“Be your own boss, no matter what your job is.” Those were some of the last words spoken by the late Charlie Trotter, one of America’s most beloved celebrity chefs, at the 2013 Jackson Hole Culinary Conference (JHCC).
Local Sun Valley chef and caterer, Judith McQueen, was among the 400 people who attended the keynote speech. “I only went to the conference because Charlie was speaking,” said McQueen. “He is a God in my world.” She mentioned that he seemed to be shaking and perspiring, somewhat forgetful, but that those words resonated deeply with her in both her life and career, and she has remembered them since.
Forty foodies and chefs from all over the country attended the first annual conference, sponsored by the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts. Events included demonstrations at the Wort Hotel, a keynote speech by Charlie Trotter and a “Height of Taste Chef Showdown” at the Central Wyoming College Culinary School. Pitted against one another in the chef’s competition were rival resorts Sun Valley and Jackson Hole—our very own chef Judith McQueen vs. culinary professor and James Beard winner, chef Jason Mitchell.
“Can you imagine how nervous I was?” McQueen said. “A James Beard awardee!”
Arriving 10 minutes before the showdown, McQueen was armed with nothing but a “mystery basket” containing a box of Idaho instant potatoes, a wedge of cheese and a pomegranate. Both she and Mitchell had one hour to whip together the perfect filet mignon on two Bunsen burners and a pancake griddle.
“I was horrified at the sight of the potato mix,” laughed McQueen. “So I grabbed a yam and dusted them with it. So technically, I was still using the ingredient, but I didn’t have to make potatoes from a box,” she winked. Stacking the cheese and yams together, she made a lemon beurre blanc with squeezed pomegranate juice to accompany the tenderloin and vegetables.
Winning over the panel of four judges with her dish, McQueen took home the title of Best Chef at the showdown, along with her New West chef’s trophy knife, securing Sun Valley’s bragging rights among culinary circles for at least the next year.
One of the reasons for her success as a caterer over the last 30 years (and during the competition), said McQueen, is that like Charlie Trotter, she has always been her own boss. “That’s how I’ve tried to live my life,” she said. “Anywhere I’ve worked, I’ve treated it like my own company and because of that, I’ve always been able to move up. I care about my work, down to the tiniest detail. I’m always the first one there and the last one to leave.”
McQueen has owned her own catering business for 16 years, cooking out of the commercial kitchen in her Hailey home. When she first started, backed financially by a woman she barely knew, she did everything herself—setting up, prepping, cooking, cleaning, serving, dishwashing, bookkeeping, etc. So now, when she hires young seasonal employees, the first place she puts them is the dish pit. “I want to see what their work ethic is like,” explained McQueen.
When she was on the flight to Jackson Hole from Sun Valley for the JHCC, McQueen said she overheard rumors about Charlie Trotter making students at the culinary school clean kitchens and mop bathrooms. “Some people were shocked by that,” said McQueen. “But I thought it was brilliant. That’s the industry we are in—it’s hard work and it’s better that they know that from the beginning.”
Somewhere in her library of over 800 cookbooks, McQueen has all of Charlie Trotter’s works. In one of the introductions, Trotter writes, “It’s all about excellence, or at least working towards excellence. Early on in your approach to cooking—or to running a restaurant—you have to determine whether or not you are willing to commit fully and completely to the idea of the pursuit of excellence.”
On Monday, November 4th, there was a dinner at Ignight for the 40 attendees of the Jackson Hole Culinary Conference. Charlie Trotter was present and McQueen said she had the opportunity to shake his hand. “They introduced me as the winner of the chef competition, and all I could say was that I wish I had my cookbooks there for him to sign,” she laughed.
The next day, Trotter flew home to Chicago and died of what they believe was a stroke.
“I’ve always really admired him,” said McQueen. Not only for being his own boss, but for setting the standard of excellence and hard work that chefs like McQueen have strived for in their own careers and lives.