FEAST: The Chicken and the Egg

By on December 6, 2016

The Wild Sage is busy exploring its own backyard.

Executive chef Travis Catanzaro is obsessed with local ingredients and cultivating relationships with area food purveyors. (Photo: Traci McClintic, Brian Evans, Brian Evans)

Executive chef Travis Catanzaro is obsessed with local ingredients and cultivating relationships with area food purveyors. (Photo: Traci McClintic, Brian Evans, Brian Evans)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The Wild Sage, a 32-seat boutique style restaurant with a vast wine collection and a galley-sized kitchen, sits inside The Rusty Parrot Lodge and Spa. Though locals may tend to bypass the unassuming family owned gem on North Jackson Street, it’s been around for years, an outlier in a sense, catering to long distance travelers, not creating a buzz so much as a steady hum. Even while flying under the radar, the restaurant has let a few sound waves escape, however. And the word on the street is: “We’re going local.”

Based on principles of food ethics and creating sustainable personal connections with local agricultural communities, The Wild Sage’s blueprint includes procuring a significant amount of its meats, cheeses, and produce from within a 300-mile radius of Jackson Hole.  At the helm of this culinary evolution is 34-year-old executive chef Travis Catanzaro, whose passionate approach to food philosophy is borderline dogmatic.

“To me, food is a story,” he said. “It can be a good story or a bad story. What I want is to tell an honest story and provide more than what our customers are even asking for … a food philosophy based on ethics toward the vendor, the product, the client.”

So what comes first? Well, the chicken of course.  This summer, in very Portlandia fashion, Catanzaro loaded up his crew and took a little field trip down to the Wyoming Chicken Ranch in Afton.  There, they met with ranch owner Paul Smith, and took a tour of an operation that equated to “chicken heaven.” The 12-acre property is home to horses, Berkshire hogs, hundreds of foot loose and fancy free chickens, and a number of guard dogs employed primarily to help protect roaming birds from predators. 

Aside from touring the farm, Catanzaro was there to collect on a little experiment he and Smith had cooked up.  Unsatisfied with the flavor of commercial meat birds, he commissioned Smith to grow a sample flock of Delaware Chickens. According to The Livestock Conservancy, this 1940s heritage breed chicken was first christened “Indian Rivers” and originated when George Ellis of Delaware began crossing Barred Plymouth Rock roosters with New Hampshire hens.  The resulting chickens were dual purpose, good layers and eaters, resilient to the cold and the premier broiler of the 1940s before being edged out by the faster growing, less tasty, Cornish Rock Cross.

While at the ranch, a simple demonstration of the circle of life ensued and the bagged birds were brought home to Jackson, where the culinary experiments began.  The long awaited heritage breed was tried and found to be true, so Catanzaro made the call to Smith and commissioned enough birds, and Berkshire pigs, to accommodate the 2017 season. Now he is attempting the same with other area farmers, sourcing beef from Cakebread Ranch in Thayne, goat cheese from Winter Winds Goat Farm in Victor, and vegetables from both Haterlie farms and Vertical Harvest.

When asked to describe some of the different avenues he considers for creating a new dish, he took a moment, leaned back and rattled off the multitude of tricks and experiments and styles they tried, literally in an effort to utilize almost every component of the bird, along with the science behind their work. His techniques were slightly mind boggling and taste bud tantalizing.

In one scenario, they mixed a simple brine (mild salt, bay leaves, and crushed garlic) and cured the birds for 24 hours, poached them in an immersion circulator at 128 degrees and finished by grilling on the line.  In another, the meat was flattened and rolled into roulades, layered with smoked garlic shavings, and steeped in a fresh herb brine to create a marbled effect.  In the end, their efforts seem to have led to what they think will be a fun summer option. Beer Can Style Chicken with a Barley Pretzel Crust, finished with a sauce of brown butter, toasted malt barley brought to smoking point, pureed black garlic and mustard.

But hey, maybe they will come up with another option between now and next summer. “Whatever we do,” he said, “it has to be organized. It has to make sense.  I start classical and employ attractive plating.  The food needs to be approachable to allow for a connection … we use science to create good flavor, not just reaction.”

Catanzaro, who has been leading the team at the Wild Sage for about 19 months, is fueled by passion for his career and a competitive nature.  To say he has a lot on his plate would be an understatement.  He and his wife Amanda, one of the lead pastry chefs at the Four Seasons, are juggling challenging, time consuming careers with their 20-month-old daughter and a new baby on the way.  Some chefs might take this time to step back and coast with so many irons in the fire, but Catanzaro, it seems, is just getting started. PJH

Q&A Lightning Round

Top Tools: tweezers, cake tester, thermometer (for meat), Japanese chef’s knife, peeler

Best New Seasoning: Wild Sage Kitchen’s latest creation: The Morgan (a blend of fennel pollen, bee pollen, fresh bay leaves, lemon zest, salt, & juniper berries)

Recommended Reading: On Food & Cooking by Harold McGee, Larousse Gastronomique, and for the uber passionate culinarian, The Escoffier Cookbook

Always Remember: “Be prepared and pay attention with all of your senses!  Have Fun!”

Preferred Grapes: Red Mountain Syrah or Whistle Stop Red Cab/Merlot Blend OR if you are feeling spendy, Charles Smith Royal City Syrah

*Christmas Wish List: Nenox Chef’s Knife*

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