Jackson Hole is a setting that inspires us to attune to the land. We wrinkle our noses on crisp November mornings, attempting to detect the metallic hint of snow in the air. We marvel at late August days that can flip from a high of 80 to an early frost in the space of just a matter of hours. We scan the sky for ominous thunderheads before scaling the Tetons’ spiny peaks.
However, what about those of us who still live disconnected from the cycle of crops, harvests, and their relationship with our tables? Two passionate valley locals are seeking to close this gap via the founding of their organization, FoodTerra. Filmmaker Arden Oksanen and chef Eric Wilson have partnered in a collaboration that puts the focus squarely on local food producers while solving that age-old question: What should I make for dinner tonight? Their solution helps inspire our community to make food choices that effect positive change right here in Jackson Hole.
Feel good, good food
FoodTerra co-founder Arden Oksanen was born and raised in Jackson Hole and made his name as a producer and filmmaker covering the high adrenaline world of sports and adventure for companies like National Geographic, Apple, and Teton Gravity Research. He became interested in agro-ecology after his wife changed her diet and began to reap an amazing amount of health benefits. This realization coincided with a time when he sought to minimize the risks of his on-the-job environment. “I just wanted to do a project that gives back,” he explains. “There’s so much potential to create change through changing your food.”
Esteemed private chef Eric Wilson has worked at restaurants in Denmark, Sweden, and Jackson Hole. For him, “farm-to-table” has never been a fad; in fact, a focus on fresh and local informs just about everything he does in the kitchen. His mother passed along a passion for gardening and gourmet home cooking; at home, they raised their own chicken, cows, and wheat. From there, it’s become second nature for Wilson to wonder where his food is coming from. In his experience whipping up feasts everywhere from Europe to Hawaii, “it just kind of became an obsession of mine” to seek out local eggs, meat, and produce. “ I’m just looking for the best food, period. It’s not a crazy secret.” He’s found throughout his career as a chef that when he cooks with local food, people rave about the results, and he knows they’re responding because local means fresh, and fresh means great-tasting.
Oksanen echoes the imperative to support your local food economy. The benefits radiate from there, with food dollars staying within the local community and more nutrients staying in the food itself. “Find your cheese guy. Find your bread guy,” he urges. With FoodTerra, he hopes to target all of these things and build awareness so that right here in Jackson Hole, locals get to know their producers and buy from them directly via CSA programs and our booming summer farmers’ markets.
Wilson hopes to “awaken people to the flavors of local food. To me, the more we can get young people to think that farming is really cool…then the more farms we have and the more food we get locally.” It turns out, action that keeps our food dollars within the local economy starts with something everyone can agree on: deliciousness.
Enter: FoodTerra and their Just Picked webisode series. Puzzled about how to incorporate that haul of beets into a simple, quick, and–above all–tasty meal? Turn to Just Picked as your reference library and get cooking.
Kicking the traditional cooking show format to the curb
In line with their ethos to focus on local producers and grow a movement from soil-to-table in Jackson Hole, every episode of Just Picked is filmed on location at valley farms, al fresco. “Basically, we started by keeping it easy and in our backyard.” Each week, the filmmaker rolls into a different farm, checks out what’s going on that week, chats with the farmers, films some behind-the-scenes picking, and then hands Chef Eric a list of ingredients the night before.
This gives Wilson just one night and morning to prepare a game plan, but this is how he prefers it. “I like to be pretty spontaneous,” he says. “We want to convey to the home cook that this is not a cooking show. I want people to use their heads when they cook and be able to fail.” Gone is the studio kitchen with ingredients pre-prepped and arrayed in glass bowls. Just Picked episodes are shot documentary-style, whether this means waiting out a rainstorm in the car or battling fierce Wyoming and Idaho winds with a wood-fired grill. “You get what you get,” says Oksanen. And what you get, it turns out, is a lot of inspiration. From cabbage to stew, Wilson, Oksanen– and most importantly–the farms they highlight demystify the cooking process by making it fun and improvisational again.
“My work has always been outside, my whole career,” Oksanen says. “The ranch is our studio. This farm is our studio. Where better to cook than on the farm where your food came from?” Both agree that sharing the fruits of the table with the farmers themselves remains the most rewarding part of each episode.
“I’ve been a chef since I was about 15 or 16 years old,” Wilson says. “This is just kind of a culmination of everything I’ve done.” In his career crisscrossing the globe and trying on different cooking styles and cuisines, Wilson has let curiosity and experimentation lead the way. “I encourage people to pull together their own theory,” he says.
The challenges–and rewards–of growing food in Jackson Hole
As Oksanen points out, Jackson Hole residents get plenty of chances to master their fly-fishing casts or tele-turns. Farmers and ranchers, on the other hand, only have one opportunity per year to get it right. When you’re working against the clock of a short growing season and at an elevation of 6,000 feet, time and ingenuity are of the essence. Conversations with local farmers keep the FoodTerra crew energized to continue sharing.
“I’m always blown away by how knowledgeable they are, whatever the topic is,”Oksanen says. Conversations also turn to that age-old question of land use and availability in our area: How can you farm when the land itself is so dang expensive to rent or own? This is one of the quandaries Just Picked hopes to highlight, pointing to a world where local farms are valued and earn a seat at the table (literally) when it comes to forging potential private-public land partnerships that preserve farmland.
It all comes back to spotlighting farms and their food, in delicious recipes, in a beautiful setting. “I’m not a farmer, but one of my talents is to inspire people to watch a video, provide recipes, and get people interested to try and do that for themselves.”
Breaking bread is the symbolic center of home life, our conversations, and our relationships with the value systems that feed us, body and soul. For Wilson, it boils down to something quite simple and impactful:
“I just want people to feel comfortable in the kitchen again.”
Just picked, just for you
As fall drifts towards winter, Wilson turns towards hearty, cooked foods that nourish the body and mirror the transition of the season. Pull out your cutting board, fire up your stove, and give one of these scrumptious recipes a shot: