White Buffalo Club

Published in Chef Notes, Jackson Hole News & Guide, January 25, 2012
Chef Will Gahagen
White Buffalo Club / 160 West Gill Avenue / 307-734-4900


Spicy Mussels
Serves 2-4 as an appetizer

¼ c olive oil

1/3 c medium diced pancetta

2 medium sized shallots, small dice

2 cloves garlic, sliced or minced

1-2 small Serrano chiles, depending on spice preference

2 lbs PEI Mussels, cleaned and rinsed

1-2 T unsalted butter

Salt and pepper to taste

1 T parsley and chives, chopped

Thick slices of baguette, for moppage…

In a thick-bottomed saucepan, crisp pancetta on low-medium heat until rendered and crispy.  Discard most of the fat and reserve crispy pancetta. Saute shallots, garlic, Serranos, and pancetta for about a minute until shallots just begin to brown. Add Mussels and stir vigorously. Pour in white wine, and cook on medium-high heat until mussels begin to open fully.  Stir in butter, season with salt and pepper. Add parsley and chives at the very end, after the broth has reduced to about half of the original volume. Once all of the mussels have opened, taste broth for seasoning and adjust. Discard any mussels that have not opened.

While finishing the broth, toast the baguette slices. Serve in a warm bowl, topped with toasted baguette (for mopping up the broth). Enjoy – tweak spices and seasoning as preferred.

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I became curious about the White Buffalo Club this summer. It seemed that every time there was a community charity event, Taste of the Tetons, Palates &Palletes, Relay for Life, the 49er Ball, for Teton Literacy Program and the Red Cross, they were listed as a contributor. Plus they offered a fitness membership 99 days for $99. That sounded intriguing but it was luscious light summer so who needed it?

When I dropped by to inquire, much to my surprise, I found that Will Gahagen is the executive chef. We had met several years ago when I wrote a column about Kevin Humphreys at Gamefish. Gahagen held the fort after the mass exodus to Teton Mountain Lodge. The good news for us is there is plenty of room for all the wonderful chefs as they shift around our culinary chess board.

Chef Will Gahagen is cheerful and upbeat, of pleasant countenence and sparkling eyes. He is as pleasant and welcoming as the White Buffalo Club staff. Perhaps he sets the tone. The facility opened in August of 2008, modeled after a Chicago steakhouse. The quality is prime and the atmosphere is casual and light.

Gahagen was born in my favorite hot bed of liberalism, Berkeley, California. It’s a fabulous place for a foodie. Gahagen didn’t know he was one, it was just part of his life. His mom was a huge influence. She was a partner in the Juice Bar Collective right around the corner from Chez Panisse.  “I remember standing in the kitchen with my mom on a tall stool at this huge machine juicing carrots that came from an enormous walk-in,” Gahagen shared. “When I returned there much later it was this tiny little place.” Such is the impact of our stellar experiences of youth. Gahagen’s dad was also a formative influence. He baked breads and made homemade pizzas and fresh pasta theydried on a wooden clothes rack. The family moved to Missoula, Montana in 1991 for his dad to pursue an education degree.

Gahagen spent much time with his mom who became the head chef at the Pine Butte Guest Ranch in Choteau. Her cooking mode adapted to accommodate an entirely different clientele during the next three years. The pair spent time together exploring farms and ranches seeking purveyors for the guest ranch kitchen.

The youthful years in Montana were our chef’s introduction to the great outdoors of the Rocky Mountain West, a lifestyle he relishes to this day. Gahagen’s high school years were tempered by his mom’s battle against breast cancer. Still not knowing it was his career, Gahagen chose “Breakfast Cooking” as his high school senior project. He created weekly feasts for friends and family and documented them as his thesis.

With no clear direction after graduation he was visiting the Bay area and a friend, Sharon Smith, who was also a food writer. She suggested a tour of the California Culinary Institute. He enrolled immediately after and spent the next year completing the le Cordon Bleu style instruction.

For his 3 month externship after graduating, he interviewed with chef Kevin Humphreys at the Snake River Lodge and Spa. Gahagen was itching to get out of the city and back to the mountains.

For the next three and a half years Humphreys served as his mentor. “I love him. He taught me so much, not of the school type of learning but what was practical in my work situation. I had a whole lot of fun and learned at the same time.” The North Grille and Rich Billingham drew Gahagen the next summer. The White Buffalo Club’s previous chef brought him on as sous chef that November. Gahagen has been at the helm since the autumn of 2009.

It is a wonderful dining experience or a place for a cocktail and small plates. It’s a small hotel with an established membership. It’s intimate and casual. Last June they opened the doors for the public to experience the scene.

Our evening started with a viewing of an impressive wine list and the selection of a modest, yet delicious house wine. The seared scallops were perfection, served atop a crispy grit cake with arugula, grape tomatoes, bacon and a citrus beurre blanc as counterpoint. The savory mussels were our next delight. This is the recipe shared for everyone’s enjoyment, and believe me, you will. The serrano pepper kick is the perfect manner to augment the flavors. Ahi tacos are a delightful first course offering. I envisioned stopping by for a refreshing beveerage and the Yuzu marinated tuna in crispy shells with Napa slaw, guacamole and mango chutney at some or many future dates.

A daily soup of Thai style coconut milk with seafood, onions, peppers and chiles featured a delightfully flavorful light broth. We refreshed our palates enjoying the salad of golden beet, arugula, julienned crisp apples, toasted walnuts and Amaltheia goat cheese before we dived into a gorgeously tender and rare ribeye steak. Sometimes in the winter my body craves protein. It hit the spot. Accents such as grilled asparagus, wiltd spinach, boursin whipped potatoes, mac and cheese are served family style.

We strolled out into the winter tempest marvelously satisfied.


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