THE FOODIE FILES: For the Love of Local

By on March 23, 2016

Among valley chefs, Wes Hamilton is leading the charge on sustainable food.

One of Jackson’s busiest chefs, Wes Hamilton almost never sits down long enough to enjoy lunch from Piste Mountain Bistro. (Photo: annie fenn,md)

One of Jackson’s busiest chefs, Wes Hamilton almost never sits down long enough to enjoy lunch from Piste Mountain Bistro. (Photo: annie fenn,md)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – From the waffles at Corbet’s cabin to the revamped healthy lunches at Kids Ranch, executive chef Wes Hamilton oversees food top-to-bottom at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. While locals love Hamilton for creating great food, those involved in the sustainable food movement know him to be a tireless leader in our community. As Penny McBride, co-founder of Vertical Harvest, said: “Wes creates this bridge between running a business and connecting to the community. It’s holistic.”

How can a chef be considered holistic? First, Hamilton is primarily focused on creating great food for his restaurants and taking care of his employees. But he also understands how his food service impacts the community. By striving to source ingredients locally, he supports our farmers and reduces the amount of food trucked in from afar. By joining forces with Hole Food Rescue, he aims to reduce food waste and minimize the trash stream that ends up in the landfill. And by getting rid of the fryers at the Kids Ranch, and replacing sugary snacks and fried foods with fruits and veggies, he is having a direct impact on the health of kids in this community. For this and so much more, the editors of The Planet chose Hamilton as Best Chef Championing Sustainability. Recently I had a chance to sit down with Hamilton to learn more.

Planet JH: I can’t imagine how busy you are as executive chef at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, overseeing nine kitchens and a staff of 110. Yet you make time to volunteer for Vertical Harvest, Hole Food Rescue, and Slow Food in the Tetons. What motivates you to give back to the community?

Wes Hamilton: I guess I just feel an immense responsibility to give whatever support I can to these great projects. JHMR is a very large operation with a lot of influence and I guess I want to make sure that whatever part I can play in that influence is for a positive impact on our community. I’m also in a very cool position, in that my company and the Kemmerer family fully support my time and energies that go into these great projects, and push me to use every opportunity that I have to make these concepts work. It also helps that I personally have such belief in these local solutions to tackling global problems, I just want to play whatever part I can.

PJH: Is it true that you were considering medical school when you took a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant? What was it about the food world that seduced you away from medicine?

WH: True. I was considering the medical field, which I think was totally due to the show ER when I was younger. I always knew I wanted to work in a fast paced, stressful, high-energy environment; it’s just the way I am. So when I got a dishwashing job during Christmas break one year, I got a glimpse of the speed, camaraderie, and precision of a real professional kitchen and the light went on. I called my mother the next day and told her I was closing my college career at an AA of Liberal Arts, and moving to work in a real professional kitchen. There was at least a full minute of silence on the other end of the line. I guess I looked at it as, If I could find all the excitement and pressure in an environment that feeds people and makes them happy; that has to be better than what I would find working in the ER with some of its tragedy.

PJH: Since you opened Couloir in 2007, the restaurant has received many accolades, including being dubbed “Manliest Restaurant” by the Travel Channel. Although that’s not the term I’d use, I’ll take a stab at defining your cuisine: Refined comfort food, clean, not-too-fussy flavors, beautifully plated, made from ingredients that invoke a sense of place. How would you describe your unique style of mountain cuisine?

WH: I have always had trouble with this question and now after nine years, I guess I just look at it as “ingredient driven.” That really sums up everything we do.  I have never really looked at the “usual suspects” that chefs sometimes feel they have to have on their menus. I have always just looked for new local ingredients or producers, and tried to figure out a way to support them and give them a stage for their products. I think it is this challenge that has kept Couloir and other restaurants relevant to the high level of dining in Jackson Hole. A great case in point would be Café 6311 this season. We basically found an entire line of deli meats that were both Never/Never products and from northern Utah, from a family ranch, and decided to ditch the wraps at that restaurant and go with a deli concept just so we could use these products. Add bread from Stoneground Bakery, and I have a very casual lunch spot that still adheres to the ethos of “local, ingredient-driven” menus.

