Anatomy of a Classic

DIY Duck Pastrami

Whether you bring it home from a blind or a butcher shop, when it’s seasoned, smoked, and sliced, it makes a bold party-platter statement

Photo: Johnny Autry

When the cold comes on hard on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and ducks and geese fly low on their journey south, Wade Truong considers the birds with a chef’s eye. Then he gets his shotgun.

The prizes are the breasts, some of which will weigh a pound apiece after he harvests them. He soaks them in a spicy brine, adds a rub, and smokes them. The result tastes a lot like good, old-fashioned pastrami and is terrific sliced and served like charcuterie on a holiday cheeseboard or stacked into a Reuben sandwich. If you don’t hunt, don’t despair. His approach works on wild waterfowl but also with farm-raised duck, which you can find at most butcher shops.

Johnny Autry

For Truong, who is the executive chef at Kybecca in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the recipe reflects a lifetime of experience. He’s the son of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the United States in the 1970s. He grew up working in the family restaurant, the Saigon Café, in Harrisonburg. As a child, he fished with his father, who had been a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army. But hunting was not part of the equation. “My family didn’t have an aversion to hunting, but my father had an aversion to firearms in general,” Truong says.

By the time Truong was a teenager, he knew he was happiest in the woods. By his early twenties, the young chef turned to hunting as a way to connect more deeply with the food he was cooking. But he had no idea how to do it. So he asked farmers who supplied Kybecca where to find open land and used Google searches to figure out how to butcher his first deer when he finally took one down.

Now almost everything the thirty-three-year-old chef harvests finds a place on his table. When he gets home with his birds, he turns the legs into confit and the feet into stock. The breasts become pastrami, using a process that takes more time than technique. A long bath in a brine with a small bit of sodium nitrite, a common preservative you can find at most kitchen-supply stores or online, is more for color than for food safety. The brine needs to penetrate the meat completely or it will be gray in the middle. But the curing agent is not essential, he says. “If you are keeping everything nice and clean and cooled down and nothing is at room temperature, it’s really not going to affect the safety, but you want it to give the breast that bright red color,” he says.

Johnny Autry

Truong likes the rub to be chunky, so he grinds the spices coarsely. “You don’t want it crunchy by any means, but you want a little texture,” he says. “When the spices are a little coarser, you get a big flavor pop.”

Cooking the duck is simple work with a smoker, though you can also use a charcoal grill; bank the coals and soaked wood chips on one side, place the duck breasts on the other over a pan of water, then just keep the temperature at 250°F by adding or subtracting coals until the meat is cooked to your desired temperature. “What you want,” he says, “is something that has texture and flavor and that honors the game.”   


  • For the brine:

    • 1 gallon water, divided

    • 2/3 cup brown sugar

    • 6 tbsp. kosher salt

    • 5 tsp. preserving salt, such as Instacure No. 1 or pink curing salt

    • 2 tbsp. coriander seed

    • 2 tbsp. yellow mustard seed

    • 2 tbsp. black peppercorns

    • 2 tsp. fennel seed

    • 1 cinnamon stick

    • 1 tbsp. chile flakes

    • 2 tsp. whole cloves

    • 6 bay leaves

  • For the Spice Rub

    • 3 tbsp. brown sugar

    • 3 tbsp. kosher salt

    • 3 tbsp. black pepper

    • 2 tsp. garlic powder

    • 2 tbsp. coriander

    • seed, ground

    • 2 tsp. juniper

    • berries, ground

    • 2 tsp. chile flakes, ground


  1. Pour half a gallon of water into a stockpot or a Dutch oven. Add all other brine ingredients, stir, and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Once ingredients are dissolved, remove from heat, and add remaining half gallon of cold water to speed cooling. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. The brine can be prepared several days in advance.

  2. Place the breasts in the cooled brine (use a ceramic plate to keep the meat submerged if needed). Refrigerate 12–24 hours for small breasts or 18–24 for larger ones, and agitate daily to allow even brining.

  3. For the rub, combine all ingredients in a bowl. Remove breasts from brine and pat dry. Apply spice rub evenly to all sides of breasts.

  4. Preheat smoker to 250°F, place breasts on top rack (skin side up), and smoke until internal temperature reaches 140°F, about 1½–2 hours. (If using a charcoal grill, set up for indirect heat and monitor temperature, adjusting with hot coals as needed.) Let rest and slice on the bias.

  5. Serve with cheese, mustards, and spicy greens for a great party platter or starter, or use as sandwich meat.

Meet the Chef: Wade Truong

Hometown:  Fredericksburg, Virginia
Favorite  piece of cooking equipment:  “I’ve had my
Le Creuset pot for fifteen years or so. There’s nothing you can’t cook in there.”
Favorite piece of hunting equipment: A gundog.  He doesn’t have one yet but dreams of getting a Chessie or a Lab. “I love watching a dog work. It’s almost better than hunting.”