Cooking with Conscience
Chefs we love not just for how they cook, but also for how they care.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – A few months ago, The Planet awarded Wes Hamilton Best Chef Championing Sustainability for the Best of Jackson Hole issue. We recognized Hamilton for his holistic approach to creating great food while taking care of his employees, striving to source ingredients locally, reducing food waste, and amping up the nutritional value of food at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Kids’ Ranch.
Leaders like Hamilton have paved the way for a new generation of chefs in Jackson Hole turning heads not just for how well they cook, but for how much they care. Supporting local farmers and producers, these chefs are taking the food movement’s mantra of eating locally and sustainably to a whole new level. By creating a family atmosphere within their kitchens, they are making the livelihood of their employees more sustainable. And by understanding how their food service impacts the community, they are helping solve our problems of food waste, excess trash, and food insecurity.
I asked a sampling of our chef community about how they put sustainability first, what they are psyched to cook right now, and the struggles of being a chef in a mountain town. Keep an eye on these chefs (and many more out there) as they continue to define what it means to be a cook who cares as much about his community as what’s on your plate.
1. Being a chef in Wyoming is especially tough 9 months of the year. How do you source ingredients seasonally in the depths of the Jackson Hole winter?
2. What are you most proud of when it comes to your foodie footprint, i.e.: the best choice you’ve made to put sustainability first?
3. What’s the hyper-seasonal summer ingredient you are most into now?
4. How do you maintain a family atmosphere in your restaurant kitchen?
5. Is there a vegetable you consider totally under-appreciated? How should we prepare it?
Chef Paul O’Connor, Cowboy Steakhouse and Old Yellowstone Garage
When we can’t use local ingredients we have several companies on the West Coast between California and Washington that we use for fruits, vegetables and produce.
We take pride in the fact that we do source sustainable food. We make everything from scratch and try to use all the by-products of the prep in other ways to utilize food waste. One example: The whey from ricotta we can make into burrata with cream, whey, xantham gum, mozz curd. We try to be very creative and think outside the box when developing menu items. I’m switching things every few weeks as products come in and out of season.
We’ve been getting into summer micro vegetables that we get from California right now. The vegetables are so fresh they speak for themselves on the plate like a crudité. The summer fruit salad with grilled peaches has been really good also. I’ve been playing around with a grilled peach & lobster corndog.
We joke around with the staff before the shift starts to loosen up the mood. We provide a staff meal at the end of everyone’s shifts so the front of the house crew can sit down with the back of house to get to know the guys in the kitchen.
I like using kalettes right now—it’s a cross between Brussel sprouts and kale. It’s great deep fried with soy, peanuts and a kung po sauce.
Private Chef Eric Wilson
I make lots of soups from the produce at the last farmers markets. But I don’t have a lot of time to put up food, so I have to rely on FedEx.
I buy directly from farms and farmers markets. All summer, I don’t even need to go to the grocery store.
Hakurei turnips. They are really sweet right now. I serve them raw in a shaved vegetable salad, grilled over a wood fire, pureed into soups. I like to serve a seared scallop on top of the braised greens, with a sauce of the turnip puree.
Romanesco. Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Grill over hardwood until blackened. Serve with a black garlic vinaigrette.
Chef Paul Wireman, Trio and Local
When we opened Local we said that what Jackson can do, is cheese, beer and beef. We try to stick to this and sub some vegetables from as close as possible.
One of our chefs, Nate Ray, left us to open his own goat cheese farm, Winter Winds Farm, over the hill. We are excited to work closely with him and using the Lockhart Cattle Company at both places for their grass fed beef. We just started saving food for the pigs at Haderlie Farms at both places, which we get to eat this fall!
Asparagus from Gorgy for gordos, the mushrooms have been great this spring, and Nate’s Winter Winds Farm cheese.
We are a family place, we eat together, have a drink together at the end of the night and enjoy spending time together out side of work. I can say that I am friends with everyone that works with me. That’s it really, we all work together. I don’t ask anyone to do something I don’t do.
Mustard greens and fresh chickpeas. Mustard is braised with bacon, onions and vinegar. Chickpeas (after you clean them) are quickly blanched and used with lemon, in a salad, or with grilled fish.
Chef René Stein, The Rose
Last winter I looked for farms that are organic and sustainable, much like the ones I use here. I was able to source great quality product from Babé Farms in Santa Maria, California. But I also tried to put up as much food as possible at the end of the growing season. I preserved flowers and tomatoes, and turned 15 pounds of butternut squash into a puree that lasted until February.
I am proud that we stick to our guns about being local and seasonal as much as we can. Sometimes private clients want to see a menu for a party 3 months away, and I just can’t do that to really cook sustainably. I don’t let you tell me what to cook. I don’t tell myself what to cook. I let Mother Nature tell me what to cook.