PJH: What inspires you when you sit down to write a new season’s menu? Do you get to eat out much in Jackson? How about over in Teton Valley? And do you get inspiration from your fellow chefs?

WH: For everything except Couloir and Piste, I basically sit down with the teams that run those restaurants and we discuss what worked, what didn’t, and [whether we are] missing things that our guests would want to see. We use a little bit of data from what sells (or doesn’t), but we also just have a lot of discussion about what we can put on a menu that would satisfy our guest expectations. For Couloir and Piste, these menus are actually written by the entire culinary team. We essentially lock ourselves in a room with a case of beer, a bunch of pizza, and a giant dry erase board. Everyone has been out on vacation and such, and comes back with ideas and dishes they would like to try. Four to six hours later, we have a conceptual menu that the guys then go do testing on for three or four days.

I have been doing a lot of eating this winter in Jackson, but a lot of my thoughts come from reading or pictures of food. Really they come from all over the place. The trick is to have a notepad around so I can write them down. Otherwise I forget. I sometimes call somebody if I’m in the car, just to explain an idea and have them write it down to remind me what it was.

PJH: Locally and nationally, improving the quality of school lunches has proven to be a difficult issue to tackle. How have you transformed the ski school lunches at JHMR and how are the kids doing with less soda pop and tater tots?

WH: Well, it is a tough nut to crack. First thing I did was get rid of the fryers. They can be a “layup” for cooks when they get in a pinch, and I didn’t want the kids eating tons of fried food. We do still have tater tots (unfortunately), but we bake them in the oven so we don’t have a ton of fat in them. The other things we did were put in a large garden bar with tons of raw fruit and vegetables. The instructors now go to the garden bar and load up a plate with raw veggies and fruit and bring that back to the kids before they get to any of the hot food selections. We also looked at hydration and got rid of the high sugar “bug juice” type products and replaced them with a low calorie Gatorade product. Other things were getting rid of chocolate milk and so many sugar snacks. They now get graham crackers or fruit juice gummies in between meals. Really we had to look at what the actual caloric needs were and find the best possible foods to meet those needs.

PJH: How old are your children? Has it been difficult to get them to eat healthy food? What foods do you cook for your kids that they love?

Left: Hamilton makes ramen noodles in-house for the pan-seared Scottish salmon, ponzu glaze and pickled vegetables. Right: Local greens color the chromatic Crispy Salad at Piste. (Photo: annie fenn, md)

Left: Hamilton makes ramen noodles in-house for the pan-seared Scottish salmon, ponzu glaze and pickled vegetables. Right: Local greens color the chromatic Crispy Salad at Piste. (Photo: annie fenn, md)

WH: I have three kids that aren’t so little anymore. My older two are 20 and 23, but my youngest is 7. With all of them, it really came down to involving them in the process of the meal. Whether letting them cut the vegetables, stir the pasta, etc., I found that they were much more open to trying new things if they were part of the process. We have always wanted them to make good choices as well, so we used to play the “which is better” game when they were young: Which is better, an apple or a bowl of ice cream? We also stick with a lot of things they can eat raw and by themselves. Things like pineapple, cucumbers, apples, oranges; all three loved to snack on things, we just made those things available instead of tons junk food.

PJH: What do you see as the next big issues our community will have to deal with when it comes to food/sustainability/health? What do you think is the best way to get kids involved in the food movement?

