THE FOODIE FILES: Tasty Transformation

By on July 12, 2017

How Jackson’s beloved Chef Jeff Drew got fit, lost weight, and launched a crudité revival.

Chef Drew dishes up trout with etoufee sauce at JH Food and Wine’s Savor the South.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When I saw Jeff Drew’s crudité creation at the Snake River Grill, it was love at first sight. Raw baby spring vegetables are draped on a buckrail fence as if a horse-drawn cart coming from the farmers market had just toppled its load. The wrought iron fence, designed by Drew and local sculptor Ben Roth, is a replica of those seen all over Jackson Hole. For dipping, there’s a Green Goddess sauce with a modern twist: intensely green, aromatic with dill and tarragon, and a creaminess that could only come from avocado.

Drew is the chef at the helm of the Snake River Grill, considered the best restaurant in Jackson Hole and the state of Wyoming. A top chef in the region, Drew was chosen by the James Beard Foundation as a semi-finalist for Best Chef Northwest for four of the last 10 years. He represented the cuisine of the American West at the Milan Expo in 2015, and has cooked at the James Beard House in New York.

Drew’s signature brand of mountain cuisine is one of the gems of the Jackson dining scene. Locals clamor to the Grill at the debut of each seasonal menu not only to get their fill of Drew’s classic dishes, along with the most impeccable service, but also to experience his latest creations.

But even if you’re a regular at the Grill, like I have been for more than 20 years, you may not recognize Chef Drew these days. Looking at least 10 years younger and a whole lot more fit, Drew has figured out what seems an impossible task: to maintain a healthy lifestyle while running a top-notch restaurant.

I sat down with Drew over cappuccino recently to learn the secret of his newfound fitness (and the recipe for that Green Goddess sauce I’ve been obsessing over).

Vegetable crudité “Wyoming style” with Green Goddess sauce.

It wasn’t that Drew was totally unhealthy before, but all those years of running the Grill started to take their toll. “I would roll out of bed at nine or 10, head to the restaurant, eat tacos every single day for lunch, or whatever we were making for the boys,” he said. “Working long days, drinking wine at the end of the night. Repeat, repeat, repeat.”

Before moving to Jackson Hole, Drew was chef de cuisine at Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Easy access to the mountains and rivers fueled his passion for kayaking, and he and his sous chef often found time to squeeze in a paddle before work. “As soon as we got on the water, the stress would just melt away. It was cool because we’d be kind of in the weeds the days we went kayaking, but we’d always catch up.”

After taking over Snake River Grill, Drew says it became more difficult to get out on the water. “I got smarter, for one,” he said. “I didn’t kayak alone anymore. It just became logistically difficult.”

Staffing was another issue. “I couldn’t delegate because there was no one to delegate to,” he said. “Then Kyle Nicholson, our sous chef who was with me for seven years, left and went to Italy and Texas.”

After 15 years at the Grill, Drew said he was just not living healthy day in and day out. He plugged away for years without a fitness/adrenaline fix until two years ago when a friend recommended he try one of those new carbon fiber racing bikes. “So I rented one and went for a ride. Before long I was addicted.”

Drew trades his chef’s coat for spandex at LOTOJA.

Typical to Drew’s personality, his riding became his new passion. “My wife and my mother would say that whatever my new focus is, I just dive in—all the gear, reading up on it, all in.”

When his sous chef returned to the Grill, it helped Drew shift his focus even more. “I didn’t have to be on the stoves 24/7. Having Kyle run the kitchen has been a big part of me being able to ride and be on my phone checking in.”

The first time he heard of LOTOJA, the elite amateur road cycling race that spans four mountain passes and gains 7,000 feet of elevation over more than 200 miles from Logan, UT, to Jackson, WY, Drew’s first thought was, “No way. Two hundred miles in one day?” He registered, snagged a spot, and never looked back.

With true Jeff Drew-like intensity, he devoted all his free time to training for LOTOJA. As Nicholson held down the stoves back at the Grill, this time as chef de cuisine, Drew was able to log some serious miles on his bike.

It quickly became apparent that the less weight he was carrying around the better. “You can spend a thousand dollars and shave a pound off your bike,” he said, “or you can spend a couple of bucks, go to the gym and lose weight.”

He started getting up early to hit the gym before breakfast. “After breakfast, I’d head to the restaurant and work until 2 or 3. Get in 30 or 40 miles on the bike, shower and then go back to the restaurant.”

