Meherwan Irani had his first taste of duck while visiting his brother in Australia in 2005. “It was a near religious experience,” says the executive chef and co-owner of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group and the spice company Spicewalla. “We went to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant known for its crispy duck. I was in awe of the shatteringly crisp skin paired with the unctuous meatiness of the flesh. After I finished, I was eyeing the next table’s order so longingly that they offered me some.” A few years later, Irani quit his job in sales to open his first restaurant, the James Beard Award–winning Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, where duck landed on the menu. “I find it more versatile than red meat, and more delicious and forgiving than chicken,” he says.
With duck season opening in November across much of the South, it’s a great time to refine your cooking technique. (Even if you’re purchasing fresh pasture-raised duck, the breasts will be fattier and more succulent in fall and winter.) To balance the fattiness and slight gaminess, Irani likes to pair duck with Asian flavors like soy sauce or plum sauce, or with robust, warming spices inspired by his upbringing in India, such as cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander (see recipe). And the key to a successful pan-cooked breast, he says, is properly scoring and rendering the fat—i.e., melting the fat at a medium to low temperature so it doesn’t burn—to achieve perfectly crispy skin and tender meat. “That fat, that glorious fat, helps cook the duck while also rendering out to become a ghee of the gods,” he says. “There’s a sexiness to duck that’s just unmatched by most meats.”