Rare Breed

John Hooper bets the ranch on a herd of yaks

THE JUICY FILLET I AM CONSUMING in Corks Grill and Wine Bar, a stylish little restaurant tucked into a strip mall in St. Cloud, is yak meat. The Himalayan beast is so precious to Tibetans that Buddhist priests bless them on the Dalai Lama’s birthday. As I chew, I can’t help wondering if I’m adding dozens of unpleasant rebirths to my karmic scorecard.

Of course, the actual yak meat I am polishing off—which resembles very lean beef with just a hint of smoky exoticism—was not blessed in this time-honored manner, nor has it been shipped from Central Asia. It’s from John Hooper’s yak ranch in rural Cold Spring, southwest of St. Cloud.
Hooper, a small, wiry man with a large beard and the deliberate manner of someone who knows his way around large creatures, gave me a tour of the ranch in his compact utility vehicle. A bottle-fed baby yak named Shirley followed us like a pet poodle as we stopped to pour feed into plastic troughs and wait for the other shaggy beasts to draw near. “Yaks are inquisitive,” Hooper remarked. “They have personality.”

From the herd he started 10 years ago, now numbering more than 60, Hooper supplies meat to Corks Grill, Everest on Grand in St. Paul, and a little crossroads tavern in St. Martin called the Silver Spur, where the “yakburger” is an everyday special. He sells yak meat at several local farmers’ markets (including St. Joseph and Cold Spring) and on his website, www.yak-man.com. “Yak’s a little leaner than bison, but a lot tastier,” is his pitch.

While yaks have been bred commercially in the United States for only about 20 years, Hooper, who is vice president of the International Yak Federation, estimates there are 100-some yak operations in North America. Ranchers have found yak to be more docile and lower-maintenance than cattle or bison, and to require less food. Innovative restaurants and chefs are finding their guests enjoy the lean, flavorful yak meat—once they can convince customers to try it. Three of the yaks that live on Hooper’s ranch will never make it to the dinner table, though: they have been blessed by Buddhist priests. Two of the blessed beasts belong to Tibetan siblings who deal antiques in Stillwater. Hooper boards the animals, and, in exchange, he got his pick of Tibetan treasures, such as the beautiful yak-hair rope in his living room.

Hooper, who used to work as a farrier (horse-shoer) and trimmer of cattle hooves, had some knowledge of Asia (he’s a Vietnam vet and spent 12 weeks teaching hoof-trimming in Indonesia) before becoming interested in yaks. But when he started his herd, he was unaware that Minnesota hosted the country’s second largest concentration of Tibetan refugees. Soon local Tibetans discovered that Hooper’s ranch was a great place to bring their children for a little culture-on-the-hoof, and two of his yaks went on display for the crowd when the Dalai Lama visited Minneapolis in 2001. In 2003, Hooper traveled to Tibet as an advisor to a dairy and got to see yaks on their native ground. He was surprised—Tibetan keepers let their animals forage for food all winter, and the yaks lose a quarter to a third of their body weight.

“I baby my yaks,” said Hooper, petting Shirley and loading another bucket with feed as we completed our tour. Coming back as one of Hooper’s yaks, I mused, wouldn’t be so bad.