Yes, You Can Cook a Whole Alligator at Home
Around the country, chefs are roasting whole gators for curious eaters. We tried to see if it could be done at home.
Like something out of a New York urban legend, there’s a 20-pound alligator curled up in the kitchen sink of my Brooklyn apartment.
Fortunately, it’s been skinned from neck to tail, so only its head—including teeth—and claws remain intact. The meat has been tamed by a fragrant two-day brine of sage, cayenne, ground thyme, garlic, peppercorns, salt and brown sugar. Even in this state, it’s a little terrifying.
To tackle this dish, I’ve enlisted the help of chef Adam Lathan, an Alabama-born New York transplant and owner of The Gumbo Bros restaurant. From the start, he has made it clear he’s suspect that a 4-foot alligator could be slow-roasted in my ordinary oven and finished with smoke on my standard Weber grill. (He uses a commercial convection oven and a large drum smoker when he cooks his gators.)
“I thought you were crazy,” Lathan says frankly as we load up a meat syringe to inject the gator with spicy melted Cajun butter. “There’s no way you really want to do this.”
After a lot of negotiations, here we are on a recent afternoon, still not sure that this is going to work. We settle on a plan to slow-roast the gator in my run-of-the-mill Whirlpool oven to about 155 degrees and then transfer it to the grill where it will be finished to 165 degrees over low-burning wood chips.
The journey started a few weeks earlier with the kind of email from a publicist that litters journalists’ inboxes: “RSVP: Alligator Roast.” There’d be crawfish, jambalaya, but whole gator was the main attraction of the event.
Since my first trip to New Orleans during spring break in college more than 20 years ago, I have tried gator many ways: breaded and fried into nuggets, dried into jerky, encased in sausage, folded into jambalaya, stewed in gumbo. But I had yet to come across an entire alligator.
Do people really eat it that way? I was soon heading down an internet rabbit hole, enamored by video after amateur video of whole gators being cooked. Bacon wrapped gator is common as is stuffing an apple into its mouth, which gives it a more menacing look.
“Um, yes, please,” I responded and arrived a few days later to find a 15-pound gator nestled on a platter inside Lathan’s Gumbo Bros restaurant. The flavor was chicken meets the sea (or swamp). The legs were more like gamey dark meat turkey. The thickest parts of the tail had the taste and texture of a well-cooked pork tenderloin.
Lathan got the idea of roasting whole gators in the parking lot of the Superdome in New Orleans. “I went to tailgate for a Saints game and somebody had a full alligator,” he remembers. “I saw it in person and thought that is so cool.”
In 2017, on a packed street in Brooklyn, he presented two gators that had been slow-cooked in a convection oven and then smoked. “People were going nuts,” he said.
Since that original demonstration, Lathan has cooked roughly ten alligators at catering gigs, including two separate times at Google’s Manhattan headquarters. “We are the premiere alligator roaster in New York City,” he jokes, with a touch of swagger. He’s probably not wrong.
The latest novelty in whole animal cooking, gator seems to be a phenomenon that has been gaining strength over the past decade, fueled by a host of developments, including viral YouTube videos, like one by the BBQ Pit Boys that has been viewed more than 8 million times; the nine-year run of Swamp People on the History Channel; and five minutes of fame from Andrew Zimmern, the I’ll-eat-anything host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.
“Alligator got quite popular after the Swamp People show on TV,” says Avery Smith, who co-owns Louisiana Crawfish Company in Central Louisiana and provides whole gators to Lathan and other chefs around the country as well as parts from nuggets to ribs to tenderloins.
With more than 30 years in business, she says the company has always carried whole alligator but said she saw a “big shift” as the show gained in popularity. Only a few years ago, she had maybe five or six in the freezer and they would sit for a few weeks. Now she orders 20 gators each week and sells out. “It’s one of our top sellers,” she says. “You get people calling saying they are having a Swamp People watching party and want to order alligator.”
“This is a fairly new thing,” Smith said. “We have always had alligator on farms here. I have hunted them, I have eaten them, but I have never roasted or smoked a whole alligator until it became a thing. The first time we did that was three years ago.”
Alligator meat is nothing new. Spend any time in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and even parts of Texas or Georgia, and you’ll see it on menus.
Once endangered in the '70s, alligator has seen a comeback over the last two decades with the help of strict regulation and heavy conservation efforts, which have led to a burgeoning industry for its skins (belts, shoes, coats, and handbags). The meat has often been secondary, but has seen an increase in value as states push its health benefits (Louisiana has even created a cookbook) as a lean substitute to red meat.
