Order the kiawe-grilled venison tenderloin at Hy’s Steak House or the venison rack at Alan Wong’s, and your meal will help to save Hawai‘i. In the 1960s, when the state Department of Land and Natural Resources didn’t know any better, it introduced axis deer from Lāna‘i to Maui to promote game hunting. Axis deer are not native to Hawai‘i and have no natural predators here, so naturally they have multiplied. And multiplied and multiplied. And as they’ve multiplied, so has the damage they’ve inflicted on native ecosystems and ranch lands.
This gave Jacob Muise, a Maui hunter who helps the state manage deer populations, an idea: Why not sell deer meat to local restaurants? These days, controlling invasive species by eating them has become so popular there’s a term for it: invasivorism. Considering some of the other things that invasivores readily devour—such as earthworms, bullfrogs and nutria, the aquatic South American rodent—putting tasty wild venison on the menu seemed like a good bet.
Muise and his partner Kimo Tuyay started Maui Nui Venison in 2014, supplying a variety of meat cuts to restaurants across Hawai‘i. Thanks to them, local venison can now be found seared and served with pohā berries at Mama’s Fish House in Pā‘ia, tucked into puff pastry for dim sum at Yauatcha in Waikīkī and wrapped in lū‘au leaves with mushrooms for a Hawaiian Wellington at Senia in Honolulu. They also make deer jerky, which is sold at local farmers markets and appears in the gift baskets for men assembled by a company called Broquet (rhymes with bouquet).
The venison is certified by the US Department of Agriculture, a process that requires a USDA inspector to follow hunters into the field in the middle of the night (8 p.m. to 4 a.m. is prime deer hunting time) to ensure the animals are killed quickly and brought to the processing facility immediately. Axis deer meat is leaner and lower in saturated fats than beef, and it lacks the toughness of other game meats. According to Tuyay, the stringent hunting and processing guidelines ensure that “the flavor is intact, with little to no gaminess.” Tuyay likes to point out that Maui venison is a product of the Islands that benefits the Islands. “We’re trying to promote keeping the meat here in Hawai‘i,” he says, “while helping the ecosystem here in Hawai‘i.”