How Chicago's Best Restaurants Get Their Goat
“Everything that people do with pigs, we do all of that with goat,” says Chicago-based chef Stephanie Izard, who sources her meat from Kilgus Farmstead.
Backlit intermittently by what passes for sunshine in early November in Chicago, Stephanie Izard sat at a communal bench table in the private dining room above Little Goat, her diner and bakery located catty-corner from her famed Girl & The Goat, the Randolph Street pillars of her Ruminant Empire (her newest restaurant, Duck Duck Goat, lies a short walk away on Fulton, de riguer for restaurants). A smattering of the team that helps her run her various ventures sit at another bench, and a small stack of papers sits in front of her, which she reads over occasionally as she talks about the animal most associated with her culinary career.
The Top Chef winner was inspired to name her flagship by her surname; "Izard" is French for the Pyrenean chamois, a goat antelope that roams the mountains separating France from Spain.
"I found that out, and I was like 'that's really cool. I should name my restaurant something [related] to goat,'" Izard said. "Because I had a restaurant before that called Scylla that nobody could pronounce and it was just terrible and I was like, 'goat' is so much easier to pronounce! So we ended up with Girl & The Goat, and then it was like, oh shoot, we should probably serve goat."
Izard's restaurants use a dizzying array of goat cuts, which she rattled off (sometimes pointing at the body part in question). At Girl & The Goat, one can find shanks, necks, whole shoulders, goat carpaccio, mid-rare wet-aged goat loins, goat ribs, goat empanadas, goat belly, and whole goat legs.
"Everything that people do with pigs, we do all of that with goat," Izard said. "But it took some time to figure out how to make the goat taste as good, so we definitely treat it a little bit different than pigs because of that."
Leaner than beef, pork, chicken, or lamb, goat can dry out easily, according to Izard, requiring some creative cooking. To make the goat belly, for example, requires multiple cuts of belly confit—so lean is the meat that when they first began, Izard had to use duck fat to get the process going before acquiring enough product for a true goat fat confit—that are then stacked and pressed together into a thick, fat piece resembling pork belly.
"Over time, we've been able to figure out how to do all sorts of stuff with the goat," Izard said.
Goat's relative rarity in the US also attracted Izard to the protein, which, despite being broadly eaten internationally, is fairly alien to American palates. Often served slathered in curries or spices, goat is a more complicated taste to work with than the usual beef, pork, or poultry, Izard noted.
"It's very intensely flavored … it's, like, gamey," Izard said, "for lack of a word for it—it's like goaty, but 'gamey' is the only word that really means anything—so I think that's why people steer away from it."
Izard tasted goat from a few farms before deciding on a supplier who had earned their reputation on the plates of Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill, the same flesh that ground the infamous Cubs Curse into sausage and was feasted on by the Cubs' Theo Epstein after hell froze over. Naturally, Izard prepared the goat.
"We ended up picking Kilgus as the best-tasting goat. The goat from there doesn't have that gamey flavor," Izard said. "It's really just fresh and delicious-tasting. It's awesome."
A couple hours south of Cook County, the pool table metropolis of Chicago gives way to the even flatter former prairie, which in turn has been given over to agriculture; on December 1, after the harvest season, tilled fields sit with the luxe organic blackness of oil, interspersed with the dry tans of Shearling coats and a little haggard green, laying like a great flat calico cat fur beneath a dramatic sky, which runs flush with the land on the horizon as massive morning clouds move across it like glaciers. The most dynamic gradients are the overpasses and the billboards advertising seed financing. The wind, unabated, gathers itself up across the plains and pushes the cars on Interstate 75 sideways.
Out here lies the Kilgus Farmstead, and at 8:30 in the morning the Jersey cows are busy devouring their breakfast. Justin Kilgus, fresh off morning chores in a knit hat and Farmstead fleece, pulls into the expansive driveway in a pickup before jumping into another car and leading me just a minute or two down the road to where the goats are raised, a complex of barns, feed storage, and a farmhouse. A fire burns in a large cage set away from the barns, a welcome sight on the chilly morning, and Kilgus' Boer goats push eagerly up to the fence of their lot and take playful runs at each other, breaching half-speed like dolphins and never quite getting horn-to-horn.
A South African breed bred for meat, the Boer is considerably more majestic than what one usually thinks of when conjuring up an image of a goat; less scraggly than their dairy cousins, Boers have impressive chests and necks, topped by rounded heads reminiscent of a 5 wood, large, dangling leporine ears, and lowish-profile horns that appear slicked back like a pompadour. The prototypical Boer is white with a brown head and neck—although they can also come completely brown or "paint," meaning with color splotches on the rest of their body—ranging in color from a rich russet to soft caramel.