“We take them for granted, but people go nuts when they see an alligator,” says Rick Phillips, who spent more than two decades as the owner of Phillips Seafood, a Louisiana purveyor of “Swamp Seafood.”
“Alligator is like a big word,” he says. “On my Twitter, I get three times as many hits when I post a photo of a gator then when I post one of a pretty sunset.”
Phillips helped introduce whole alligator to a wider audience after he invited Zimmern to the tiny hamlet of Bayou Pigeon in the heart of Cajun country to try a gator that was stuffed and roasted in what the locals call a “Cajun microwave,” an inverted cooker invented by the Chinese that found its way to Louisiana through the Caribbean.
Among those ordering gators from Smith is Black Sugar Rib Company, which began giving away gator for free on Sundays at Smorgasburg in Los Angeles. Owner Arnold Rodriguez builds buzz by announcing on Instagram that a gator is on the smoker about two hours before it’s ready to eat.
His gators are marinated just before they go on the smoker in his “basic rub” (details of which he won’t share except to say it has four dry ingredients) and sprayed now and then over three to four hours with a “black sugar.”
So far, Black Sugar Rib has given away more than two-dozen gators and has served them at a number of its catering jobs, including bringing five of them to the 2017 L.A. Auto Show.
The gators alone run between $400 and $500 each, and he estimates the total cost of cooking one is between $800 and $900, which includes time and labor. He has to have an extra person on hand to make sure that the thinner parts of the gator, like the legs and tip of the tail, don’t burn before the bulkier sections cook through.
To Rodriguez, it’s all marketing. “We really want people to walk by our booth at 10 a.m. and be like what the hell,” he says. “We want people to go to the office Monday morning and talk about it at the water cooler. Doing a whole pig is nothing compared to a whole gator.”
At Frontier in Chicago, where the “whole animal experience” is a big part of the menu, Chef Brian Jupiter, who is originally from New Orleans, serves between two and four alligators a week and occasionally also does so at catering events, including one at a recent wedding. A six-foot gator with sides that feeds 10 to 12 people runs about $700. It arrives whole and is carved table side.
In Jacksonville, Florida, Chef Kenny Gilbert, who was on Season 7 of Top Chef, treats his gators like whole hogs, brining and smoking them and then pulling the meat—the technique is most similar to Lathan’s.
“You get a little bit of everything, the jowl meat, the dark meat from the legs,” he says. “When I am done pulling the whole thing, the only thing left is the carcass.” To Gilbert, alligator is part of “Florida barbecue.”
When Lathan first thought about cooking a gator, his first instinct was to smoke it. But his pit master friend dissuaded him from that idea. “My buddy scared the hell out of me,” he said. Alligators are low in fat and smoking meat is a learned art. The likelihood of drying it out was very high.
He decided to treat the gator the way he does turkey at Thanksgiving: brined and injected with a flavored butter before slow roasting. “One of the things we like to do is a long and intense brine,” he told me.
So, that’s what we did with my gator. I also rubbed it with ghee (a South Asian, slightly smoky clarified butter) instead of oil—my idea since it does the same thing but adds flavor and makes the house smell so damn good. It then got a heavy coating of a crimson red Cajun rub.
Before it went into the oven, Lathan warned me that “its head’s going to fall off. It always falls off.” He was right. The head is there for no other reason than the full spectacle. Nearly every chef who I spoke with said a customer will inevitably ask if they can take the head home. “I usually give it to an adult because the teeth are sharp,” chef Arnold Rodriguez joked.
Since it’s cooked low and slow, the gator has to be basted frequently. About three-and-a-half hours later, it’s finally reached an internal temperature of 155 degrees. It’s firm but tender, the meat at this point has a nice red hue from the Cajun coating. We pull it out of the oven and head to the smoker in my backyard.
About 25 minutes later, the gator has reached 165 degrees. It’s now a glorious mahogany from the smoke. We let it cool for about 15 minutes. Friends swarm, taking photos.
Finally, I get my first taste. The crust is crisp and spicy with hints of smoke. Unlike the one I had tasted a few weeks earlier, this one is bigger and has more of a pork-like quality and is so much more tender. Soon others dig in. Lathan pulls out a knife and like a skilled butcher begins carving, pulling off slabs and plating them on heaping bowls of rice.
At the end of the night, I have the option of keeping the gator’s head. But its teeth are too sharp for my young kids. My 3-year-old had already declared, “I am scared,” when the gator first arrived. My family and I—OK, mostly me—ate gator for the rest of the week. It was good for fried rice, a pot pie, and even in “chicken” salad.
I just wish I had frozen some.