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Meet the chef Q&A: Erik Van Kley

Whole Rabbit Porchetta at Little Bird Bistro in Portland, Ore., is executive chef Erik Van Kley’s riff on a hearty, traditional Italian pork dish, but made with lean, delicate rabbit instead.

Van Kley’s entrée for two, priced at $65, uses up an entire rabbit. It yields two rolled porchetta portions, a pair of legs cooked confit style and two pieces of toasted baguette spread with rabbit liver mousse, finished with a rabbit jus enriched with Dijon mustard and crème fraiche.

Like its sibling restaurant Le Pigeon, which also is owned by chef Gabriel Rucker, Little Bird is a playground for adventurous palates.

“We have whole roasted marrow bones, lots of foie gras, a charcuterie board with six items made in house, a lot of tongue and blood sausage,” says Van Kley. “We sell a lot of off cuts. That’s why people come to us. They know they can find it here.”

What is the idea of Whole Rabbit Porchetta?
It was something that I made for a game cooking competition this summer. I looked for a way to use the entire animal, because that always looks good to the judges. Also, I wanted to have a dinner-for-two entrée, which we never had before. It worked out great.

How do customers react to the Porchetta?
Most people sit upright when it reaches the table. They ordered an entrée for two, so they expect a lot of food, but not that much. It is on an oval plate with the presentation mirrored on each end. If you are seated at a two-top facing another guest, each of you gets your own presentation.

How did you translate this traditional pork dish to rabbit?
Rabbit is substantially more delicate than pork, so we had to lighten up the flavors a bit. At the same time, we used flavor profiles that cater to the rabbit, like mustard and caraway.
Italian porchetta traditionally should be made from the entire animal. What it has turned into, especially in the U.S., for ease and convenience, and you can’t argue with the thought process, is pork belly wrapped around sausage. We kind of have the true porchetta with ours, because other than the fact it is a rabbit not a pig, we are using the entire thing.

What are some tips for cooking great rabbit?
You always have to add fat to it, because it is an extremely lean animal. It will cook very quickly, but there is a fine line between where it is just cooked all the way through and where it has what I would call a mushy mouth feel. If you take it a little further it will firm up and you will have a much more pleasant time.

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