The baby beets from Haderlie’s Farm. They are so sweet, like candy pops.
It’s all about being respectful and trying to have fun. I don’t want my employees to go through what I did while training — people trying to making you cry, getting all personal. We work hard, for sure, but I think we all function better when we are having fun.
Bitter greens. People just don’t get bitter greens like chicories, dandelion greens, and radicchio. I think we have lost our connection to bitter vegetables because we are spoiled by having everything taste too sweet. Radicchio is great cut into wedges, brushed with olive oil, and cooked on the grill or in a pan. When it’s wilted and burnt in spots, season with salt and pepper, a dash of good vinegar, and some good local honey.
Chef Evan Parker, Amangani
At the Inn at Little Washington, where I was for the last five years, we had 3 acres of gardens out back and a long growing season. I had two full-time gardeners, a full time pickler, and a whole cellar for canning and jams. There’s a long list of things we want to do here [at Amangani], like have a rooftop garden that is accessible. Back in Virginia it was normal practice; here it’s the new frontier because the growing season is so short. It sure was nice to pull pickles out of the cellar, and have jam from our own berries in December. We just teamed up with Vertical Harvest as part of the Culinary Circle. That will really help keep us supplied with fresh vegetables all winter long.
I am new here, but I’m slowly getting the kitchen on a more sustainable path. We are ordering more and more from local farms, choosing sustainable fish, and recycling cooking oil. All of our extra food goes to the Good Samaritan Mission. Each week we load up the back of my car with the food we won’t use, including a case or two of fresh vegetables, and drop it off. Even simple things like turning off lights has saved the hotel in energy costs, and directly affects the resources consumed by the valley.
We are just finishing up asparagus, peas and morels, and moving on to pattypan squash and corn. I am getting some great pattypan squash that my sous chefs pick up at a farm on their way into work from Star Valley.
I brought half my kitchen here from the Inn, so you could say we are all family. I recruited these guys as young kids, and they have stayed with me for the last three to four years. My sister went to kindergarten with one of my cooks; another is my wife’s maid of honor. When I decided to move, they asked if they could come too. They all stayed with me at my house and then one-by-one we found them other places to live. Two live in Pinedale, and my sous chef still lives with my wife and me. Two other cooks had to move back to Virginia because of housing. My morning crew is all related to each other and they all live together. Another little family is the employees that were already here. Now my kitchen family from the Inn is integrated with these other two families. We are all learning how to work together. We are definitely hitting our stride.
All the underappreciated vegetables, like kale and Brussels sprouts, have been popular for so long we are taking them off the menu. Our cauliflower curry dahl dish is one of our best selling dishes, sometimes more popular than our meat dishes. I need to get ahold of some Lake Trout to see what I can do with it, help out with getting rid of it as an invasive species.
Chef Eric Greenwood, Rendezvous Bistro
“Seasonally” is not such a common word around here, most chefs in this area that are passionate about local ingredients have accepted the term “regional.” I try to keep as much produce and ingredients I buy grown within 400 miles when available. In the summer months, it is easy to source food from some smaller farms in Idaho and bigger producers in Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Montana. In the winter, I try to get organic and all natural products.
I am very proud of the seafood we have chosen to bring in. I only get seafood that ranks on best or good alternative on the Monterey Bay Seafood watch. That program monitors the sustainability of seafood and tracks the environmental impact of certain farmers, fisheries, and producers.
Currently, I am really into the greens that Vertical Harvest is producing—the lettuces, herbs, and micro greens are amazing! Stone fruit is starting to show up from Idaho and Utah and the stuff that I have had is almost orgasmic!
I say hello to each and every employee every day as soon as they clock into their shift. It doesnt matter if they are white, Latino, Eastern European, etc. I also try to learn how to say hello in their native tongue. I engage in conversation with my staff whenever I have a moment. It is really disturbing how many J1 people I have talked to that said that they are working at a hotel and they are literally treated like slaves. Nobody says hello, knows their name, or cares how their day is going. I am very proud of the family vibe that we have and continue to create in my kitchen.
My firm belief is that if you start with a great product, you don’t need to do much to it. K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Sweetie—hands down one of my favorite lines. A fresh zucchini, for example, grown properly, needs little more than some salt and pepper. You can roast it, saute it or steam it; it will taste delicious. Asparagus, when in season (spring, early summer) can been eaten raw, grilled, roasted, sauteed. To say it differently, I don’t think there is an under-appreciated ingredient. I feel like we should use ingredients when they are in season. If you eat a tomato in February, it is not going to taste good at all unless you do all sorts of things to it. A tomato in July, however, can be eaten like an apple. I encourage folks to learn the seasons of fruits and vegetables and only eat them during that time. I will only eat asparagus in the spring/early summer. I have no interest in eating it any other time of the year.
