rivals those in many Italian spots around town, and his simple hot-sauce-marinated deep-fried lollipop chicken wings are the same ones that raised the bar at Bella Lounge. New Orleans isn't too far in the background either. His juicy redfish—grilled with its scales left on to lock in flavor—was inspired by a recent visit to the Warehouse District's Cochon.
But there was a lot of trial and error in getting the game dishes just right. Generally speaking, while game may have plenty of flavor it has relatively little fat, which makes it easy to overcook. Slow braises and low-temperature smoking are key. "When we first started doing that boar shoulder for the pulled boar sandwich, we cooked this thing for hours and it just wasn't giving at all," he says. "It just gets rock hard like at the five-hour mark. Now we just let it go. After that hard stage goes, it tenderizes."
At this point Jupiter's got the game so far under his control he wants to expand his repertoire, perhaps doing caribou and antelopes in the expanded smokehouse they're building to accommodate the unexpected demand for whole animals. That's likely to grab some attention. "I'm really competitive," he says. "I want everybody to know I'm here. We really want to make some noise and do some different stuff that isn't being done in the city right now."