Calm Fire

By on July 19, 2017

Chef Dave Van Ham, Bistro Catering

(Photos: Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It’s a scorching day in July but Chef Dave Van Ham isn’t feeling the heat. Standing in his summer office—a white tent in a sprawling field—he’s plating dinner for 200 people. Steadying his hand as beads of sweat dot his temples, he wipes a dollop of chimichurri sauce from one of the plates set in rows of five. He kneels down and studies the dish like a painter studies still life before he looks up at the server and smiles. “Good to go. You can take this one.”

Judging by Van Ham’s unflappable demeanor you would never know the pressure he faces—that serving multi-course, changing menus to demanding clientele in different places each week requires imagination, intense preparation and precise time management.

As a flurry of activity—servers running back and forth, bussers hauling dirty dishes, chefs prepping and sautéing—ensues around Van Ham, he slips into zen mode.

Watching the 33-year-old head chef of Bistro Catering and his team churn out plate after plate is like watching a masterful assembly line of artists. One person lays down the steak, another positions the broccolini, a third drizzles the chimichurri sauce, a fourth places fried shallots on top, and they do it all in a makeshift kitchen that the crew assembles and breaks down in a matter of hours.

It’s indeed a team effort, cooking in a kitchen, but some chefs are like flies to the limelight, eager to discuss and take ownership of each adversity and triumph. Van Ham, however, eschews the attention, instead pointing to his team whenever someone wants to pay him praise. It’s not surprising to see this from him in the culinary milieu. Indeed, he practices the same humility in the mountains where he can be found back-flipping off lines most people wouldn’t consider skiing. In high altitude playgrounds, too, he is quick to pat his comrades on the back before recognizing his own feats. It’s one reason that when he becomes a certified mountain guide this coming winter, Van Ham won’t have a problem retaining clients.

It was inevitable that a chef with sensibilities ranging from Italian (try this man’s homemade gnocchi) to Asian would find himself at the helm of a massive operation like Bistro Catering. Each week the outfit dreams up original menus to feed and delight hundreds of mouths at weddings, dinner parties, galas and more.

Van Ham’s inability to sit still, which aids him in his 14-hour work days today, carved his path to culinary school. “Sitting in a classroom was never for me,” he said. “I needed something hands-on.”

He graduated from Vermont’s New England Culinary Institute in 2005. “That’s when I fell in love with the food scene … I’ve always enjoyed cooking in general and really embraced what I learned along the way, but that’s when I figured out what I was doing.” (“Along the way” included his first cooking job ever making pizzas at Chuck E. Cheese’s.)

Van Ham’s education included a seven-month stint at the school’s sister campus on the Caribbean island of Tortola, where he became an adventurous eater: “I was exposed to new foods and techniques, seafood I’ve never seen before and how to break down whole goats.” For someone who, today, relishes finding his way into the tiny ramshackle kitchens of old matriarchs in places like Thailand and Bali to glean food wisdom, his Caribbean experience was indeed pivotal.

Then he headed northwest to cool down at an Italian restaurant in Vancouver, B.C. The city’s 40 percent Asian population has cemented Vancouver’s global position as a culinary mecca.

It was here that Van Ham visited his first izakaya eateries, spots that serve Japanese small plates into the wee hours, and other causal late-night Asian food haunts.

“Every night, after work I would always go to a different restaurant, whether it was Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean. They would let you bring beer in, which we would drink out of tea cups, and then we would order weird stuff off the menu all night long.”

During these insomniac dining sessions, Van Ham tasted his first takoyaki (Japanese octopus balls), pho, bibimbap (Korean rice bowl), and his first steamed buns. (Today, his recipe for pork belly steamed buns with spicy namasu veggies, “ring of fire” aioli and eel sauce is one of Bistro Catering’s most wanted.)

When the New Hampshire native could no longer ignore the calls bellowing from the mountains, he went on to Whistler, B.C., where he worked at a sustainable seafood eatery for two years. From there, it was seven months in Seattle to help friends open a new restaurant and then finally, Jackson Hole, which included stints at Snake River Grill and the now-defunct Koshu, where he made his first Pad Thai.

Since joining Fine Dining six years ago, for which Bistro Catering is under its umbrella, Van Ham has earned his stripes in its restaurants. He helped open Bin 22, and has worked for Osteria, The Kitchen, Q Roadhouse, Rendezvous Bistro and The Bodega.

But he says he appreciates catering more than working in a restaurant kitchen because “the rules are always changing.”

Among Van Ham’s favorite bites he’s created for clients: lobster corndogs with cognac aioli; braised short rib fritters with horseradish crème fraiche; and shrimp saltimbocca (wrapped with prosciutto and sage) served with salsa verde.

Indeed, the dynamic atmosphere of catering, where cooking in odd environments—barns, fields, mountaintops—prone to unpredictable weather is just the right elixir for someone with boundless energy and an endless supply of ideas.

Lightning round

PJH: Talk to animals or speak every language in the world?

Van Ham: Talk to animals, obviously!

PJH: Favorite ice cream?

Van Ham: Cherry Garcia

PJH: Something you could eat for a week straight?

Van Ham: Margaritas

PJH: If you find a hair in your soup, do you send it back?

Van Ham: Whose hair is it?

PJH: Your ideal mountain meal?

Van Ham: Meatballs and polenta, and if weight is no object—2×4 IPAs. Although, weight is often an object and I still haul these along anyway.

PJH: Where do you want to be in 10 years?

Van Ham: Happy

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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