Chef Matty Melehes, Q Roadhouse
I rely on a very particular young man by the name of Alex Feher. He is my contact with the Huidekoper Ranch and has been a massive help in leading the charge in sourcing local food for me. Last winter was a massive breakthrough in my mind. They have built a really well insulated greenhouse [on Teton Pass], enabling me to keep a Ranch Salad with locally grown greens on the menu all winter long.
I am most proud of becoming the first chef in Jackson Hole to become a restaurant partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. I spent a good portion of my childhood along the shores of the Sea of Cortez, and the ocean will always hold a very special place in my heart. To be a chef in arguably one of the most landlocked states in our country, it still seemed irresponsible for me to not be looking at the future of our oceans. It was a 2-year process, but it was a really good feeling to finally get the plaque with our name on it, even if 10 out of 500 customers see it, The fact that I know in my heart we are making a commitment to change, it’s worth it.
It’s not hyper-seasonal, but I have taken a huge interest in pine lately. We have been developing vinegars, syrups, pickling solutions, etc., that most customers will get to enjoy in the fall or winter because those flavors work better when it’s cold. I just keep staring out the windows of the Roadhouse and seeing so many pine trees that are always flush with needles. It got me thinking — this is the most abundant year-round product that we have access to, why are we not using it more, and in different ways?
I hire families! My prep staff is a mother and her two sons, no joke. And they are absolute champions. Also, to be a chef is so much more than a person who can cook. You must be a leader, a dad, a principle, an accountant, a coach, a judge, and sometimes jury and executioner as well. But above all you need to have a team that believes in your dream and what you are trying to accomplish. So you have to be honest, fair, and most importantly, inspiring. Trust me, none of this comes easy, and every single day is a struggle, but if the people who work for you and with you know that you can still do all this, and be the first one in, and the last one out—while still maintaining a positive attitude—they will respect you, and eventually love you.
I have been infatuated with the transformation of bitter greens recently. So a small project would be to take the beauty and color of a dandelion, but transform it into something palatable.
Chef Hollie Hollensbe, The Kitchen
I think it’s important to have a good relationship with your vendors. I keep in touch with them constantly to learn what products they carry seasonally and year-round. Now Vertical Harvest, which Fine Dining helps support and raise money for, will be a great way to get great fresh produce here in the winter, which I’m really looking forward to.
Our use of Carter Country beef. All of Carter Country beef is Black Angus, all natural, grass/corn feed, free range cattle. We buy whole cows from Carter Country so we get a variety of different cuts of meat that we can be creative with. It’s a very exciting thing for us. On The Kitchen menu we serve as an entree, “Carter Country Steak,” which gives us the freedom to switch up different cuts of meat throughout a season. Right now we are using a ribeye. When that’s gone, we will switch to top sirloin, or filet, etc.
I know it sounds simple, but for me it’s heirloom tomatoes. Tomatoes are best in August but are delicious June through September, too. Aside from the amazing flavor and nutritional value, there are so many varieties that all have such different flavors. To name a few: grape, cherry, yellow, golden, roma, hot house, heirloom, hybrid, beefsteak, better boy, mandarin, green… I like that each variety has its own flavor profile—some are sweet, some are fruity, some are more acidic, and some of them are combinations.
I frequently chat with my staff to make sure they feel happy and secure in their positions, and I never hesitate to praise my crew when they’ve done a good job. I also let my staff know that their ideas and opinions are important to me. We have a quote of the day on a white board that we update and change every day to allow staff to, well, speak their mind. One that Helen [my sous chef] put up was “You call it a one night stand, I call it an audition!” Yes, we keep it light and fun because let’s face it—a kitchen staff is working when most other people are playing. When you work really hard for long hours at a time, having fun and laughing is always the best medicine. Oh and after a big push, I do high kicks and a little cheer for everyone.
Celery. First off, it’s healthy, with loads of Vitamin K, potassium, Vitamin C and dietary fiber. It’s also rich in flavor and can be used as a wonderful thickener in salsas and sauces. Try pan searing Roma tomatoes, celery, onions, jalapeno, garlic and salt and pepper until the onions turn translucent, deglaze it with some tequila, if you want to get fancy, and then blend it in a Vita-Prep, blender, or Cuisinart. It adds a wonderfully crisp flavor to the salsa, perfect for summer. In the winter I add large chunks of celery to stews, braised meats, or slow cooker meals. It absorbs flavor and holds up well for leftovers. PJH