The Interview: Gavin Fine, Jackson Hole
Gavin Fine (left) with partner and executive chef Roger Freedman. Photo by David Agnello.
What do skiers like to do after a great day on the slopes? Eating well ranks right up there. But a great mountain demands a great restaurant as a follow up, and alas, that’s not always easy. There are a handful of great chefs scattered about in ski towns throughout the country. But there are few true restaurateurs, people with vision and style, who are able to tap into the local soul and the desires of visiting skiers.
Gavin Fine in Jackson Hole is one of those rare examples. Together with his partner, executive chef Roger Freedman, he redefined comfort food in this upscale cowboy town a decade ago when he opened Rendezvous Bistro, a place I gladly covered for Food & Wine back when. He bought serious barbecue to the valley when he opened Q Roadhouse a few years later. But his biggest move to date was opening Il Villagio Osteria in the Hotel Terra Jackson Hole at the foot of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Osteria is a seriously good Italian restaurant, a place you’d be happy to find on your block in New York, Miami or Seattle.
Three places, three ski nights covered. Repeat. That’s a recipe for a good Jackson Hole ski week.
I spent time with Gavin last winter and recently got around to asking him a few questions.
Okay, why Jackson Hole? Why not Salt Lake City? Or Chicago for that matter?
I love cities-especially Chicago (where I grew up)–but even as a kid, I always wanted to live in the mountains. The physical beauty here, and the charm of this town and it's surroundings, just suck you in.
And how much time do you get to spend on the slopes?
You don't want to know. I can count them on one hand.
Tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up in Chicago in a tight knit family. We loved to cook and go out to eat. So I knew from a young age that I wanted to go into something having to do with food. I attended Cornell University, Hotel & Restaurant Management School. Since it was in New York, we spent a lot of time in the city, as well, which was great. After graduating, I moved to Jackson and began a management rotation program at the Snake River Grill. This involved learning all aspects of the restaurant, so I spent time as a line cook, pizza maker, bus boy, and maitre' d. After a year, I became the General Manager of the restaurant. After a few years, I decided I wanted to open my own place and created my first restaurant, the Rendezvous Bistro, with my partner and chef, Roger Freedman, and a few other key partners. A few years later I founded Bistro Catering, and then a few years after that, Q Roadhouse, and then Il Villaggio Osteria. All the restaurants are now under the umbrella of the Fine Dining Restaurant Group.
Rendezvous Bistro. Photo by David Agnello.
Have you done much time behind the stove?
Yes, I love to cook. In addition to my aforementioned line cook experience, and some culinary training in college, I think it has been an important aspect of being a restauranteur. Not only because I know if we get into a jam at any of the restaurants, I can get in there on the line (which does happen occasionally) but creating the menu is probably the most fun part of my job. However, I consider cooking to be more of a hobby than a profession–for me. Maybe one day, I'll live in Italy and have a little restaurant where my wife can work front of the house and I'll be in the kitchen. It's our very long range "plan"….
You seem to have nailed the Jackson zeitgeist — let's call it the various cravings that a visiting skier could want fulfilled – with restaurants that offer Italian, barbecue and comfort food. Were there other concepts that you thought of? Or tried and discarded along the way?
We toyed with many concepts but being in a small town I don't want to compete with myself. We tend not to discard any ideas forever–just put them away for possible use later. There are definitely other concepts and ideas that we've considered and niches that could be fulfilled here. So what's in the future for us? We'll leave that a secret for now…
Q Roadhouse. Photo by David Agnello.
What are the particular challenges that a ski town presents to a restaurant owner?
There is the volatility of the tourist market. Jackson only has 8,000 permanent residents so the off seasons are tricky. It is quiet around town but we love getting the opportunity to spend time with our regulars who get to come in more often.
Because a ski town is made up of a fairly transient community of residents (many people come to ski for a year after college) it can be a challenge to create a company where employees are excited to go to work every day. But it is crucial in the restaurant industry to maintain a high level of consistency in service. Plus, our in-town guests want to see familiar faces, feel at home. So I challenge myself to keep a fun and enjoyable environment in the restaurants in order to keep moral high and great employees around for an extended amount of time. Many of our waitstaff and kitchen staff have been around since the restaurant's inceptions.
It used to be very difficult to obtain specialty products; though they are becoming more accessible. We use only fresh ingredients in our restaurants, so in order to get the best quality (for items such as oysters), we sometimes have to go out of our region. We try to get local in every way we can, with meats and cheeses, produce, etc. We try to be "green" in every way we can.
Name the most popular dish at each of your restaurants?
At Bistro, Halibut Nicoise — sauteed Alaskan Halibut, nicoise olives, fingerling potatoes, haricot vert and lemon thyme aioli. At Q, babyback ribs which we house smoke over apple and hickory wood and serve with your choice of side (mac and cheese rumored to be the best many of our patrons have experienced). And at Osteria, baked Garganelli with Kobe beef meatballs, house-made sausage, San Marzano tomato sauce and mozzarella.
Il Villagio Osteria. Photo by David Agnello.
Who do you admire in the restaurant world, and why?
Rich Melman. I admire his creativity in his restaurants. In each place, he creates this atmosphere of a show or theatre. Going out to eat at one of his restaurants satisfies all the 5 senses. And Danny Meyer. I respect how he treats his staff and his patrons. He owns many establishments but is very hands on in all of them which creates a wonderful atmosphere.
What's next for you?
The wheels are always turning; I'm always looking for new opportunities. Currently, I'm honing in on what I have now which keeps me busy. There are other potential opportunities out there–but half the battle is making the right move at the right time.