For most of the year, the rooftop at the restaurant Palo Santo in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is green with thriving plants and vegetables. During the winter, though, there’s still activity, but of a different sort. Palo Santo chef and owner Jacques Gautier decided to raise rabbits to make the rooftop garden productive year-round. He also raises them as a way to better understand and value the meat he uses.
The rabbits, which fare well in the cold weather, produce fertilizer that’s composted and used for the plants. They also serve as food for Gautier, his family, friends and the restaurant’s staff. New York City health code dictates that meat served in restaurants must be processed by USDA-certified slaughterhouse, so Gautier can not serve his roof-raised rabbits at Palo Santo. He serves commercially sourced rabbit — rubbed with adobo, grilled and then served in tacos (recipe below). Gautier, who also recently opened the Park Slope restaurant Fort Reno, also recommends braising rabbit in a French style with cream and mustard.
The chef admitted that seeing his rabbits as a source of food was initially difficult. “That was one reason why I took this on as a challenge,” he said. “All of my kitchen staff, restaurant staff are involved in the process of raising them, some of them in the process of slaughtering. And it was very difficult, but it gives us a much deeper appreciation for meat and for the agricultural products that we’re using.”
(Photo: Rabbits in the roof garden of Palo Santo/Jacques Gautier)
While raising chickens is more common in the city, poultry tends to evoke less warm-fuzzies than rabbits. But Gautier had a very clear reason for choosing one over the other. “The reason why I chose rabbits as opposed to chickens is that rabbits I could actually breed legally in New York City, according to health code, for my own consumption,” he said. “Chickens: you can raise them, but you’re not allowed to have roosters. You’re only allowed to have the hens because of the noise that roosters make.”
The rabbits at Palo Santo are a mixed breed that Gautier described as “mutts,” and he separates them so they have about three to four litters a year. Gautier explained that the animals and their offspring tend to be healthier that way. “From what I’ve read, rabbits can have a litter almost every month,” he explained. “So the gestation period is 28 days, and that’s exactly the... minimal amount of time it takes a rabbit to be weaned. Also rabbits can get pregnant within half an hour after giving birth.”
During the summer, Gautier had about 40 animals, though the numbers have since dwindled to approximately 20. The rabbits generally graze on weeds and herbs, which means the meat tends to reflect that grassy taste.
Gautier confessed that he dreads the day he has to tell his 1-year-old son of the rabbits’ fate, but he believes animals raised for meat are better off when people demand transparency. “I think it’s very important for people to be in touch with where their food is coming from,” Gautier said, adding that his restaurant makes it a point to use humane-certified pork, grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, and eggs from a local farm. “I have a genuine concern for animal welfare, and I believe that an increased awareness demands increased transparency.”
While the statements about animal welfare may seem perverse in the context of raising animals for meat, Gautier says that, as a chef, his most effective role is in encouraging awareness. “The majority of the people in this country and in this city and the majority of my potential customers are not vegetarians,” said Gautier, who added that he was previously vegetarian and attended vegetarian cooking school. “I don’t want to make it my goal to change what people eat, but I do want to make it my goal to change how the animals are raised that are eaten.”
Below is Gautier’s recipe for rabbit tacos.
by Jacques Gautier
makes 6 servings of 3 tacos each
- 1 ½ lbs clean rabbit loins
- 1 tsp. Annatto Seed
- 1 tsp. Cumin Seed
- 1 tsp. Coriander Seed
- 1 Chile Guajillo
- 1 Chile Ancho
- 6 Chile de Arbol
- 1 Cinnamon Stick (or 1 tsp ground cinnamon)
- 2 Tbs. Kosher Salt
Toast all ingredients on a sheet pan in a 350f oven for 15 min. Remove seeds and stems from all chilies. Grind all spices with a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder. Rub the rabbit meat with the salt and spices and let it marinate overnight.
- ½ lb Radishes Sliced
- 2 Limes cut into Wedges
- ¼ lb Fresh Herbs (Cilantro, Pepicha, Papalo)
- 2 Avocados, peeled and chopped
Cook the rabbit:
On a hot grill for about ten minutes or until it is at desired doneness. Let the meat rest and then chop it.
- 18 Corn Tortillas (can be store bought or homemade following the directions on a bag of instant corn masa)
- 1 Tbs Corn Oil
Arrange the garnishes on a serving tray. Heat the tortillas on a skillet with a little corn oil. Reheat the rabbit on the skillet and fill each tortilla with a little chopped rabbit meat to make the tacos. Put three tacos on each plate and serve with the tray of garnishes.