WH: Waste! This needs to be the next “locavore” movement. We really need to get a grasp on exactly how much trash we produce and what are better ways of buying the things we need while still being cognizant of the output of those products. This is one of the big reasons I chose to work with both Vertical Harvest and Hole Food Rescue One is a concentration on the “input” of my business and one will be the “output” of my impacts. I think education is really the biggest key to this. Having everyone—kids and adults alike—really understand what our trash stream looks like, and how much edible food, packaging, overproduction, really ends up in the dump. It would horrify some people. We need to get everyone involved. Everyone needs to begin to understand what composting is and what we need to do to pull this off on a macro level. [For example], how important it is going to be to get the county transfer station to include a composting facility. These are our newest problems, especially in a place that ships its trash to another state.

PJH: I understand that you are committed to recycling, composting, and repurposing food from your JHMR restaurants, even the ones that require numerous gondola or tram rides to transport things to and fro. How would you advise a restaurant that wants to start doing the same?

WH: Really, this one is just a ton of work. The amount of labor that we put into our recycling program alone is staggering. Some of it is also very capital intensive. We are currently looking at purchasing our own composter that we could pelletize and use to heat our warehouse, but the cost alone is $40,000. It’s really about finding out what resources are available to you, partnering with them and figuring out what other opportunities are out there. Groups like Hole Food Rescue do an amazing job with this and have been diverting thousands of pounds of food each week from our waste stream. You really just have to be committed to it and do the work. The other thing I am looking at is the “source reduction” side of things. Looking at all of our products and seeing if there is an alternative with less packaging. We have done that with sour cream (moving to 32-pound tubs instead of 8-pound containers) or going to olive oil out of a bulk container that we then move to reusable containers. Less waste is always a good thing.

PJH: Tell us about Vertical Harvest and how you got involved in the project. How do you see a year-round vertical greenhouse impacting the community?

WH:  Great story. Four years ago now, I had been hearing about the concept of VH from Anna Olson, our brand director. She eventually approached me about possibly hosting a fundraiser at Couloir. I said, in partial jest, that if the greenhouse was next to the parking garage, they should throw a “roof top party” at the actual parking garage. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “You can make that happen, right?” So, two roof top parties and four years later, I just picked up my third round of test greens and now sit on the board of directors. My own personal vision for VH is for it to replace as much of the product trucking into our valley from as far away as Mexico. Sadly, almost all of our fresh veggies in the winter come from Mexico, are picked unripe, and driven here from the LA terminal market. It is sad, because one, that is a ton of trucking; and two, due to being picked unripe, most of it is junk. VH will never replace the amazing growers we already have here in the area; it’s really to replace all the other stuff we have to truck in from everywhere else all year long. I think VH will be the tide that rises, raising all the “ships” we have here in the valley and bringing awareness about all the local producers we have here.

PJH: You are known for being committed to sourcing ingredients within a 250-mile radius. Perhaps you were the first chef in Jackson to truly practice locavorism? Has this gotten easier over the last nine years you’ve been at JHMR, and what are some of the remaining challenges?

WH: Well, it didn’t start out at 250 miles. It was originally 500 miles. But over the years we started to have access to more and more things, and got more savvy about how we source things. Nowadays, it’s great. Producers now know how we purchase and a lot of times come to us about being part of our program. Winter is still the biggest challenge to the JH locavore. We do a fare bit of preserving of the summer bounty and with some cagey menu engineering, we still keep everything close to home, but it does take some things away that you may want to use. Partnering with Cosmic Apple Gardens and now Full Circle Farms has always been a huge gain for us. And now leveraging our buying power with Sysco Intermountain to find everything we might want has also kept us close to home. I don’t know if I was the first, there are a lot of great and responsible cooks here in Jackson Hole, but I do remember fighting over the squash blossoms at the Farmers Market in 2001 back when I was at Jenny Lake Lodge. I just always figured that should be the way it was done.

PJH: Recently you have taken some flak for food price increases at the Village. What do you say when locals complain about paying a few more bucks for their pho?

WH: Building and retaining staff is extremely important too. Modest increases have let us make greater investments in our staff and program. PJH

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.


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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