The Kid is All Right

By on July 19, 2017

Chef Cassina Brown, Trio

(Photo: Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Cassina Brown is perhaps first recognizable by the tattoos that adorn her body. As a chef, she sees a lot of parallels between tattooing and cooking.

“Tattooing mirrors the food world a lot,” Brown said. Indeed, chefs and tattoo artists are both obsessed with their craft. Success requires passion and dedication and they both provide a product, but also an experience.

The 28-year-old Massachusetts native stepped up as Trio’s chef de cuisine six months ago. “I want to create as all-encompassing of an experience for the eater as possible,” Brown said.

Cooking, she says, is an art, and she an artist. “When you build a dish, I want everything to have meaning. There’s nothing there that doesn’t belong there and doesn’t contribute to the overall experience of the dish. I want it to be beautiful, and really intrigue you.”

Brown’s story is familiar to many a reader: she moved to Jackson Hole four years ago to ski, and fell in love. She started working at Trio as a line cook, and worked her way up the culinary ladder. She still reports to co-owners and executive chefs Will Bradof and Paul Wireman, but “for the most part, I run the kitchen,” Brown said.

Brown obtained a degree in journalism from University of Massachusetts Amherst, but all of her jobs have been in the kitchen. She started selling baked goods out of her mom’s dance studio when she was 13. Then she cooked for a café in Ashby, her hometown. She loved studying journalism, she said, and wanted to combine food and journalism somehow, but “fell so in love with culinary arts.”

“I basically cooked my way through college,” Brown said. An “unofficial” apprenticeship at a French Bistro immersed her in the world of fine dining, “and here we are.”

Since putting on her official chef’s hat, Brown’s vision is to make her kitchen as “community oriented as possible.” That means sourcing local food, though Jackson’s harsh climate makes finding certain things, like produce, difficult year-round. But it’s “something we’re definitely trying to move towards the best we can.”

Brown talks about her kitchen team in first-person plural. It’s a small crew, she says, and every member is equally valuable. “We really pride ourselves in the creative team effort. We try to input everyone’s ideas and creativity values.”

“I feel really strongly about positive kitchen culture,” she continued. “We’re always working toward keeping things positive, making this a good place to work. Kitchens can be gnarly places. I think we’re super lucky.”

Perhaps part of the morale is due to the open kitchen. “It keeps us on our best behavior,” Brown said. But her team, she says, is less of a team and more of a family. Brown has friends in all of her kitchen coworkers, and in the front of house. “I feel really lucky that a lot of my friends work here,” she said.

Despite pervasive jokes that the kitchen is a “woman’s place,” Brown has found that professional kitchens are a male domain. But she hasn’t let that deter her.

PJH: You’re 28 and a woman working in a kitchen. Do you ever feel like you have to prove yourself?

Brown: They’re both definitely huge factors in a kitchen. Not so much at Trio, this place is great. I’m afforded all the same opportunities. But I’ve definitely worked in kitchens, especially when I was really young, like 20, where I’d walk in the door and they’d ask me whose daughter I was. I had to really show my stripes. You definitely have to earn your keep in kitchens, especially as a young female. I’ve had to work hard and learn a lot quickly to stick around. That’s why I’m still in this field, because I was challenged and had to step up. 

PJH: Are kitchen dynamics changing? Is the gender playing field leveling out?

Brown: It definitely depends on where you are. I’ve worked in a lot of kitchens that are extremely masculine. In general, yes, they’re still masculine places, but I think that’s quickly changing. I don’t think sexism is as big a part of the culinary world as it has been. I’ve made it a point in my career to not let it be an issue, and it hasn’t been an issue.

PJH: What are some of the challenges you face as a chef in Jackson?

Brown: Tourism is a big one—satisfying tourists while satisfying creative needs. Because of the climate here, and the nature of tourism, a lot of tourists expect to see certain things. My main goal is to satisfy that while still creating something special and unique, with our stamp on it.

Of course, the worker shortage is another challenge. I want our people to be super enthusiastic. I’m so lucky to have such a good crew here, but it’s something to be cognizant of.

PJH: How do you feel about modified tickets? What are some of the most outlandish requests you’ve gotten?

Brown: I try not to get angry. I have some dietary restrictions, so I try to take everyone’s dietary restrictions equally as serious. I understand they’re not always necessary. But in all honesty, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to make people happy. If we can, then we will.

[Most modifications] are just really severe dietary restrictions. People with really, really intense allergies. Things like garlic or black pepper—those are all over our kitchen. That makes me nervous. I try to be honest about what we can or can’t do.

PJH: What are your dietary restrictions?

Brown: I’ve been gluten free for a really long time. So I try to be understanding with people’s requests. If you ask for gluten free, I’m gonna make it gluten free.

PJH: How do you deal with unhappy customers?

Brown: In this industry, an unhappy person is a huge opportunity to make things right and turn it around. Turning bad situations around can be just as memorable as a wonderful meal.

PJH: Does anyone else in your family cook?

Brown: My mom and grandma are amazing cooks. We’re Italian, food is life. It’s how you show love. They definitely got the ball rolling for me. It’s definitely a very food-centric familial environment. We still sit around the kitchen and cook together, it’s a really good time.

PJH: Who are your other culinary inspirations/mentors?

Brown: I’ve worked with a lot of really incredible chefs who inspired me to take things a step further. Max Brody back in New England, he owned a restaurant called Night Kitchen. He was one of the first people who opened my eyes up to the small intimate bistro setting, it’s really something special. Then I came to town… Matt Love at the Amangani. And a lot more chefs along the way who kind of just catapulted me into new directions. There was a chef in Cape Cod, he got me running specials and crating for the first time. Then the classics, kings of French cooking: Thomas Keller, Julia Childs.

PJH: What have been some of your biggest learning moments and mistakes in a kitchen?

Brown: [To learn anything], you have to just really fail hard. Sometimes it’s just something as simple as getting totally weeded at your station. You can’t keep up, your head starts spinning … you kind of have to get thrown to the wolves. Everyone’s gotta spill a 22-quart of soup to really understand the importance of being careful, of valuing a product. I learned about treating a product with respect, really early. Also about time management.

Lightning round

PJH: Favorite food to cook?

Brown: Pasta. I’m working on a gluten-free pasta, and beautiful wild game.

PJH: Favorite food to eat?

Brown: I love sushi. I like comfort foods a lot. There’s nothing better than a bowl of pasta and sauce.

PJH: Kitchen’s closed. What do you do?

Brown: Fishing; hiking is my favorite. I love yoga. I live in Kelly with my boyfriend, and love exploring the Gros Ventre. 

PJH: First tattoo?

Brown: A tomato (left bicep). I have a deep obsession with tomatoes. Where I’m from … we had a soiree every year in my house when the first tomato in the garden went ripe.

PJH: What inspires you?

Brown: Nature and the environment… and my bad-ass lady farmer friends.

PJH: You have a private jet for a day.Where do you fly it?

Brown: Norway!

PJH: What decade would you fit best in?

Brown: I think I would have thrived in the 60s—the age of real hippies and the birth of all the best music.


About Shannon Sollitt

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