Kilgus' goats are not turned out to pasture. While goats, browsing feeders, are well-known for their ability to get along quite well munching on whatever they can find—a characteristic that makes them highly sustainable and relatively simple as far as livestock goes, at one time even being left on islands as future food for passing sailors or shipwreck survivors—their ad hoc diet contributes to their goaty taste.
"Our grain makes the difference," Kilgus says. By using open lots with barns for cover, Kilgus' goats get a richer diet—which leads to more marbling and fat cover, i.e., tastier goats—and the room to run around. Free access to hay makes certain that their rumen is balanced, which in turn lets them have free choice of grain. The grain all comes from the family farm, and while they are not technically organic—they will inoculate a sick goat, for instance—they do not use any GMOs.
"We feel like if you can control the feed that's going into your animal, you can control the animal from birth to market—basically all aspects of the animal—you're going to produce a higher quality product," Kilgus says.
The goats live in a variety of barns, depending on their purpose and life stage. Closest to the farmhouse is an insulated kidding barn, opened up in the summer and kept between 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to ensure warm, active, and voracious kids. At about a month and a half, the kid goes to the doe barn, where it spends five to six weeks nursed among the does, including a few dairy goats interspersed among them to make up for the Boer's lesser milk production. After they are weaned, does remain in the doe barn until they kid again, while the market kids go to the finishing barns, where they self-feed and roam for a little over a year before they are harvested.
Rick Bayless was not only the first restaurateur to use Kilgus' goats; he also played a crucial role in getting the goat meat farm off the ground. Justin Kilgus and his brother Trent first got dairy goats at 14 and 12, respectively, for a 4H project. Spence Farms, a neighbor who had already been supplying Bayless with produce, began taking a goat from the boys up to Chicago once or twice a month. With a willing market already in front of them, the Kilgus boys only needed the capital when they applied for a grant from Bayless' Frontera Farmer Foundation.
Their $12,000 grant, Kilgus says, "is what took us from four or five goats in one of dad's barns to a herd of 25. Basically, at 15, at that point, I didn't have the funds to build a building and start an entity. It really is, probably, the Farmer Foundation Grant that gave us the infrastructure to start into the goats."
Realizing that meat was both less capital-intensive than dairy and had a larger potential market—including, of course, Bayless—the Kilgus brothers shipped in a breeding stock of Boers from Texas and began the farm in earnest. "We got the building up, and we were just supplying Rick at that point," Kilgus says. "The first couple years ... Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill was our only account. They were truly what got us started on it, truly what got us going on it."
The brothers had, essentially, a working agricultural business before graduating high school, and one that, through a slow, controlled growth, turned a profit every year, according to Kilgus. The Kilgus Farmstead, with its diversified products and focus on localized distribution and restaurants, represents what could be the future of American agribusiness, staking out a place between artisan agriculture and massive, commoditized farms, a balance embodied in the goats: not backyard pastured, but not confined either, occupying a middle ground in the market about the size of an open lot.
"It kind of turned into an entity that was able to bring both myself and my brother back to the farm," Kilgus says. "I believe [that the] opportunity, in this day and age, you've either got to diversify and go more specialty market, or you've got to become a larger facility. We felt like to go larger wasn't the answer … A lot of people go confinement, but to humanely treat the animals, we weren't going to go confinement. We started with the goats, we went direct to the end user, that then lead to our milk processing plant, which led into doing hogs, which led into doing beef, and kind of our four main products we do today."
Rick Bayless characterizes goat as tasting like "lamb crossed with pork," and he has been serving goats from Kilgus for over a decade.
"We asked the boys, 'Is there any way that you could raise Boer goats—meat goats—for us?'" Bayless said via phone. "That's how it got started."
In Bayless' experience, the goat goes over well.
"To tell you the truth, people go crazy for it," Bayless said. "It may be their first time to have it, but, like, on Saturday, we do a torta at Xoco which is this goat barbacoa, and it will, without a doubt, be our biggest selling special torta of the week."
According to Bayless, goat is best braised, and the goats in his restaurants are treated how they would be in Mexico, with a whole animal slowly braised in a wood-burning oven. They stoke the oven, marinate the goat, pour in liquid to half its depth, cover it in banana leaves, and let it cook overnight.
While the quality of the Kilgus goats is the most obvious reason Bayless uses them, the nature of the operation is important to him, too. Bayless seeks to use his position as a major food purchaser to help alter the agricultural system. Kilgus, which Bayless provided with both capital and a market, is indicative of the kind of change he wants to see, one wherein restaurants source local products, the farmers raise more livestock and grow more produce, and fresh, local food becomes more affordable.
"So that it's not thinking of food as a commodity," Bayless said. "They're thinking of it as something that is crafted by people who really care about what they are doing."