Pulling off double workouts became his new routine. Eventually, he added Pilates a few times a week. “I wasn’t seeing my wife much because I was spending a lot of time training and working. So that was something we could do together.” Sometimes the couple’s daughter joins too.

Once Drew was deep into training, a change in his diet was inevitable. “I wouldn’t say I got on the gluten-free wagon, but I dropped a lot of it. I love dairy, but I cut back on that too. I still ate super rich European style yogurt in the morning.”

Breaking his caloric intake into five meals a day, he swapped his daily taco lunch at the restaurant for a plate of greens with grilled protein. Most of his calories were eaten in the afternoon. At night, when service was over, he’d have just a salad.

What about processed foods? “I cut them out, except right before big rides.”

Wine? “I was unwilling to give up my love of wine, but I did cut back. And I cut way back on other drinks like spirits.”

And what about coffee? Well, you could say coffee fueled Drew’s fitness routine. “I drank tons of coffee: a double espresso before the gym, a pot of coffee after. At 3 in the afternoon, I’d have another pot of coffee.”

As LOTOJA loomed closer, he ramped up his training a notch. After hitting a plateau in the summer, he knew to add more intervals to his regimen. “Towards the end, the guys [from One to One Wellness] had me on the high school field dragging a sled up and down, doing intervals, as they ran next to me with a stop watch.” They put 45-pound dumbbells on top of it.

By race day, Drew had dropped 29 pounds—down to the weight he had been in tenth grade. “Then I cut my hair and lost another three-quarters of a pound,” he said.

Drew’s only goal for LOTOJA was to finish before the gate closed at 14 hours. Instead, he left at 6:26 a.m. and finished at 6:26 p.m., “and ten seconds.”

At the finish line he found himself surrounded by his wife, training partners and friends. “Are you going to do it again?” was the inevitable question. “My wife said: Are you kidding? I said: I have to do it faster.”

After LOTOJA, Drew put on 10 pounds right away. “That was hard. But now I know that’s going to happen. The shoulder season is tricky—traveling and eating in restaurants makes it tough to stay on a workout routine. But now I know I can train when I get home and get that fitness back.”

Stellar vegetable sides: local morels and asparagus with piquillo pepper sauce.

Indeed, LOTOJA 2017 is coming up in September and Drew is gearing up. Summer is also the busiest time at the Grill as visitors and locals keep the restaurant solidly booked. With one summer juggling training and the restaurant under his belt, Drew’s not too worried about sticking to his routine. “I did it last summer and was successful. I know I can do it again. And having great staff, like Nichols, means I don’t have to be constantly at the stove.”

Drew says his new lifetsyle has not influenced the Snake River Grill’s menu—at least not too much. The Grill still serves its hearty iconic fare: a 10-ounce New York steak, a tower of onion rings served horseshoed around a branding iron, a cast iron seared elk chop. And there are all the decadent desserts locals love: Eskimo bars with a warm caramel dipping sauce, the warm French doughnuts, and currently on the summer menu, a pistachio crème brulee.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but a basket of bread (and that addictive whipped butter with chives) no longer arrives at the table first thing. “But I didn’t want it to be like we were taking something away,” Drew said. “So I had this idea of replacing bread with crudité. It’s kind of retro but it’s back in style.”

Crudité needs a great sauce, so Drew got to work revamping the Green Goddess of decades past. “We took out the anchovies to make it vegetarian, added avocado and gave it a hit of salt.”

Some of Drew’s most innovative creations are found in the vegetable-forward small plates. In the winter there’s a whole roasted cauliflower served like a steak on a puddle of curry sauce. In the spring, gorgeous spears of asparagus nestled in a piquillo pepper sauce. Grilled strawberries appear in a sugar snap pea salad this summer. And this year’s new classic: vegetable crudité “Wyoming style.”

Just in case you’re missing the bread basket when you sit down to eat at the Grill, Drew added a menu item he calls “better than bread”: baked-to-order Brioche rolls which come straight from the oven in all of their gluten-full goodness, and are served with a salsa verde butter.

Drew’s sensible approach to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for the long haul, without giving up coffee, bread, and wine, seems to be working for both him and the Grill. “Now when I’m in the restaurant, I’m in a better mood too,” he said. “I’m no longer the grumpy chef.”

Chef Drew graciously agreed to share his recipe for Green Goddess Sauce. Find it at jacksonholefoodie.com. PJH

Annie Fenn is a physician with a passion for food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Current mission: Spreading the word about how to cook and eat to prevent dementia. Find recipes for longevity at brainworkskitchen.com and more food and stories at  jacksonholefoodie.com.

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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