From Fusion Cuisine to Comfort Food
It is not always easy to make a living doing something you love. And it may be even harder in Teton Valley than in many places. Some residents create a position for themselves nearby, while others travel, sometimes great distances, for their ideal job. Tanya Alexander is a woman who has done both. Over the past sixteen years, the self-taught chef opened two local dining hotspots and more recently landed a position as the traveling chef for the U.S. Men’s Alpine Ski Team.
Originally from the East Coast, Tanya bounced around quite a bit before finally setting roots out West. New Hampshire, France, and Sweden are just a few places she has called home. The “mountain vibe” landed her first in Jackson Hole, where she waited tables and bartended at several popular restaurants. Wanting to own a piece of property, she moved over the hill to Tetonia. After commuting to Dornan’s in Moose for one summer, Tanya realized, “something’s gotta give,” she says.
Service industry jobs in Teton Valley during the late nineties were slim. Tanya knew she had to take matters into her own hands. She, along with a few friends, conceptualized a West Coast-style coffeehouse with “hippie food,” art openings, and open-mic nights. They rented a “beat-up old house” on Driggs’ Main Street and opened Miso Hungry. The counter-service restaurant gave Tanya a chance to move from serving meals to creating them. The cafe’s menu differed greatly from the fare found in Teton Valley restaurants at the time. In lieu of hamburgers and pizza, Miso served peanut noodle bowls and warm kale salads. They also offered the occasional Friday night theme dinner featuring Indian, Moroccan, South African, and other cuisines.
After eight years of serving mostly lunch at Miso, Tanya longed for a change. “Nights have a different pace and atmosphere,” she says. “You can take your time and put more into your dishes.” She and a fellow Miso owner opened Forage Bistro and Lounge in Driggs, using the new restaurant as a platform for their ever broadening culinary styles. At Forage, Tanya liked to borrow techniques from different cuisines and combine them with new flavors. “It doesn’t always work out, but it is exciting to try,” she says.
Tanya’s menu was not the only thing changing. Five years into owning Forage, she longed for a new adventure. “When you open up to possibilities, things happen,” she says. The “thing” that happened this time was a call from her sister who worked for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). She had seen an interagency ad that the USOC was looking for a chef to cook for the U.S. Men’s Alpine Ski Team and thought her sister might fit the bill. Tanya applied for the post and the adventure she dreamed of became a reality.
Her first gig was cooking for approximately thirty athletes and support staff at a three-week training camp in New Zealand. Next, she headed to the big show, cooking for more than a hundred athletes, coaches, and staff at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. She and three other chefs were put to the test, creating buffet meals that ran from morning through night.
“It still seems unreal,” Tanya says. “The other chefs were used to [cooking at] big training centers, while I was used to boutique food.” When she started cooking for the ski team, she had to switch gears from preparing New American fusion cuisine to serving up American comfort food classics. “The food needed to be simple and nutritious,” she says. “[The skiers] like recognizable foods … Mexican was a favorite.” Pancakes, curries, and meatballs were just a few of the other items served to the Olympians.
Upon returning to restaurant life, Tanya found things simpler. “It was like running a marathon and then running two miles the next day,” she jokes.
Nevertheless, with the ski team job going so well, Tanya decided it was time to pass the baton of restaurant ownership on to someone else. Last winter, she quietly sold Forage Bistro and Lounge. Since then, she has cooked for the ski team out of an apartment kitchen in Austria, a large RV/bus-like food truck in Slovenia and France, and a condo kitchen in New Zealand.
“Sometimes I show up and I’m like, ‘Do they need me here? Am I useful?’ Then I go into town [in Austria] and realize, you can’t get that many nutrients from a meal of wiener schnitzel with fries or a salad with a tomato. So they do need me.”
When asked what’s next, Tanya avoids specifics. “I’m in a good spot right now,” she says. “You don’t always know what’s around the corner, but you get what you need in this life.” Even if sometimes you have to create it yourself, or even travel for it.